Bear Bryant quit yesterday, and the networks broke in on soap operas to let us know. John Robinson quit last month, and the university made him a vice president. At Indiana, with eight shopping days before Christmas, they fired Lee Corso. These three events tell a maddening, melancholy story about college football.

* "There's a pall over Alabama," said a Birmingham sportswriter, more depressed than someone who considers Bear Bryant a tired old man tolerated for the sake of Saturday victories. Not long ago Bryant quit drinking because the university president told him to. Now, at 69, he has quit coaching because the won-lost record told him to.

"We lost two big football games we shouldn't have," Bryant said yesterday after a 7-4 season in which Alabama lost its last three games. His players "deserve better coaching," Bryant said.

The only criticism of Bryant came from Bryant, whose habit is to blame himself for anything less than overwhelming victory. Alf Van Hoose, the Birmingham sportswriter who covered Bryant forever, said, "No, not a word of criticism anywhere. He always leads it. It's a total surprise, him retiring. I never thought he'd quit. I still can't believe it . . . They'll be lighting victory bonfires in Auburn territory tonight."

Maybe Bryant knows more than he's letting on. "There comes a time . . . when you need to hang it up," he said. In 38 seasons, Bryant won 322 games, which is wonderful, because universities live for the hot pursuit of excellence. Such pursuit sometimes led the Bear, as he confessed later, to cheating in his wayward-youth coaching jobs.

Maybe by pursuing victory, he learned how much it means to people. Maybe by winning so often so long, he came to wonder what would happen to him if he ever lost. Is it possible that Bear Bryant quit because he knows better than anyone what defeat would do to a tired old man?

You can't walk across water carrying a heavy load of defeats.

* When Robinson ascended from coaching to a vice presidency at Southern Cal, the blood pressure in this office went up, too. The little men in rowboats patrolling the arterial vessels paddled furiously against the waves. "Either he dropped a dictionary on his toe, or a big, famous football coach pulled another slick one," said one sweaty paddler.

Every January, Robinson won another Rose Bowl with another 2,000-yard tailback. His name popped up whenever the pros had a job open. But by 1979 the Pacific-10 Conference sent investigators to find out how hot Robinson's pursuit of excellence was. They discovered some USC players received credit for classes they didn't take.

The players might be forgiven that, by the way. They couldn't take those classes because those classes didn't exist. Unfortunately for Southern Cal and Robinson, the Pac-10 believes academics is part of collegiate sports. The Pac-10 put USC in metaphorical jail, the sentence being one year of no postseason play.

Soon, NCAA investigators also looked at Coach Robinson's program. They found that one of Robinson's assistant coaches acted as the broker in a ticket-scalping scheme 10 years old. The players took money from such sales, a blatant violation of NCAA rules.

Some players also had jobs at Christmas time. Like the classes they took, these jobs didn't exist. Only the salaries did.

The NCAA ordered a two-year sentence for Southern Cal. Robinson's school can not play in a bowl game until '84 and can not be on television until '85.

Nowadays, it is popular among university presidents to say they should take responsibility for their schools' athletic programs.

But Southern Cal's president, Richard Zumberge, pronounced the NCAA actions excessive for what he characterized as minor violations.

Now he has made Robinson his vice president in charge of fund raising.

So much for presidential oversight.

* Between Robinson's reward and Bryant's canonization came Tuesday's firing of Lee Corso. He isn't a big, famous, water-walking coach. In 10 years at Indiana, he was 41-68-2. The '79 Hoosiers were 8-4 and winners of the Holiday Bowl. This year they were 5-6, beating arch rival Purdue in answer to the question on a sign over Corso's bedroom door: "What Have You Done Today to Beat Purdue?"

Corso is what college coaches ought to be. He is a dreamer who makes his players better for having dreamed. His teams were competitive in a merciless league. Big Ten investigators never frisked Corso. The NCAA never sent its cops.

The university president, John Ryan, liked Corso so much that, after a poor season early on, he silenced critics by giving Corso a five-year contract. Ryan liked Corso's class. Players loved the little kid in Corso, who once took a turkey to midfield for the coin flip on Thanksgiving. You had fun with Corso and you learned to dream, which are nice things to say about your college days.

Bill Atchley, the Clemson president, surveyed the wreckage of his school's football program after a two-year NCAA sentence. Presidents must take control, he said. At Indiana last week, John Ryan, the president, lost a power struggle with the athletic director, Ralph Floyd.

Ryan wanted to keep Corso. "I am proud of what Lee Corso has done," the president said. " . . . he has brought Indiana football to the highest level of integrity and quality in the history of Indiana University."

Floyd wanted to fire Corso, partly because attendance was down 5,000 a game, to 42,600. Also: in 10 years, Corso had two winning seasons. He was on a 4-7, 5-6 treadmill. This is no way to sell tickets. Athletic directors think this way. Faculty members on the athletics committee, along with the board of trustees, approved Floyd's recommendation, even over Ryan's objections.

So much for presidents taking control of athletic programs where the dollar sign is ultimately decisive.

Lee Corso was in Fort Wayne, Ind., on a recruiting trip when he learned he had been fired with three years left on his contract. He heard the news on the radio.