In terms of striking the best possible financial deal, Herschel Walker has struck out. By waiting a year and playing the U.S. Football League against the National Football League, he could have joined the team of his choice--presumably among the more established gang--at twice what he now is getting. But a fellow could ruin a knee falling out of bed.

Walker's only furrow of concern lately should have been whether he had a better chance of staying alive KEN DENLINGER This Morning with the New Jersey Generals or the University of Georgia before starting to play games with the real football men. The Southeastern Conference very likely has a tougher schedule next season than the USFL, though it doesn't pay nearly so well.

Will Walker experience regret for skipping his senior year of college for the pros? Of course. Should he feel guilty? No. Had an upstart newspaper guaranteed me several million in 1963, I just might have pulled my head out of those econ books and started chasing fire engines. No matter how hard Penn State coaxed me to stay.

It would have been nice if Walker had been honest with Georgia Coach Vince Dooley, admitted he'd signed with the Generals last week and then gotten cold feet. But he's only 20. Think about that. All he's really mature enough to do is run over linebackers and such, and maybe even carry an entire league on his shoulders. But not to face life head-on.

Neat irony: the first time Walker gets thrown for a huge loss it is by the little kid in him.

This is chaotic and messy. Also inevitable. The only surprise is that it happened in the 1980s instead of the '60s or '70s. Probably, the World Football League failed because it was too nice, because it didn't raid the colleges and sign such as Archie Griffin and Tony Dorsett before the NFL had a chance.

The USFL has talked softly, but wielded a blunderbuss. All of a sudden the signings of Craig James and a few other projected first-round NFL draftees seem mere pop shots. Herschel Walker was Fort Sumter.

The war is on.

Because of that, we relearned another lesson of sport: commissioners are paid to stiff-arm the truth. One day USFL chief Chet Simmons tells The Post's Mark Asher the league would not approve a contract signed by Walker. Next day Simmons bleats, "If there were another 11 of him, one for each team, I'd love it."

Of course, Ike didn't yell across the English Channel: "Ah, guys, it'll be the 6th!"

So beware of Simmons bearing platitudes, such as yesterday's: "The USFL invites thoughtful input from all colleges and universities, the NCAA, the NAIA, the CFA and any other appropriate entity to suggest a reasonable and rational set of rules that would be legal and balance the desires of the colleges against the obvious right of an individual to seek employment."

He added that Walker's was "an isolated situation."

Until Marcus Dupree takes a few more legendary leaps.

As an entity, I think what Walker and the USFL did was wonderful, perhaps even appropriate. For too long, the pros and colleges have been too cozy. In exchange for being a cheap feeder system, the campus factories have been allowed to maximize profits on players. Before, they could hitch four-year expansion plans to stars such as Walker.

Nothing wrong with that.

The sin was/is, for the future determines the tense here, the Walkers had no control over their football lives. A college education is to be applauded as heartily as mom and apple pie, but who with even the slightest knowledge of serious sport would argue that hundreds of players each year aren't worth thousands more than room, board and books to their schools?

Take a Todd Blackledge and a Curt Warner from the offense, a Mark Robinson and a Scott Radecic from the defense and Penn State has maybe $4 million fewer dollars over a four-year period. But that fact was established long ago, by Spencer Haywood in basketball.

Now Boomer Esiason seems to have the same right as Adrian Branch. The right to determine when he is ready for what he sees as life's early calling. Freedom to fail even.

Hooray!

If an extraordinary 10-year-old violinist is judged ready to perform with an esteemed philharmonic, a 20-year-old with a flair for flinging footballs surely ought to be able to get what that skill commands.

Livid, Maryland's Bobby Ross and other college coaches are hinting they will not allow any of those dastardly USFL scoundrels anywhere near their practice fields or film libraries. Won't help, guys.

The only way to keep 'em from pro Paree is to make the farm more attractive. The minimum wage simply is going to have to be increased. Pay the stars a decent fraction of what they generate. At least partially fill the pockets of those who fill the stadiums.

Very likely, because the NFL will move the draft ahead next year to make it competitive with the USFL's, football's golden goose has laid her last egg. One need only read a few paragraphs into page 12 of "The Professionals" for appropriate history.

Immediately after his final game for Illinois in 1925, Red Grange began a barn-storming tour that essentially established a nickel-and-dime outfit called the National Football League. For playing eight games in 12 days for the Chicago Bears, The Galloping Ghost received the then-ghastly sum of $50,000.

"The brouhaha brought on . . . resulted in a spate of publicity (for the league) that would not be matched for years, possibly not until the Super Bowl," the late Tex Maule wrote in the forward.

Having made off with its foundation, the NFL then graciously passed the hands-off-for-four-years rule that assured peaceful coexistence with the colleges, the sacred tie that Herschel Walker and another league just snapped. Same kind of situation; same kind of talent. Kind of gets you interested in football in April