When Paul Wilkins began rowing for George Washington University in 1976, the Colonials clearly had a small-time collegiate crew program. Seven years later, with Wilkins now the coach, there are signs of life in the previously moribound sport.

The Cadle Cup regatta, the D.C. area's collegiate crew championships, used to be an embarrassing annual experience for GW, as Georgetown had its own way with the field. That, too, may finally be changing as this year's edition begins at 9 a.m. Saturday at Thompson's Boat House.

"I can't wait until the Cadle Cup. That'll be the real test to see how far we've come," said Wilkins, 24. "Our women's novice eight is undefeated and has already beaten Georgetown twice, and we have a fair shot in the men's varsity race if there's calm water."

Such confidence would have been dismissed as whistling in the dark last year, when the men's heavyweight crew won only one race. This year, the heavyweights are 11-1. The difference is Wilkins, who has almost singlehandedly promoted the crew team around campus. The result was the best turnout for the team in the school's history.

"I've promised continuity. That's important," said Wilkins, who must raise funds for new equipment in addition to his coaching duties. "I just presented it to them that if they worked hard at practice, did extra ergometer and weight workouts, that good things would happen. If they would just be conscientious, it would pay off in the spring.

"At first, they questioned, but stuck it out. Now that the season has progressed, they're believers."

Unlike other varsity sports, there is no recruiting for crew; teams depend solely on walk-ons.

Unlike larger programs--such as Georgetown's, with 135 rowers--George Washington must compete with 50 rowers in shells sometimes 20 years old. A slight disadvantage, but Wilkins strongly maintains that it's the horses and not the carriage that's important.

The Colonials will receive a new piece of equipment before Saturday's men's varsity heavyweight race, christening an eight-man shell to be named for Bob Faris, '39, the school's former athletic director.

The metamorphosis at George Washington has not gone unnoticed by Jay Forester, Georgetown's head crew coach.

"We just won't be competing against our own times this year. GW does have some quality crews in selected races," said Forester, one of seven Hoya coaches. "We'll be coming in tired because we've been practicing hard for next weekend's Dad Vail races in Philadelphia, but GW will really push us in the men's varsity heavyweight and women's novice races."