Willie Gault took the first swift steps toward a triple tonight when he came from five yards back to overtake four opponents and bring Tennessee the 4x100-meter relay title in 39.22 at the 62nd NCAA Track and Field Championships.

A poor second handoff from Reggie Towns to Terry Scott put the Volunteers in deep trouble and it was a four-team race--without Tennessee--as the anchor men started down the homestretch.

One by one, Gault passed them all with remarkable acceleration. The last man was Washington's LaNoris Marshall, in lane seven, who at first glance was beyond the vision of Gault in lane three.

"I almost made a mistake when I was half way through, because I thought I was in front, but the people on the outside were ahead of me at that time," Gault said. "I just had to pour on the power again. I told the guys before the race, if we were only five or six yards behind, we would be okay."

Gault, a wide receiver drafted by the Chicago Bears, will try on Saturday to become the first man to win the 100 and the 110 hurdles in this meet. Then he will be married to Dainnese Mathis on June 11 before giving serious thought to whether he should put the Olympics or pro football first.

Merlene Ottey, the speedy Jamaican who attends Nebraska, also made the first big move toward an unprecedented multiple success. She won the 100 meters by a lean over Diane Williams of Cal State-Los Angeles, in a wind-aided 11.04.

On Saturday, Ottey will run the 200 and 400, besides anchoring the Huskers' 4x100 relay team.

"I feel better about all these races now, because I was concentrating on all four at one time and my coach said to take them one at a time," Ottey said. "It's very tough, because people have run some great times in the 200 and 400. If it happens, it happens."

Another sprinter with a four-event program, Marita Payne, got off to an easy start by anchoring Florida State to a collegiate record 3:28.46 in the 4x400-meter relay. Payne will run the 200, 400 and 4x100 Saturday.

Nebraska finished fourth and Ottey joked, "I guess I'm just lucky I'm not running that, too."

Carl Lewis was in the stands to watch Michael Conley of Arkansas break his meet record in the long jump with a leap of 27-2. Unfortunately for Conley, he saw Ralph Spry of Mississippi win the event with a wind-aided effort of 27-5 1/4 that was good for the gold medal, if not a record.

Skeeter Jackson of George Mason placed eighth at 25-10 and was "disappointed that I didn't get one over 26. I had a foul by a half-inch in the final that was well past 26, but they don't count them."

Michele Bush of UCLA set two meet records, one for victory in the 1,500 meters in 4:14.8 and a second for quickest exit from Robertson Stadium. A UCLA coach explained that Bush is a member of the Church of Seventh Day Adventists and is prohibited from working from sundown Friday until sunrise Saturday. Bush's race ended at 8:10 p.m., seven minutes before sundown, and she immediately returned to her room.

Jill Haworth of Virginia, bounced around early in the 14-woman field, battled back to place fourth in 4:16.89. "I missed five weeks' work because of a fracture in my foot, so I've got to be happy with this kind of comeback," she said.

Joaquim Cruz, a freshman at Oregon who is from Brazil, won the 800 meters in a meet-record 1:44.91, after destroying the field with a 50-second first lap. Brian McNelis of Georgetown was eighth in 1:47.94.

Dean Crouser of Oregon broke the meet record in the discus by more than six feet with a throw of 216-2. Alan Baginski of Maryland threw 195-0 for eighth.

Elliott Quow of Rutgers moved past favored Calvin Smith of Alabama in the last 10 meters to win the 200 in a wind-aided 20.31.

Rickie Thompson of Houston Baptist won the high jump at 7-5 1/4 as five others cleared 7-4 1/4. Leo Williams of Navy, the 1981 champion, was not among them, failing to clear 7-3 and finishing 11th.

Carol Cady of Stanford improved the women's shot put record to 56 feet, as Marita Walton of Maryland finished fourth at 54-4 1/4. Other women's marks were set by Judi Brown of Michigan State (56.44 in the 400 hurdles) and Alison Wiley of Stanford (9:03.51 in the 3,000 meters).

Southern Methodist's hopes of a first men's team title were given a boost by the meet-record performances of English hammer thrower Robert Weir (244-2) and Swedish intermediate hurdler Sven Nylander (48.88).

With 11 men's events scheduled Saturday, seven teams had shots at the championship. SMU led with 47 points, followed by Alabama with 46 and Texas-El Paso, seeking a fifth straight title, with 40 1/2. Others in contention were Oregon and Washington State (40 each), Tennessee (36) and Brigham Young (35).