Every afternoon after the Colts finish practice, Frank Kush takes his place at the end of a dingy couch and meets a cluster of reporters. He doesn't so much sit as recline regally, his Howitzer-shaped legs crossed, his tanned forearms slung over the cushions, his pale, glacier-blue eyes keen and bemused.

When asked about a Monday incident in which Holden Smith, a wide receiver who had been released hours earlier, poured a cup of root beer over his head, Kush betrayed an alligator's chilling smile.

"I'm so sick and tired about talking about Frank Kush it's unbelievable," Kush said.

That was all. Silence, long and cold, greeted a few attempts at further questions on that score. And when told that John Elway now says that Kush's reputation as a tyrant was a primary reason for his refusal to play for the Colts after being drafted first, Kush would not respond.

"I could care less what the press says. I could care less what Elway says," he said. "I'm immune to all that."

Kush wants badly to turn his team around. When he became the Colts' coach last year, he inherited a miserable, 2-14 team. Baltimore could manage but one tie and no victories in last year's nine-game schedule.

Kush wants to win so badly that, despite the soda incident, he has changed, according to some of his players.

"The tension between the players and Coach Kush isn't there anymore," said running back Randy McMillan. "When he first came, everybody sat back and felt him out. Some of the older vets said, 'Oh, man, this is too much.' That would be a distraction for any team."

On the field during practice, Kush in no way resembles his old facemask-rattling self.

Quarterback Mike Pagel, who played under Kush at Arizona State in his freshman and sophomore years and now plays under him as a professional, said, "He's still a strict disciplinarian, but he's changed a little. He doesn't scream and yell as much as he used to. When I first played for him, I was scared. I was just 17 and he was a legend. At first, I didn't want to come (to Baltimore) because it was so far from home and because I was a little worried about Kush. But I think I came because of Coach Kush."

After he poured his drink on Kush, Holden Smith said he was sure the rest of the team was delighted to see the coach embarrassed.

"I imagine that may be so for some (players)," Pagel said, "but there were just as many, or more, who weren't happy about it. That's Holden. If he hadn't done that, he may have had another chance to play."

Some may not have been enchanted with Kush's old tactics, but his success as a a college coach is undeniable; he amassed a 176-54-1 record at Arizona State. As for the Colts, Kush is not ready to predict a quick trip to the Super Bowl, but he does call his team "improved."

The offensive line was especially deficient last year, providing little breathing, much less running, space for Curtis Dickey, a fast, powerful runner capable of a 1,000-yard season. This year, Kush has praised rookie linemen Sid Abramowitz, Grant Feasel and, especially, Chris Hinton, who was part of the Elway trade with the Denver Broncos.

But the road to recovery may be longer than people suppose, he said. "With the USFL, everyone's goals have changed as far as personnel is concerned. The talent's diluted. No question about it. The successful teams are a lot better off. They have their established players, unless they lose some to the USFL like Pittsburgh did.

"We've made a great deal of progress, but we have voids at positions, and we have no depth. If Randy McMillan or Curtis Dickey gets hurt--wham, we're gone. We're still struggling to build something. We're still looking at other people's cuts."

Kush said he will, by necessity, have an extremely young team by the end of training camp. "Of the 12 draft choices we have, I'd like to see eight make it. Most teams will be happy if three of four make it," he said.

That could mean another few years of mediocre teams, but Kush seems to relish the chance to shape a team in his rough-hewn image.

"I'll coach the same way I always have," he said. "Football is football and there are certain fundamental ingredients that must always be there . . . I'm not so intrigued with the Xs and the Os. I'm more satisfied if I'm able to change a guy's attitude from a negative attitude to a positive one.

"With a young ball club, they're hungry. They enjoy practice. You can see them smiling out there."