Once upon a time, Richie Petitbon admits, he wanted to become a dentist.

"Stupidest thing in the world," the coach of the Washington Redskins' defense says now. "No. 1, I couldn't fix anything with my hands. No. 2, my hands were too big to fit into anybody's mouth."

That was nearly 30 years ago, long before Petitbon intercepted Y.A. Tittle's desperation pass into the end zone in the game's final seconds to assure his Chicago Bears of a 14-10 victory over the New York Giants that gave the Bears the 1963 NFL title. That was one of 48 career interceptions for Petitbon, still the Bears' all-time leading interceptor.

It was also long before Petitbon went on to play 11 of his 14 professional seasons for a coach named George Allen, who traded to acquire him on two occasions. Allen also threatened to fine Petitbon $100 for each pound he weighed in above his agreed-upon playing weight, each week during all of those seasons. Petitbon, a four-time all-pro at strong safety, says he sweated, but never paid a dime.

"Jawge and I," Petitbon says, his voice telling, in case you didn't already know, that he was born in New Orleans, "we just always got along."

And it was long before the fifth game of the 1981 NFL season, when Petitbon angrily shattered locker room chairs at halftime of the Washington Redskins' 30-17 loss in San Francisco. He wondered then how a defense could be so bad.

It was also long before Petitbon hugged each of those same Redskins defenders after the team beat Miami to win the Super Bowl after the 1982 season. He just knew a defense could be so good and told each player, "Love ya, babe."

Petitbon has spent the past four seasons as the preeminent thinker for the Redskins' defense, a unit that he rules with authority. In all, Petitbon has spent 25 years in the National Football League, 11 as a coach -- the last seven of those with the Redskins, from Jack Pardee through Joe Gibbs.

Petitbon, now 46, is a complex character who looks the part of the intimidating foreman. Ever since a knee injury forced his retirement from the Redskins' Over-the-Hill Gang in 1973, Petitbon's stomach has swelled. He says he grew weary of the weight wars with Allen long ago.

"You may never realize this," Petitbon says, smiling, "but I do have a tendency to enjoy the finer foods of the world."

Petitbon is as hard to figure as he was hard to beat as a safety. "I really don't know much about Richie," says Redskins free safety Mark Murphy, currently on injured reserve. "He'll joke every now and then, but it's mostly a business relationship with players."

"I'm a private person who likes to do what I like to do. Just leave it at that," Petitbon has said.

Doug Buffone, the former linebacker who played with Petitbon during the strong safety's final three years at Chicago (1966-68), compares Petitbon to Jim Rockford. "You know the guy on the 'Rocford Files' TV show? Richie's got that same kind of unique style." And Redskins defensive tackle Darryl Grant compares Petitbon to "a good gambler who always plays to the last card. Cool nerves. Like the gambler in Kenny Rogers' song."

Over the past five weeks, Petitbon has been the coach most reponsible for keeping an injury-wrecked defense intact and in control.

Over the past few years, however, Petitbon has been principally the subject of comment around the league for two things: 1) The fact that he is an astute defensive coach, still using the now rare 4-3 defense that he was weaned on as a player, and 2) the fact that, even after developing a solid reputation in four years as defensive secondary coach at Houston (1974-77) and seven more seasons as a defensive coach with the Redskins, he has never been a head coach.

Petitbon says he has been contacted "about five times directly or indirectly" about becoming a head coach, most recently by Houston, more than a year ago. "That was just an indirect thing, nothing official," Petitbon says.

Why does Petitbon suppose that he has not yet become a head coach? "It's not the burning desire in my life," he said. "I'm really happy and satisfied here . . . We are going to be winning here, I think, for a long time . . . Right now, things are going so good here that, unless the right situation comes along . . . "

The "right situation," Petitbon said, would include, among other things, an owner who is willing "to do what it takes, like Mr. (Redskins owner Jack Kent) Cooke is here. We've asked him to get a lot of players for us and he never says a word about the money (these players cost)."

"Right now, I'm more interested in watching Maryland play on Saturdays, anyway," Petitbon said. His son, Richie Jr., is a red-shirt freshman for the Terrapins.

Sid Gillman, the head coach who hired Petitbon as an assistant at Houston, says of Petitbon's head-coaching prospects, "I think Richie is being smart right now. You don't leave a place like Washington unless you go to an organization where, as a coach, you can win or lose on your own ability. So many guys are ambitious to become a head coach and take a job with no chance. Nobody is that good, from Lombardi on down. Richie's opportunity will come. The word gets around."

Petitbon's football essence is a quilt composed of many people and events. That quilt includes older brother John Petitbon, the former all-America at Notre Dame who played defensive back for the champion Cleveland Browns in 1955-56.

Richie Petitbon decided that his brother's footsteps weren't too big to follow when he gave up the idea of a career in dentistry when he was at Loyola of New Orleans to enter nearby Tulane, where he became an all-conference quarterback.

The quilt also includes George Halas, the founder of the Bears, who told Petitbon that he would allow him to play quarterback, after the Bears drafted Petitbon in the second round of the 1959 draft.

Petitbon recalls that he played quarterback in an exhibition against the Redskins. He threw a pass that was dropped by wide receiver Lionel Taylor. "The next day, Lionel was cut by the Bears. I went back to playing strictly defense and Lionel goes on to be a Hall of Famer with the Denver Broncos. Had the ball been caught," Petitbon says, "things might have been different."

The quilt also includes Doug Atkins, the Bears' menacing eight-time all-pro defensive end. For some reason unknown to Petitbon, Atkins took a liking to Petitbon upon the rookie's arrival.

"That was good having Doug like you, a definite plus," Petitbon recalls. "Coaches never checked Atkins' room at bed check because they were afraid of him . . . If Doug were playing today, with the way offensive linemen are allowed to hold, I really think he would wind up killing an offensive lineman."

Once, Petitbon says, Atkins invited Petitbon to his room to drink beer, which he secretly stored in a Coca-Cola cooler. As the hour grew late, past 3:30 a.m. Petitbon recalls, he told Atkins that he had to leave to go to the bathroom.

"Doug said, 'No, you don't,' " Petitbon remembers. "He also had this pet pit bull (dog) named 'Rebel' and he called Rebel and the dog gets on his hind legs and started to growl as I walked to the door."

Needless to say, Petitbon says, he remained until Atkins, at last, allowed him to leave.

The quilt includes the 1963 season, too, when Petitbon played in a secondary that included cornerbacks Bennie McCrae (27 career interceptions) and Dave Whitsell (26 interceptions) and safety Roosevelt Taylor (23), a crew that helped lead the Bears to the league title. The champions' share that year was $5,899 per man.

It also includes the two coaches Petitbon says have had the most influence on his coaching career: Allen and his predecessor as defensive coach for the Bears, Clark Shaughnessy. Petitbon calls Shaughnessy, who is the coach usually credited with the creation of the T-formation, "a genius, the forefather of everything that is done in football today."

And he says of Allen, "George took Clark's good stuff and threw out the bad. As with most geniuses, some of Clark's stuff was off the wall." Petitbon praises Allen for his organization of details and says that he still uses many of Allen's methods in analyzing opposing teams.

The quilt also includes such former Redskins defenders as tackle Diron Talbert and linebacker Myron Pottios, fellow members of the 1972 Over-the-Hill Gang.

"I only played for the Redskins for two years," Petitbon says of the 1971 and 1972 seasons. (He suffered a knee injury in the third game of the '72 Super Bowl season and never played again). "But I had as much fun in those two years as I did at any other time. We had a lot of, so to speak, over-the-hill guys on their last shot and people said we couldn't do it. It was a lot of fun."

It was not surprising, considering the way Petitbon has devoted himself to the game during the last quarter of a century, that when Atkins was reached for comment at a Knoxville beer distributorship, where he is employed, he said, "My mind is beginning to fade after all these years, but I remember that Richie had that funny way of talking. And I know that he was a smart player. You know, it seemed like he studied football a lot more than the rest of us."