Sixty-five years ago, Catholic University built Brookland Gymnasium, a "temporary" basketball facility that was declared obsolete before it was constructed.

Since then, Catholic fans have heard numerous promises of a new field house only to have their hopes dashed time and again. Finally, a new $8.2 million athletic complex is being built one mile north of the Michigan Avenue campus along the Metro red line tracks. It should open in the fall.

Today the school stands at a crossroads between the frustration of past failures and the unbridled optimism that accompanies the new 45-acre multisport complex.

Former San Francisco 49ers coach Fred O'Connor, who arrived last year as executive director of athletics, has embarked on a program to bill the school as a national entity.

O'Connor hopes to use sports as a means of tapping the nation's 45 million Catholics as subway alumni. He is already exploring the possibility of broadcasting CU sports on a national religious cable television network.

"We intend to be the best we can be at Division III," O'Connor said, when asked if the school had any long-range plan to move back to big-time basketball. "We want to challenge for the Division III championship every year before we consider moving up. No matter what, we want to salt and pepper our schedule with some Division I teams like American, William and Mary and Dartmouth."

In the 1930s, the Cardinals were a bona fide collegiate football power. But a six-year hiatus due to World War II killed the program, and football was discontinued in 1950. Catholic began a club program in 1965 and moved to Division III in 1977, but for the past 35 years, the school's premier sport has been basketball.

A steady, if unspectacular, Division II basketball program until a disastrous fling at Division I in the mid-1970s, Catholic has since settled back to nonscholarship Division III.

Three years ago, Catholic hired alumnus Jack Bruen as coach to succeed Jack Kvancz, who moved on to become athletic director at George Mason. Bruen inherited a team in transition -- and in shambles.

A respected teaching coach and vociferous bench jockey with the look of a cherub and the tongue of a longshoreman, Bruen immediately infused new life into the program.

Bruen screamed, cajoled and reasoned to make his players -- none taller than 6 feet 1 -- into believers. An 8-19 team the previous season, CU finished 14-14 in 1982-83, Bruen's first season. Last year's team again held its own against more talented opponents and ended 14-13.

Limited financial aid, obscurity and a white elephant gym are all Bruen has to offer now. But better days lie ahead, or at least Bruen and Cardinal fans still haven't lost the ability to dream.

"I'd love to have more talented kids from the Interhigh League and Metro Conference," said Bruen, whose 12-man team (now 5-6) is all-white and has given Division II power Mount St. Mary's its only loss of the season. "Catholic is a tough academic school. It's expensive and there's been limited (financial) aid in the past, so it's been a pretty tough nut to crack to get talented kids to play here. Hopefully, the new facility and a new conference will attract some of those kids."

Catholic will leave the Old Dominion Athletic Conference after this season and has applied to the Mid-Atlantic Conference, where teams like Johns Hopkins, Gettysburg and Franklin & Marshall will offer better visibility and competition.

Things are improving already. Junior Tom Mulquin, a 6-6 Georgetown Prep graduate, has transferred from the U.S. Air Force Academy to lead the inside game. (Division III allows transfers to play without sitting out a year). Junior John Winkler is averaging 21 points per game.