Howard University's basketball team has finished first or second in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference the past seven years and earned the conference's first automatic bid to the NCAA Division I tournament. And Athletic Director Leo Miles lists one of the team's three goals as winning the NCAA championship.

But big-time competition hasn't brought a big-time atmosphere to a school where the basketball staff consists of two people, the coach has no courtesy car, no shoe contract or summer camp, and drives a 12-year-old economy car that uses a hanger for an antenna. In fact, Coach A.B. Williamson doesn't even know what his budget is.

Sources say this low-key approach is the result of administration worries that it will lose control over athletic programs that become too successful.

"The No. 1 priority," Miles said, "is to try to graduate our players from the program. There are things that we want to do. One: to be very competitive. Two: to win the conference championship. Three: to win the NCAA championship.

"What we have to do to some degree is convince the young student-athletes coming out of high school that the things they were told in elementary school, junior high school and high school that they are going to be a pro . . . are not necessarily real. It's unfortunate recruiters put those things in their heads . . . I'm more concerned about the 57 years once they leave the institution."

Graduating all athletes is an admirable goal, and the Bison are very competitive, having beaten Dayton and Bradley in recent years. They have won the conference championship. But winning the national championship still seems unrealistic.

Miles declines to discuss the basketball budget, saying only that it is "adequate," and he maintains a national championship can be accomplished with continued hard work. Yet there are some striking dissimilarities with other mid-level Division I programs.

Howard basketball is headquartered in a one-room, two-desk, one-sofa basketball office in Burr Gymnasium. There is no receptionist or secretary. Besides Williamson, 39, the staff consists of full-time assistant Cy Alexander. There is no second full-time assistant, no graduate assistant, no volunteer coach. Williamson's 1972 Toyota, which has 85,000 miles on it, is so beat up he uses a university van or rental car on long recruiting trips.

There is no athletic booster club and last year, even though the university owns radio and television stations, the Bison were on neither. Plans for radio and television are incomplete for this season, according to Alois Clemons, sports information director.

Williamson declines to discuss these subjects or say why he won't.

Asked what his budget is, Williamson said he never has been told. "Every school has their way of doing things. That's Howard's way, and I've learned to adjust to it. Like I tell my kids, 'There is no Utopia.' My job has its idiosyncracies. I have to adjust to them. If I didn't, there was no way I would be at Howard for 10 years. Life is just made on making adjustments. Basketball is a game of adjustments."

Williamson has adjusted well. His nine-year record is 147-103. But his conference record is 71-33, a winning percentage of .683, and his conference tournament record is 15-8.

"The young people are giving us what they've got and are working diligently to make us successful in the conference," Miles said. "In a lot of instances, we're outmanned in terms of size and strength. What we ask of our people is to give everything we ask, live up to their potential.

"We offer our young people an education and we let them choose what it is they want to pursue. We give them the opportunity -- some for the first time -- to make decisions for themselves. If they leave this institution without (a future) life, the only person they can blame is themselves. It's here; all they have to do is seek it."

When Williamson, a Washingtonian, left Eastern High School to come to Howard 10 years ago, he says he was somewhat floored by the differences in the college game, both on and off the court. At first, he says, he got too close to the players, then too distant.

"We've come a long way in 10 years," Williamson said. "But that's not to say it can't go farther."

There is not one senior on the 15-man roster and eight lettermen return from last year, including three starters. To reach the level that he could win an NCAA tournament game, Williamson says, "In my program, I'm a center or a very good big-time player away, a small forward like Michael Jordan, or a super power forward. Right now, we have nine or 10 kids who are legitimate Division I players."

Five Howard players during Williamson's regime have been drafted by NBA teams, and Larry Spriggs, the star of the 1980-81 team, is starting at small forward for the Los Angeles Lakers. Two other starters off that team are playing pro basketball overseas. However, that team gives the Bison the one mark on their academic record.

Williamson says that only three or four players who completed their eligibility with him as coach have not graduated, and they all played on the team that went to the NCAA tournament, losing to Wyoming by 35 points in the first round. "The media attention those kids got blew their minds, because it's not something that happens on a day-to-day basis at Howard University. They got big-headed. . . and that year I couldn't get through."

Nationally, Howard's reputation is much better than locally. Even though Williamson was one of the most successful coaches in the Interhigh League, he says he can't recruit players from city schools and isn't sure why.

One Howard alumnus says there are two factors involved: the players can't qualify academically and those who can are getting more attractive deals elsewhere.

An added factor is Howard's lack of local rivalries. Only one area Division I school (George Mason) schedules the Bison. Williamson says he understands the politics involved and Howard, in turn, declines to play the University of the District of Columbia, a Division II school, because its admission standards are different.

But Williamson does a good job of uncovering sleepers in Prince George's County, where he got three current players, and he recruits heavily in Florida and Atlanta. He says he would like to be more successful in northern Virginia.

The Bison recruit against big-time teams, and have been successful. Fred Hill, a sophomore guard from Boston, was the player of the year in Massachusetts two years ago and was pursued by Boston College and Providence, according to Williamson. Also, Georgia and Auburn were pursuing John Spencer, a 6-7 freshman forward from Goldsboro, N.C.

Though the Bison are off to a 2-6 start, the team again is picked to finish first or second in the MEAC. The conference tournament has been moved to Philadelphia this season, so North Carolina A&T won't have the home-court advantage it has enjoyed in Greensboro and Winston-Salem. The Aggies have beaten Howard in the past three tournament finals.

Despite this consistency, one long-time Howard booster said: "For a two-man staff, Williamson and Alexander do a heck of a job. But this is not a small school. It is a high-impact school. The graduate and professional schools are second to none. But they don't have the sophistication to put together a first-class athletic program to compete nationally. It's depressing.

"We're the biggest, most prestigious school in the conference, the richest (thanks to federal subsidies) in the conference. We could take the Delaware States of the conference and put them in the middle of our campus."

Next: Virginia