In football, this is the speculation season. Coaches still reporting to work are presumed jobless not long after the final play of the final game. Riding rumors about the country, we learn:

Bobby Ross might be the next coach at Notre Dame.

Bobby Ross might be the next coach of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Bobby Ross might be the next coach of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Bobby Ross might be the next coach at Minnesota if Lou Holtz becomes the next coach at Notre Dame.

And so on.

That's not bad.

Ross being mentioned as a possibility to overhaul everything except the national debt is flattering both to the coach and Maryland football.

The rest of the country is starting to realize what many Washingtonians have known for a few years: Ross is an appealing risk-taker whose program is innovative, tough and -- most important -- clean.

Maryland also is seen as bold and imaginative, for being able to haul itself from among the football dregs in a relatively short time -- since the early '70s. Jerry Claiborne lifted the Terrapins to among the collegiate elite; Ross has kept them there.

Successful coaches often have little control over their names being linked with vacancies. Sometimes, they are mentioned by desperate reporters more interested in celebrity than the truth.

For years, Bud Wilkinson was associated with just about every open job available. So often were these reports false that it was stunning when he actually hopped out of retirement and became head coach of the football Cardinals in 1978.

So we don't know for certain how close Ross was to going with the Houston Oilers two years ago, or with Missouri last year. What we do know is that a long-term contract with Maryland has been his for the signing for ever so long.

For whatever reasons, Ross has chosen to leave it blank. By being hesitant about that contract, he douses the fires of speculation with gasoline.

That's not good.

For Ross.

For his program.

The time is rapidly approaching for Ross to make up his mind one way or the other. He either must leave Maryland or agree to some sort of long-term deal with the university.

Here's why:

Opposing coaches will use his vacillation, however well-intended, against Ross. They will do this in sly but effective ways to the high-school hot shots who determine whether a coach becomes a genius or a jerk.

Sophisticates in sport know that most college games are won and lost in living rooms. The scores merely are verified in packed stadiums a few years down the line, after those prize recruits have been signed and seasoned.

Let's say the nation's best high school running back has Maryland among his final half-dozen schools. It's not hard at all to imagine the coach of one of the other five sitting with the prospect and his parents and saying:

"I see by the papers Coach Ross is going a-courtin' again this year. Now he's a fine man and a wonderful coach. But you've got to wonder how long he'll stay at Maryland.

"I don't think you'd want to get involved with a man who might scoot off somewhere else sometime during the next four years. Now, I've got a five-year contract myself."

We also know that five-year contracts can be broken in five minutes by an ambitious hustler. But prospects want the sort of commitment from a coach that they are giving him.

Ross has some valid concerns about Maryland. He is expected to attract players capable of beating Penn State and Michigan with a stadium not close to half as large as theirs. He is expected to beat some other schools whose admissions standards are not so strict as Maryland's.

All he wants is a fair chance to win each week, Ross keeps saying. Where might that come? At the college level, where a man must run himself ragged recruiting? Or in the pros, where two lousy drafts or a couple of critical injuries can leave him vulnerable to an impataient owner?

Maryland is advised to bend as far as it possibly can to keep Ross. He has won the seven games he should have so far this season and lost to three teams whose combined won-lost record is 26-2-1.

Ross is much admired by customers and much respected in his profession. But Maryland is solid enough to continue as a national power should Ross opt for another scene.

Some coaches consider a change every five years or so beneficial. Only your enemies multiply, they reason. There was growing frustration with Claiborne when he jumped to Kentucky.

If Ross has the sort of options we are led to believe, he should consider each of them long and hard. Few jobs are more demanding than football coach; none involves pleasing a more fickle public.

Sometime reasonably soon, however, Ross must make a decently long pledge to someone. Not that it matters a whole lot, but even Maryland fans are becoming at least mildly irritated with his indecision.

At the moment, the only people perfectly pleased over the rumors about Ross are rival coaches.