Iowa Coach Hayden Fry turned down an invitation for his football team to participate in a beef-eating contest because he didn't want his boys to spend too much time riding the highway to and from the restaurant.

The Beef Bowl is held every year before the Rose Bowl, and it features the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions in a contest to see which squad can consume the most beef at a single sitting. Former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes didn't let his people indulge, either. Somebody told Fry that Hayes' Buckeyes turned down the Beef Bowl six times and lost the Rose Bowl four times.

Fry said, "So?" Then he said he didn't much like the idea of those California interstates and all that good rest time spent in traffic.

What he wants is to let his boys go down to the beach and participate in "some woman and whale watching," as he put it. They can eat all the charbroiled beef they care to back home in Iowa City, but only after overcoming an 8-2-1 UCLA team in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

Fry has a clever, totally effective way of grumbling that comes from years of practice. Earlier this month in New York, he suggested to members of the Downtown Athletic Club that they ought to be ashamed of themselves for not awarding two Heisman Trophies this year -- one to winner Bo Jackson and the other to Iowa quarterback Chuck Long, who finished second in the closest vote in the 51-year history of the award.

Fry now has been wondering about the polls and just where his team will end up. Although he credits top-ranked Penn State for going undefeated in the regular season, he can't help knocking the Nittany Lions' relatively easy schedule and pointing out the difficult time they have had with it. Last year, he said, he voted Brigham Young University No. 1 in the final United Press International coaches poll because it beat a tough Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl and finished with an unblemished record.

"It's the same way this year with Penn State," he said. "Last year, I didn't think BYU was the best team in the country, but they didn't lose a game. . . . Right now, I don't think Penn State is No. 1. But if they win, I guess I'll vote that way."

Iowa's only loss came against Ohio State, a Big Ten rival, in a nationally televised game in which Long threw four interceptions and dropkicked his chances of claiming the Heisman. The Hawkeyes (10-1), now ranked third in the UPI poll and fourth in the Associated Press poll, lasted five weeks in the top spot and no doubt would still be there had they not lost to the Buckeyes, 22-13. Since falling into the ranks of contending also-rans, Fry has spent more than a little time trying to figure out how to regain the position.

"We might be national champs by winning (against UCLA)," he said. "First of all, I think Oklahoma has to beat or tie Penn State, and if (Oklahoma) wins, it cannot be very big. If that happens and Tennessee beats Miami in the Sugar Bowl, and we win, we can take it. But if Miami beats Tennessee big, they've got a real shot. It would be close, like us.

"Because of the schedule we've played and how we've done it, we should be able to win by a small margin and take (the national championship) because the Big Ten hasn't been beating many Pac-10 teams lately . . . If it comes between us and Miami, how can anybody vote Miami over us? Until we got to be No. 1, I never voted us No. 1 because I'm prejudiced. But I hear (Miami Coach) Jimmy Johnson stand up and say they're No. 1 and it gets me to get up and say it, too. Quite frankly, Miami's not that good a team."

No matter who wins the national title, Fry and his Iowa team have helped spark a somewhat dismal year in college football. While providing what he calls a "tonic" to the state's farmers burdened with financial problems, Fry and the Hawkeyes also have helped restore much of the pride lost in the face of Iowa's most severe economic depression since the 1930s. In keeping with their efforts to raise the spirits of the state's troubled, the Hawkeyes now wear stickers on their helmets that say "ANF" as a reminder of the farm crisis. It stands for "America Needs Farmers."

"The farmers, bless their hearts, haven't had just one bad day, they've had three years of bad days," Fry told the storm of reporters who flew to Iowa City to talk football but instead learned a little something about sociology. "These are Czechs and Norwegians, Irish and German, and they've got tremendous pride. You know they're hurtin'. Now, so many of them are just hanging on."

Fry always said he liked to work on sick football teams, and he did so earlier in his career at Southern Methodist and North Texas State. When the Iowa job opened up, he said he didn't mind visiting the place, but he had no idea where it was. The first thing he found out was that Iowa was a land of corn rows, "real straight corn rows," he said. "You don't see any sloppy rows. You come to Iowa, you don't farm; you landscape."

The Iowa football program led the way this year as the Big Ten enjoyed a resurgence of power. Long, who could have turned pro after last season, stayed in college a fifth year, hoping he would have an opportunity to lead the Hawkeyes to Pasadena and avenge their humiliating 28-0 loss to Washington in the 1982 Rose Bowl. On the night of the Heisman presentation, Long said, "To be honest, I really didn't think about (winning the award) at all during the season. . . . I was more worried about how well our team would do this year and making it to the Rose Bowl."

As coach of the conference champs, and still in competition for the national title, Fry said he was "getting close to accomplishing everything I set out to do. But everything to me means being voted No. 1 at the end of the season.

"I say this in all sincerity: I would truly like to see the University of Iowa become national champs one day. I don't know when. Maybe it's now. I sure hope it is."