For nearly 15 years Maryland has had plenty of muscle, speed and depth on the football field. Under both Jerry Claiborne and Bobby Ross, the Terrapins were seldom outmanned. Yet, during all that time, running like an undercurrent beneath the team's consistent but usually unspectacular success was a thread of doubt.

While the Claiborne and Ross regimes stood for hard work, discipline, weight training and strong recruiting, often something seemed to be missing. Not much, but something vital, nonetheless.

Against the best opposition, and the best coaches, Maryland often came up inches shy on imagination and poise. Maybe it was that old-fashioned wide-tackle-six defense with its porous three-man deep secondary. Maybe it was just Ross' excitability or Claiborne's air of frustration in crisis, but neither projected the intimidating aura that many of the best football coaches possess.

Think of Joe Paterno, Don Shula, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry or, for that matter, Joe Gibbs, on their sidelines. The message of their body language is that they are smarter, more composed, more in tune with the flow and rhythms of the game than you -- the opponent -- are. They have something up their sleeve, just for you, and you aren't going to like it.

Only one aspect of Maryland football has possessed that extra dimension of danger, bravery and, occasionally, brilliance. When the 1984 Terrapins, trailing Miami by 31-0 at halftime, made the greatest comeback in NCAA history to win, 42-40, some special presence was in the air. When the same team overtook Tennessee in the Sun Bowl, 28-27, after trailing by 21-0 at the half, lots of people asked, "What's going on here?" Maryland players muttered something about the assistant coach in the press box who had redrawn the offense at halftime, then called every play of the comebacks. But who wants to search out assistants on the roof for praise?

Only one man did: Penn State Coach Joe Paterno. Year after year, he'd felt that presence, too. Somebody was giving him a hard time, making him lose sleep, almost every year coming closer to beating him. It was that guy who designed the Maryland offense, that guy who groomed Boomer Esiason, Frank Reich and Stan Gelbaugh into NFL quarterbacks. It was the guy calling the wild and woolly plays, giving everybody a heart attack.

So, Paterno tried to steal him.

But Joe Krivak wouldn't leave Maryland. He was tempted but, after a 50th birthday, a man doesn't take kindly to pulling up roots. Especially a man like Krivak who'd lived in the same house in Bowie for decades and either pointed his car toward College Park (eight years) or Annapolis (three years) to help George Welsh load Navy's guns.

When Ross skipped town last winter, few thought Krivak would be the next head coach. Krivak wasn't a workaholic, fancy-dressing joke-swapper. He wasn't ambitious or obsessive. He didn't scream at players or ban beards and long hair. He didn't give pep talks. He hadn't run his own team since Madonna High in '68 or even stood on the sideline during a game since '73.

Face it, Krivak was the football equivalent of an intellectual -- an X-and-O wizard -- at a school that loved guys who'd work 'til they dropped, then sleep on an office cot. A Maryland football coach had to talk like a good ol' boy. Krivak spoke about "eroding the integrity of the defense" and used phrases like "I should hope so" and "that is the task at hand."

Now, however, scandal-ridden Maryland was on a character and stability kick in its coach hiring. So, Krivak, 52, with 29 years experience, was given the job, even if he did wear glasses and specialize in standing impassively at practice with his arms folded, thinking. Players and assistants were delighted. Chuck Faucette, a senior on the 1986 Terrapins, summed up Krivak: "He's very, very, very smart." Give or take a "very."

Last month, Krivak told assistants he'd always thought it silly to work until midnight, especially since they had families. Wouldn't they prefer to start at 6:30 a.m. during two-a-days, then go home for dinner? The radical notion was adopted instantly. Krivak told athletic department veterans, "If it takes 16 hours a day to prepare for a football game, then we're in trouble."

This Saturday at Syracuse, Krivak coaches his first college game. Against his old alma mater, to boot, where he played for Ben Schwartzwalder and blocked for Jim Brown. Though his baptism is at hand, Krivak makes no pretense of having total mastery of his new job. "I have not figured out how to allot my time yet," he says. "It's very difficult to find time for yourself, even the little that you need. There's always somewhere to go and someone to meet."

Never one to seek a job, Krivak also does not bother to politic to keep the one he now has. "I'm comfortable with myself. I have a nice family. I don't want my life or my friends or my family to change much," he said. "If I get hyper or feel I'm changing as a person, I'm going to have to make a decision or somebody will make a decision about me. I want to keep everything pretty much the way it is. I don't want to get caught up in hype.

"I want to work hard on football. I take it very seriously. But it's really important to me to keep my life style intact, too."

Whether Krivak is suited to the whole range of demands placed on a head coach is moot. He's not a man to spellbind recruits. But neither were Claiborne and Ross. He's already changed the Terrapins to a modern four-deep defense; that should help. As for screaming and discipline, Krivak said, "There'll be times when I lose my cool . . . but I tend to be loose and positive around players. Be what you are. Young people see right through you if you aren't. I want input from them. I'll go out of my way to convince them I'm approachable. I've learned a lot from my players. They think."

Krivak has an experienced squad coming off a 5-5-1 season that included four narrow loses. He faces a hard but not impossible schedule. No one expects too much from him. Third place in the Atlantic Coast Conference would suffice, maybe fourth. One national magazine, in a whole issue devoted to college football, spent 38 words on Maryland. Not a word a man.

For Krivak, the challenge seems a fair, though tough, one. It's the spot for him, but he's on the spot, too. Asked if he's up to the job, Krivak likes to say, "Well, it's not like I've been selling insurance for the last 30 years."

If Maryland applies Krivak's heady gifts to its traditional physical skills, these Terrapins could someday become rather exciting turtles.