AUSTIN, TEX. -- Remember a few years ago when the syndicates launched a nationwide search for the next great American advice columnist? It turns out they were looking in all the wrong places. No one bothered to check out the fellow who pens the commonsensical and blunt "Time Out With Earl" column for the Austin Weekly, an otherwise boosterish tabloid that circulates for free in the restaurants and book stores of the Texas capital.

The Earl who shares his thoughts with troubled or curious Austin readers is none other than "The Tyler Rose" himself, Earl Campbell, the greatest running back in the history of University of Texas football, winner of the 1977 Heisman Trophy and three-time National Football League MVP during his professional career with the Houston Oilers.

Once defined by his 36-inch thighs, Campbell now reveals himself to the world with 18 inches of bold-type wisdom. He is entering his third season in print with a style that is a peculiarly satisfying mixture of Dear Abby, Jesse Jackson and Ask Hal the Referee.

The subjects that come Campbell's way each week in a batch of 30 to 40 letters range from sports to sociology to psychology. Business executives ask him to take time out to debate the merits of a college football playoff system. Mothers turn to him for guidance in handling sons who insist on playing dangerous sports. College students ask him about the resurgence of racism at Texas and on other campuses across the country. Black and Hispanic teenagers write in, wondering whether Campbell ever felt like giving up on life, dropping out of school or taking drugs.

It is the give and take with minority youngsters that makes "Time Out With Earl" special. The world of advice columns is as segregated as the NFL coaching ranks: Newspaper syndication officials say there are no nationally distributed Q and A columns that address concerns of minority kids and there are only a handful of such features in the weekly or daily press. April in Texas

Campbell, 34, who retired five seasons ago and now serves as a special assistant to Texas's vice president for student affairs, tries to handle the column with the same straightforward manner he displayed on the football field. "They write me letters and I answer them to the best of my knowledge," he explained. But of course life is rarely as simple as an off-tackle run.

Dear Earl: My question is, how can I stop thinking about suicide? . . . I feel like there's nothing worth living for. No matter how much I try, almost nothing works out right. I wish I could find someone who has all the right answers to my problems. Well, Mr. Campbell, thanks for your time. I'll be waiting to hear from you.

The column was just getting started when Campbell received that letter in the fall of 1988. It was from a high school student named April. "To me, when I think of April in Texas, I think of beauty," Campbell recalled. "And here was this Hispanic girl, April, who wrote me saying she was fed up with life and thinking of killing herself. I couldn't just answer her letter, I had to talk to her."

Campbell phoned her and invited her to his office. He told April that she was too young to make a decision about her life, that there was a reason for her existence that might not even have been revealed to her yet. And then he told her something he learned from his mother, Ann Campbell, who raised 11 children -- seven boys and four girls -- after her husband died when Earl was in fifth grade: "If things aren't going right for you today, borrow from tomorrow. Think of a positive goal you can achieve, imagine yourself achieving it, and work toward it always."

Two months later April wrote Campbell again. "Life is going good," she said. "Come visit our school sometime."

Dear Earl: How do you feel about the racial incidents that occurred on the UT campus recently? Do you think the disciplinary action that has been taken was sufficient?

Brenda's letter arrived this spring at a time when Campbell had been unusually preoccupied with race relations. On the Texas campus there had been several acts of bigotry involving fraternities: A black student's car was smeared with racial epithets by some frat boys; another fraternity printed a T-shirt with the face of Little Black Sambo on Michael Jordan's body. From Campbell's perspective, university president William Cunningham, his boss and friend, did not respond quickly or strongly enough. Campbell supported minority students who launched a series of protests against the administration.

"To be very honest, I'm very embarrassed by the situation," Campbell said in a recent interview in the office of his west Austin home. "It may cost me my job, but Dr. Cunningham, being president of a major university, in a key position like that, I was surprised by the way he handled things. I think if he had gone on stage immediately after the incident and said {to the fraternity}, 'Don't come around this university anymore.' Just kick them off. Take a tough stand. I'm the president and I will not stand for this. That's what I would have done. Instead, he gave a speech like he was talking at a commencement exercise. That made the problem bigger."'Hey, We've Got to Change'

Campbell is naturally gracious, and he speaks positively about his experiences at Texas, both as a player and as an administrator, but he never has been willing to play the role of a token or yes-man. Some longtime observers of the school's sports scene, such as Robert Heard, editor of the athletic newsletter "Inside Texas," believe Campbell has been undervalued by the university.

"Earl has done far more for them than they have done for him," Heard said. "Some members of the athletic hierarchy consider him just another dumb jock. There is some deap-seated and, in some cases, unconscious racism over there."

When he walks down the athletic department hallways on the second floor of Bellmont Hall, Campbell said, he is struck by the lack of integration at the administrative level two decades after the first black athletes came to Texas.

"That floor is where all the secretaries are, all the administrators are, all the coaches are, and I think it's a shame that with as many great black student-athletes that have come through the university, there are only two blacks on the second floor: me and Clarence James," an assistant football coach, Campbell said. "I think at this point UT has to start hiring some assistant athletic directors who are black or Hispanic.

"It's time to start saying, 'Hey, we've got to change it over for a while.' Even all the secretaries are white. I think our student-athletes would get a big kick out of it if they could walk by Barbara's desk, or Suzie's desk, or Diane's desk, and she was black, and they could say, 'You know, darlin', you really look nice today.' "

But Campbell's unease about the current state of race relations extends beyond the Texas campus. He felt it last week when he returned home to Tyler to promote his sports camp and make commercials for the Census Bureau. On the way back to Austin with his young assistants, both of whom are white, Campbell stopped at a roadside restaurant for a late lunch. The waitress, not recognizing Campbell behind his sunglasses, virtually threw a salad bowl at him after saying she was "all upset" by his questions about whether the place sold chicken breasts.

"I never felt so bad, so much like crying," he said. "If I hadn't had the sunshades on, that salad bowl probably wouldn't have come flying across the table. If she had known I was Earl Campbell and not just some black guy. That's the only way I can look at it. Until three or four months ago, I thought things were getting a lot better. Now it just looks to me like all the things that people our age and before us worked for, what the great Dr. Martin Luther King and other people worked for, is being forgotten. People are forgetting how to treat other human beings with respect."

Dear Earl: Willie Nelson's got that ponytail and he admits to smoking dope. Why do you hang around with that sort of guy?

Anyone who thinks Willie Nelson and Earl Campbell are an odd couple doesn't understand the Texas scene. There is a third person involved here who makes the relationship even stranger: former Longhorns football coach Darrell Royal. Earl, Willie and Coach -- the powerful tailback, hippie musician and establishment disciplinarian -- are the original Three Amigos. Their longstanding friendship is an unlikely lesson in the possibilities of cross-cultural appreciation. Once Upon a Time . . .

It started in 1975, Campbell's sophomore season at Texas, a year in which he gained 1,118 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. One day at practice, Royal told his squad Nelson was going to play guitar for them in the meeting room that evening. Nelson was not exactly a big name on campus then. The Temptations or Aretha Franklin would have drawn a crowd. Five guys showed up for Nelson. Campbell, who happened to like country music, was one of them.

"It was kind of strange at first," Campbell said. "Willie, he had this big old beard, and I know him well enough now that I can say this, he looked like a tramp. Darrell Royal was trying to tell us that as athletes we needed to be cleanshaven, we needed to do this and that. And we were thinking, man, how in the hell can he tell anyone to be cleanshaven when he's got this hippie with him all the time?"

Royal, conservative in manner and disposition, just happens to love guitar pickers and country songs, and he has a soft spot for the haunting nasal style of renegade Willie Nelson. In Campbell's senior year, after Royal had retired, the old coach would call up his favorite running back and ask him to sneak out of his dorm at night so they could go watch Nelson and the boys cut a new album.

"Come on over, there's goin' to be some pickin'," Royal would whisper to Campbell over the phone, and for the rest of the night they'd sit in the corner of a studio or lounge, talking about Waylon Jennings and Charley Pride and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.

Don't try to talk rap music to Earl Campbell. "I can't comprehend it," he said. "When I listen to a song, they better have a story to tell me." Willie Nelson is his best friend in the country music business, but not necessarily his all-time favorite crooner. "When I really want to kick it, let go, I pop in Merle Haggard. That's my man right there. I can't help it. To me he is probably one of the greatest singers of all. 'Cause I walk slow, I'm bowlegged; I talk slow, I'm a Texan; and Merle Haggard, he sings slow."

Dear Earl: I'm a high school sophomore, and I would like to ask how to deal with the peer pressure to use drugs.

Earl Campbell does not claim to be a saint. There are many things he has done in his life that he regrets. Drugs is not one of them.

"The peer pressure for me to snort cocaine got really strong in the late 1970s," he told Paul. "I was in my early 20s, I had just moved to the big city {Houston}, and I was making a decent living. Some of the pros I played with would say, 'Hey, Earl, we believe that you do drugs.' . . . But I never did. I was right in the middle of it, yet I still made my decision not to. . . . Once they knew I didn't mess around one bit, they left me alone. We stayed friends and I had a good time, yet I stayed by my decision not to do drugs."

The lesson of Earl Campbell's life, one that he draws on again and again in his columns, is a basic one: Freedom arises from self-discipline. He learned that lesson from his mother at an age when it is the furthest thing from most athletes' minds. He was 17 and one of the most highly recruited schoolboy athletes in America. Recruiters were offering him money and cars. His mother told him to stay away from the material enticements. When Royal came along, Campbell said to him: "If you're here to give me something, my people, black people, have sold themselves long enough. I am not for sale."

"Son," said Royal, "you're my kind of athlete. Can we sit down and talk?"

"That was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," Campbell recalled. "Because, you see, I don't have to hear Coach Royal or someone else telling me: 'Hey, Earl, remember that Trans-Am we gave you?' Or, 'Remember that new wardrobe? You owe me.'

"Those are the kinds of things I try to tell young people. Don't ever accept that stuff from schools. Because you know at some point you're going to be 34 years old, and they won't care about you anymore and they won't get you that Trans-Am, and you'll be done and forgotten. If you ever do it, you'll be in debt for life. I have no debts. They owe me nothing except respect."