Big-deal deals in sport have become routine. Some backup shortstop you've never heard of signs a contract worth several times your mortgage and it gets buried in small type on a back page.

But when the money thrown around is on the order of the estimated $6 million the Denver Nuggets offered John Thompson, heads snap to attention. And when, after nearly a week of indecision, Thompson refuses the offer, eyebrows get cocked and thoughts congeal into:

He did what?

The Nuggets' owners were willing to pay Thompson a guaranteed fortune to run their NBA team -- and even sophisticated fans wondered why a college coach wouldn't immediately sling aside his whistle and scoot for the next plane to the Rockies.

Part of Thompson's decision was loyalty to Georgetown and his players, and the inability to snip Washington roots deep and strong.

But a good deal of why someone who frequently boasts about being a devoted and proud capitalist would stay put is this often overlooked fact: College coaches as fine as Thompson already are financially set for life. He earns $317,000 a year from Georgetown, plus $200,000 from Nike to represent that firm. In addition, Thompson is a very marketable client of ProServ, the sports management firm, and he runs a summer basketball camp on campus. He also lives in a home -- now worth about $1 million -- purchased in part for him by friends of the university.

The financial bonanza for the top-level college coach coincides almost exactly with Thompson's career at Georgetown. His first postseason appearance was in 1975, the year John Wooden retired as UCLA coach after winning his 10th NCAA championship in 12 seasons.

Wooden won nearly 81 percent of his games in 29 seasons as a coach; his best one-year income, according to LSU Coach Dale Brown, was $40,500. That was $32,500 in salary from UCLA and $8,000 from a summer camp.

Not necessarily out of embarrassment, a current college coach who has made the NCAA Final Four said, "My first shoe deal was in 1977, with Pro Keds, for 500 dollars."

Summer camps these days often net a coach $100,000, shoe endorsements twice that. LSU Athletic Director Joe Dean, a man familiar with shoe money and coaches' contracts, said, "There are a lot of college coaches out there making upwards of 500,000 dollars a year."

Before taking the LSU job in April of 1987, Dean spent 29 years as a sales representative for Converse, footwear of choice for the generation of athletes pushing paunchy middle age. He recalled a conversation with the general manager of the NBA's expansion Orlando Magic, Pat Williams:

"He was asking me who I thought would be the best coach to hire and I told him Dean Smith or Bobby Knight. I said: 'Why not go with somebody who's proven he can really coach? Why do you guys always go with some former {NBA} player with no experience? You give him three years and then fire him.'

"Pat said that was the system; I told him it was backwards. Or upside-down. Why give a player 2 million dollars and then turn around and pay the coach, the guy who's responsible for the team, a fraction of that, something like 400,000 dollars?

"Probably, NBA teams haven't hired the Dean Smiths because they couldn't afford them."

They can now. 'Buying a Shoe?'

A combination of rocketing television income and an increasing global presence means that a tiny percentage of ownership in an NBA team seems overwhelming to someone such as Thompson, who once worked for the 4-H Club. Guesses are that a 4 percent share of the Nuggets, which reportedly was part of the deal offered Thompson, would be worth about $4 million in five years.

"Everything in this business is temporary," said Virginia Commonwealth Coach Sonny Smith. "Ownership is permanent. Some say I'm part owner of VCU, but I could be evicted."

The monetary largess that Adolph Rupp, Wooden and some other legendary coaches missed started about the time television realized college and pro sports were significant sells. Before that shoe wars mostly were restricted to Olympic-caliber runners.

"When the Hawks moved from St. Louis to Atlanta" in 1968, said Dean, "they bought 240 pairs of shoes from a sporting goods dealer. Can you imagine that? Somebody buying a shoe?" These days, the heart of basketball is a sole. Only a fifth of a college coach's half-million dollar annual income might be directly related to his job description. To get around paying a coach more than, say, the entire philosophy department, most schools condone lucrative shoe and media contracts and provide the facilities for summer camps.

Most coaches defend the practice, as Maryland's Gary Williams does: "Professors can walk off campus and command three times their salaries as consultants. We're also experts in our field. Shoe contracts are an offshoot of what we do," he said.

An offshoot of what the NCAA does not allow would be more to the point. Because college players are not permitted to earn a penny for generating millions, their coaches gather the shoe windfall.

Thompson almost never has been seen on nationwide television wearing Nike shoes, for instance. He is valuable because his Georgetown players wear them. The only things most NBA coaches receive from the shoe companies, by contrast, are clothes and footwear; their players are the big winners, Patrick Ewing finally being eligible to be paid for shoes he'd been pitching for years.

"We're criticized for not giving our players the chance to make a choice of what shoes to wear," said one college coach. "Hey, look at the inside of those shoes. Every brand is made in the same place" -- South Korea.

Lately, contracts for college coaches have taken an NBA-like tack, with bonuses for increased attendance and percentage of season-ticket sales as well as for postseason success. Jerry Tarkanian this spring reportedly received 10 percent of Nevada-Las Vegas's Final Four income.

Less common is what Bear Bryant urged Joe Paterno to have included in his deal with Penn State: tickets.

"You ought to have two hundred tickets -- season tickets," Paterno, in his autobiography, quotes Bryant as saying to him in the early 1970s.

"What would I do with them?" a naive Paterno asked.

"The way you're going . . . people are going to be fighting to get into that stadium," Bryant said. "You've got to have two hundred good tickets. That's going to give you the power to do whatever you want with your program and with yourself."

Paterno said he opted for tenure. Gearing Up

Coaches have been able to play one shoe company against another, although that no longer may be possible except by the most elite. Industry sources say the best coaches in each conference still are paid handsomely but that endorsement budgets are being trimmed.

With a few exceptions, coaches in the Atlantic Coast, Big East and Southeastern conferences each commands from $50,000 to $90,000 in shoe money. The Southern Conference is regarded as a $5,000 league, with most coaches in the Sun Belt receiving from $10,000 to $15,000.

Shoe changes at the top may take place if L.A. Gear completes its expected entry into the college coaching market. Brown apparently is going to switch from Converse, for more than $200,000 a year.

According to an L.A. Gear official, the athletic footwear industry does about $5 billion in business each year. L.A. Gear's share is 13 percent, or close to half of Nike's and about 10 percent less than Reebok's.

As a salesman, Dean said he had trouble with a coach being paid to influence the brand of equipment his school used; he is no less at ease as an athletic director.

"Our state mandates that everything must go through the university," he said. "I give Dale a very nice piece of this {shoe} money. Whether it's right or wrong is up for debate, but I do it. If I didn't, I might lose a coach."

Now pro basketball apparently is stable enough and wise enough to raid the brightest minds in college. Dave Gavitt jumped from being czar of amateur basketball to running the Boston Celtics. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski almost followed him and Thompson nearly opted for the Nuggets.

All of which brings to mind what the man who invented basketball, James Naismith, once said to a pupil: "You don't coach this game, you just play it." Famous college coaches also get wealthy now from games played off the court.