It may seem awkward for Maryland football coach Joe Krivak to have to make a case for his continued employment with the Terrapins at 5-3 and in contention for their first bowl bid in five years. But what would it be like if the Terrapins achieved that goal, and then Krivak walked away?

"I'm not one of those guys who says that this is all I ever want to do. It's important. I've spent my whole life in the business, but there comes a point in time when I know I'll want to walk away and do other things," Krivak said yesterday. "I have to look at where I'm going and where I want to be.

"It's important to feel that you can win, that you have a chance to win -- I don't want to be mediocre. If you're mediocre this can be a tough business."

It appears that mediocrity has followed Maryland since Krivak took over four years ago. The Terrapins had records of 4-7, 5-6 and 3-7-1 during his first three seasons, which led to cries for Krivak's ouster at the end of 1989.

But this season, in the final year of the four-year contract he signed when he replaced Bobby Ross, Maryland has enjoyed something of a resurgence, winning four games in the final three minutes and losing only to nationally ranked Clemson, Michigan and Georgia Tech.

A victory at North Carolina Saturday would ensure the team's first winning season since 1985. That and a win against Penn State, which Maryland hasn't beaten in 29 years, or an upset of No. 1 Virginia, would seem enough to guarantee a postseason invitation.

But would it be enough to bring fans back to Byrd Stadium, which at times seemed hollow as an abandoned building as Maryland has averaged just 29,766 fans in its four home games this year?

"I don't think that that decision should be made by a politician or alum or even a fan. It should be made by the people closest to the university and football team," said Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., majority leader of the Maryland State Senate.

"I think people like {university president} William Kirwan and {athletic director} Andy Geiger can examine {Krivak's impact on} all aspects of university life as well as {his evaluation of} the players' athletic skills.

"Mr. Geiger was hired largely because he's an expert in this area. He's been at institutions like this before. . . . I have a great deal of confidence that President Kirwan, in consultation with Mr. Geiger, will make the correct decision."

Krivak argues that the question of whether he stays or goes shouldn't even be raised, that given the unstable nature of Maryland athletics during his tenure, "I don't know if anyone else could have done a better job than I have," he said.

"I don't think I have to make a case for myself. I didn't think I had to before the start of the season. Look at the schedules we've played, the changes that have occurred in the structure -- I've been here for four years and I've worked under three athletic directors. This {coaching} staff has done a great job.

"But people don't see that. I know there are a lot of people out there who think I'm a lousy coach, that I can't motivate, that I don't know what I'm doing. It doesn't affect me at all. As long as I know what kind of job I've done, that's all that counts."

Provided Krivak wants to stay, the decision on his future likely will rest with Geiger. When he was hired in Sepember, Geiger had a discussion with Krivak in which the coach said he wanted to be evaluated over the course of the full season.

Having arrived in College Park at the beginning of this month and still getting a feel for the sentiments of all concerned, Geiger agreed to wait.

"I think it's important to be consistent. We said we'd wait until the end of the season and that's what we're doing," he said. "I'm not unmindful of how the team's doing -- I'm not an ostrich with my head in the sand.

"I think the program is making progress and all those things, but I haven't talked with the president and I don't know the community. Whatever decision is made, there has to be a consensus that this is the right thing to do."

Krivak says that he knew what the ground rules were when he was hired "and I've lived up to every phase and facet -- I and the student- athletes have represented this university very well."

But Krivak also knows that another contingency -- perhaps the most important -- is winning. One of his own goals, he said yesterday, was getting the Maryland program "back like it was in the old days, back on solid ground."

The terrain, however, is changing. Academic standards have become stricter, so recruiting must focus on both academic and athletic ability, narrowing the number of athletes from which to choose.

"If you have any competitive spirit you want to win, but the first thing is being on the same page with everyone else," said one assistant coach. "That's not the case here. You try not to concern yourself with it -- what's here is here and you have to accept it and work with it."

Krivak says the changes have helped establish solid guidelines that may not have been present before, but it doesn't make it easier out on the field, particularly given the teams Maryland is playing.

"Do you think I enjoy going into the locker room after playing Michigan and seeing the kids sitting there all beat up and knowing that we have to play next week?" he said.

This season, Maryland has appeared to overcome such obstacles, mainly because of a senior class that seems intent on having one winning season during its time on campus.

Krivak said that his hopes for success this year are as much for those seniors as for himself. That's not hard to believe, for at times it appears that Krivak is setting himself up for a fall if the Terrapins don't finish above .500.

Whenever he speaks publicly, Krivak doesn't talk about character or integrity or graduating his players as the basis for which he should be evaluated. Instead, he uses wins and losses as the criterion -- a measuring stick that, judging from his career record, may not be sufficient.

"In this business that's the only thing that keeps people going," he said. "All the other things are important, but unless you're winning or have a chance to win, all the other meaningful things you do -- affecting lives, doing things for people -- doesn't matter. . . .

"A person feels like he wants to be in control of his life and sometimes in this business you're not," Krivak said. "You can give an awful lot and not get anything in return."

But this doesn't bother Krivak either. He's a religious man. "There has to be something more {to life}; you can't put your faith in people or in an institution. You have to have something more."