They were two different eras in the history of Montgomery College-Rockville athletics, but both were marked by the uncertainty that threatened to consume much of the school's athletic department.

In 1968 the school asked Tom Bichy to coach the soccer team despite his admitted unfamiliarity with the sport. Fourteen years later, Phil Martin was named football coach with the knowledge that, at any time, the program could be disbanded.

Despite these beginnings, both coaches have flourished. Bichy's soccer team is ranked No. 1 among junior colleges and Martin's football team is ranked No. 2. Montgomery-Rockville is the nation's only junior college to be ranked in the top 10 in both sports, and it has done it without the benefit of scholarships or dormitories.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing happening here for a nonscholarship junior college," quarterback John Kaleo said. "I have a friend on the soccer team and he and I talk about how great it would be if they stayed number one and we got to number one."

There was a time when just fielding a competitive team was reason for celebration on the Rockville campus just off Rockville Pike. One of three campuses of Montgomery College -- the others are in Germantown and Takoma Park -- the Rockville satellite opened in 1965, the same year Martin graduated from Sherwood High School. After three years of forgettable athletics, Bichy came over from the University of Maryland to be an assistant baseball coach and a physical education instructor.

"The guys who hired me said to me, 'You can coach baseball, but we also want to you to start the soccer program,' " said Bichy, who had only played the sport in junior high school. "I didn't know that much about soccer."

But he accepted the job and in 23 seasons has a 244-98-31 record. He was promoted to athletic director in 1982, the same year a touchy situation developed in the football program. The Knights were coached by Steve Wilson (no relation to the current Howard coach), who was the team's first part-time coach. His lack of contact with the players proved to be a problem.

"He wasn't here dealing with the kids on an eight-hour-a-day basis," Bichy said. "The Steve Wilson situation just evaporated and eventually he was fired."

An additional complication was that other Maryland junior colleges were abandoning football. The school decided it would either find a faculty member to be coach full-time or it would eliminate the sport.

"Sometimes we think, had {the program} gone down the tubes, that people would have said it was a good financial decision," Bichy said. "I think a lot of people would have thought it was a good decision and you never would have heard from {the program} again . . . The football team was down. It was really down."

Fortunately for Montgomery-Rockville, one man -- and only one man -- was interested in the job. "If a young, energetic guy like Phil Martin had not come along, it probably would have gone," Bichy said. "There was no one else to step forward."

"They were ready to just throw it away," Martin said. "I guess I got it because nobody else was interested. . . . I don't know if they were so much concerned with winning, but with running a quality program. They didn't want a renegade program. They did not want any trouble whatsoever. If one player had done anything really stupid, that would have been it."

After his 1-9 debut in 1982, the Knights improved to 5-4-1 the next year. Martin's worst record has been last year's 7-3 mark. In fact, last week's win over Westchester (N.Y.) was his 57th, which tied him with Lou Chacos for the most wins in school history.

"He's well-implemented in the football community," Bichy said. "People know his work rate, people know his intensity. They know he's organized and they know he's got a good staff."

Should the Knights (7-0) -- who had never been ranked higher than ninth before this season -- be ranked No. 1 or 2 at the end of the regular season, they'll be guaranteed a chance to play for the national championship in the Mid-America Bowl. When they played in a lesser bowl game in 1986, they had to raise the necessary $33,000 from the community. This time, ESPN would cover the travel costs.

Should the soccer team (15-0-1) win the Region XX title, it would advance to the eight-team national tournament at Mercer County in Trenton, N.J. The team to beat, however, would be the hosts, who are 14-1 and ranked second.

But Montgomery-Rockville's athletic success is not limited to football and soccer. The men's golf team was the 1990 National Junior College Athletic Association Division III champion. The baseball team was 1988 regional champion.

While Bichy admits that football "has always been the mainstay of this school," the winning tradition of the soccer team actually dates further back. Bichy has not had a losing season since his 2-7 debut in 1968, and the Knights have won more than 10 games in all but one season since 1977.

"Baseball was my big dream, but soccer -- as it did all over the country -- flourished as a youth program," Bichy said. "Soccer has grown through the influx of youth involvement. Now it's the influx of the county youth players that makes our soccer so good."

As remarkable as Montgomery-Rockville's 1990 success has been, there are still problems. The women's programs have not yet duplicated the success of the men's. The swimming, gymnastics and wrestling teams no longer exist. In the past, other programs could have befallen the same fate. But Bichy said the coaches have not allowed that to happen.

"The main key element has been the work rate of the coach," he said. "How much he hustles, the phone calls he makes, the kids he visits, the kids he talks to. If he works hard, there's the possibility of being a good team. But it's not easy."

What will always make things difficult, however, is the school's lack of identity. "Montgomery College is unique to anyplace else," Martin said. "It's not a high school, where you get community support. It's not a Division III, where you get the campus behind you. It's not a Division II or a Division I. It's not even like other junior colleges, where you get dormitories and scholarships."

This situation has made small victories -- like the installation of the press box and the implementation of an academic assistance program -- even sweeter for Martin. He's also thrilled with the success of Gene Thomas, a wide receiver who went from Montgomery-Rockville to Maryland, where he caught game-winning touchdowns in his first two games. Now there is talk that the Terrapins are interested in Kaleo, who has thrown for 1,915 yards in seven games.