Before "Field of Dreams" there was for the overseer of college sports another field of dreams. Trains scurrying through rural Iowa would slow some while passing the diamond where Dick Schultz experimented with bat and glove as a youngster.

This rare jewel of a ballpark was conceived by the town of Kellogg's most prosperous businessman, Art Holhmdahl, whose company made washing machines, and it was located on some bottom land he had bought between the railroad tracks and the North Skunk River.

Exotic animals, ostriches and such that strutted nearby elicited some of the attention. What mostly caught the eye, though, were large lights perched atop poles that allowed Schultz and his buddies almost unlimited access to their passion. In small-town America in the mid-'40s, a lighted baseball field was a sight worth pausing to watch.

"It was a pulsating thing for that community for years," Schultz recalled. "It dominated the scene, till stock car racing came along."

Everybody in Kellogg figured the studious and athletic Schultz boy was going places. He was an outfielder and catcher who, according to a teammate, "could run like the wind.

"You pretty well knew when he got on first that he'd steal second," Ray Simpson added. "Easy as pie."

Fortysome years later, a national spotlight frequently shines on Schultz alone. As the executive director of the NCAA, he is caught up in -- and even partly responsible for -- as profound a reform movement as college athletics has ever seen.

Simpson's line about Schultz at 18 also works for Schultz at 61. Still going like the wind, Schultz does it in a Lear jet that he copilots and coaxed the NCAA into buying not long after coming on board three years ago.

Besides cutting pilot costs in half, he can reach constituents in such places as Auburn, Ala., and State College, Pa., more quickly. Saving a few hours on each trip, he figures he can be in the office a few dozen more days each year.

Visibility is important to him. The NCAA's only other executive director, Walter Byers, gave member schools clout in the marketplace and equal stature with pro sports. He also helped create the perception of the NCAA as cold and faceless. Or as Schultz says: "The group that makes all those rules nobody understands and puts schools on probation."

Schultz's job description is tricky. He cannot throw anybody out of the NCAA, as two commissioners have done in consecutive years in major league baseball. He cannot suspend a player, or so much as levy a dime in fines.

"I'm so powerful," he jokes, "that I can't make a rule and I can't change a rule."

So what's his power?

"Persuasion," he said. "Taking a position. Then taking advantage of my position to get people to listen, and then to sell them on what I have in mind. That's the biggest power you have. The power of persuasion."

"He is fascinated by the art of negotiation," said ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan.

Among his experiences that led to the top NCAA position: being athletic director at two schools (Cornell and Virginia), being chairman of the Division I men's basketball committee and chairman of a special TV negotiations committee. He also ran a consulting service.

He brokers money and ideas. He is slender, lacks compelling features and would easily be overlooked in a room of Fortune 500 executives. Yet he commanded from CBS a basketball deal worth $1 billion over seven years.

The next negotiations may be more difficult, for they deal in attitudes many colleges are reluctant to change. The Jan. 7-11 convention in Nashville is about something often discussed the last decade or so but rarely achieved -- reform.

"People are in the mood for that now," Corrigan said. "Not only to save money, but because it's the right thing to do."

If such reforms as a 10 percent reduction in the number of football scholarships, from 95 to 85, are passed and phased into practice in the next several years, Schultz said the average fan scarcely will notice.

He likes to use John McKay as an example of how the past may foretell the future. When the scholarship limit was lowered from 120 over four years to 95, Schultz said the former Southern Cal coach told his colleagues on the convention floor: "Mark this day on your calendar. This day is the ruin of college football. It will only go downhill from here."

Smiling, Schultz states the obvious: "College football is more popular than ever."

Coach Gary Williams and others at Maryland remain angry over the three-year basketball sanctions levied by the NCAA for infractions committed by a coach fired before the investigation was finished.

"Maryland didn't pay anyone, didn't change a grade," said Corrigan. "But they got hammered. What that shows is that a school now had better read more than the big print."

The critics of the NCAA and its punishment policies were heard anew last month when Nevada-Las Vegas had its probation changed on appeal, letting it get to defend its national title.

It is hard for many veteran college watchers to believe that cheating is worse in the early 1990s than it was in the early 1950s, when the entire NCAA enforcement staff was Arthur Bergstrom. The full-time force now numbers 22, with 14 to 16 usually on the road.

"We're not going to solve the {cheating} problem by doubling or tripling the enforcement staff," Schultz said not long ago. "We're also not going to solve it by passing a lot more rules.

"We've got to go at it the other way, getting schools to take pride in rules compliance. If you want to stonewall the NCAA, it's no problem {because the organization lacks such legal tools as subpoena power}. If a school really wants to fight us, there isn't any way we can probably come down with a tough penalty. Unless that smoking gun turns up."

Besides saving money, reducing scholarships would give more athletes a chance to play. Less off-campus recruiting would make the lives of high school players lots less hectic.

Most significant for athletes are proposals dealing with their work week: It would be no more than 20 hours in all and include one day off. A study two years ago showed that football and basketball players during their seasons spent about 30 hours on sport, or more time than they did preparing for and attending class combined.

"There may be an attempt to suspend the rules and vote on some of these as a package," Schultz said. "That's tough, because it takes something like a two-thirds vote to suspend."

Of the charge that the NCAA, with a staff of about 200, is too expensive, Schultz said that "87 percent of all revenue we generate will go back to the membership in one form or another. There aren't many associations with any kind of budget that can operate on 13 percent."

Typical of his swift personal pace and his general message to those outside the NCAA was a late-September appearance at the Third National Forum on Substance Abuse Issues in Higher Education at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill.

That morning he had copiloted the NCAA jet from West Palm Beach, Fla., where he was meeting with another organization concerned with reform in college sport, the Knight Commission. He flew back late that afternoon.

He said 300,000 athletes participate in intercollegiate sports, then insisted: "If we took all those that had a problem -- drugs, social, recruiting -- and listed every one of them, you'd have to go out and find about 2,000 each year with that same problem to even break the 99th percentile."

He said athletes might be the cleanest group on campus but admitted about the NCAA's previous policy of testing only before championship events: "I'm not sure we haven't just caught the dumb ones." This fall, the NCAA began year-round testing.

One of the few hundred educators in the audience was Kathy Wardrip, who has been the alcohol and health education coordinator for the University of Louisville since the job was created more than four years ago. She also teaches an alcohol and drug education course that is a first- semester requirement for all athletes and worth one credit.

"If you don't complete the sessions," she said, "you don't get to participate in your sport. And you could have your scholarship removed."

To help ease some of the pressure on basketball coaches and players, the NCAA will distribute that $1 billion from TV money more evenly than before. One $32 million chunk each year will go to conferences based on their six-year performance in the NCAA tournament; another $32 million will go to schools based on the number of sports and scholarships.

A fixed amount, which he estimates at $25,000, will be given to each Division I school for academic enhancement.

"What this means," he said, "is that, except for {travel} expenses, a school that makes the Final Four won't get any more than a school that loses in the first round. It will eliminate the $300,000 free throw, be as close as simply playing for the trophy as we may ever get."

He fears a "stampede" toward larger conferences may be at hand and said: "More isn't necessarily better. In the ACC, for instance, each school gets $1.2 million each year for in-season basketball telecasts. If you add two schools, can you add $2.5 million to the basketball television package? No. So the football enhancement had better be very good."

Hurt most by the rapid jump by independents to conferences almost surely will be the weaker football teams in those leagues: Northwestern in the Big Ten, Wake Forest in the ACC and several schools in the Big Eight if that conference undergoes expected change.

It's possible those schools might drop out of their conferences and band together, Schultz said, adding: "The state of the Southwest Conference is not good. I'm sure that was one reason that led Arkansas to move" to the Southeastern Conference.

Of publishing graduation rates, he said: "The real surprise to the general public is not going to be the graduation rates of the athletes; it's going to be the {low} graduation rates of the rest of the students. . . . I'd imagine that state schools, such as Maryland, have a graduation rate of about 35 to 40 percent. . . . I think the graduation rate for athletes should be about 5 to 10 percent higher than the general student body."

He said the quickest way to a college playoff might be expansion of the NFL schedule. The last day of the NFL regular season this year will be Dec. 31, and he said: "That potentially has a chance of killing about 70 percent of the bowl games. If they play to the 31st, I'll guarantee you we'll have half as many bowls five years from now as we do today. If that happens, there will be incentive to go to a playoff." A format for such a playoff exists within the NCAA constitution.

If a conference has at least 12 schools, Schultz said, it can break into two divisions and thus get an extra game for two teams -- a playoff for the championship.

"You can see," he added, "as that comes together how it would fit with a national championship. Those {league championship games} could be the first round of a national playoff."

Athletes might soon be receiving more than the current scholarship rules allow, he said, through a provision in the NCAA constitution that considers financial aid "the cost of attendance." He said a flat figure -- he mentioned $2,000 per year -- would be a reasonable addition.

"There has to be cost reduction {first}," he said, "and schools are not likely to do it on their own, because of competition, keeping up with the Joneses. So you almost have to do it on a national basis."

And a rational basis. He eliminated one of the many inconsistencies in college sport by restricting the number of beer commercials during NCAA telecasts. He did this "because I got tired of getting letters from people saying: 'How in the world can you put on a drug education spot and the very next commercial we see is for beer? What kind of message are you sending out?' "