BUDDY THE BUC? Buddy Ryan proclaimed himself a strong candidate for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coaching job after a meeting yesterday with owner Hugh Culverhouse.

"He said he'll make up his mind before long. I'm sure I'm a strong candidate," Ryan, fired as Philadelphia Eagles coach on Jan. 8, said after a 2 1/2-hour discussion at Culverhouse's home. "I was very impressed. It was my first time meeting him. We talked about a lot of things."

Ryan is one of several candidates for the Bucs' job, which former 49ers coach and current NBC broadcaster Bill Walsh turned down on Wednesday. Other candidates include interim coach Richard Williamson, New York Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, and Miami Dolphins assistant Gary Stevens, who also talked to Culverhouse yesterday. Belichick interviewed yesterday for the head coaching job with the Cleveland Browns.

STAYING PUT: Houston QB David Klingler, who set or tied 33 NCAA records last season, announced he would return to school, joining a number of underclassmen returning to college as today's NFL deadline for denouncing college eligibility approached.

The only remaining college star who has not announced his intentions is Southern California QB Todd Marinovich, but all signs indicate that he will opt for the pro draft. Published reports say he has hired an agent, Tom Condon of International Management Group, which his parents have denied, and a USC source said the left-handed sophomore has not attended any classes this semester.

He was suspended from the team by Coach Larry Smith 3 1/2 weeks ago.

Despite his recent arrest on a midemeanor cocaine charge, Marinovich remains eligible for the draft, an NFL source said. However, he would be open to random drug testing under the league's reasonable cause clause.

So far 15 underclassmen have opted for the draft, including WRs Raghib "Rocket" Ismail of Notre Dame and Herman Moore of Virginia.

BEAR DEAL: Miami traded former first-round draft pick DE Eric Kumerow to the Chicago Bears for CB Vestee Jackson. . . . The Seahawks sent T Ron Mattes to the Jets for an undisclosed draft choice.

EATING IT UP: General Mills unveiled its Wheaties cereal box devoted to the New York Giants during a news conference yesterday at an East Rutherford, N.J. hotel. More than 250,000 boxes of the breakfast of champions were headed to stores in the New York-New Jersey area.

RB O.J. Anderson and C Bart Oates are among seven Giants featured on the front of the box. Others are LB Pepper Johnson, TE Mark Bavaro, P Sean Landeta, special teams star Reyna Thompson and QB Phil Simms. Backup QB Jeff Hostetler settled for the team photo on the back of the box.