Unsolicited by UCLA star linebacker Donnie Edwards, an agent's representative twice leaves bags of groceries on Edwards's doorstep. Arizona's Tedy Bruschi, one of the nation's best pass-rushing linemen, frequently fends off agents by leaving his answering machine on when he's home. Aspiring sports agent Robert Troy Caron hires two roommates of Southern Cal junior running back Shawn Walters to recruit Walters for him; later, according to a lawsuit filed by USC, Caron provides cash and airline and concert tickets to Walters and his roommates.

For many years, this underground marketplace flourished on college campuses without many repercussions. Now, NCAA officials say that is changing. They say they are more vigorously enforcing the organization's long-standing rules of amateurism, which say that athletes who sign agreements with, or take cash or gifts from, an agent jeopardize their eligibility.

Pacific-10 Conference Commissioner Tom Hansen and his office have been helping the NCAA conduct an agent-related investigation at five of his league's schools, resulting in the probable end of Walters's college career and suspensions for Edwards and USC linebacker Errick Herrin and defensive end Israel Ifeanyi. But now Hansen is about to declare defeat.

"It's a very insidious and difficult thing to police," Hansen said. "I think we've only seen the tip of the mountain. If we have more of this, I'm at the stage where we ought to let kids get agents. Let the agents advance them money against their later professional earnings, and that would help them financially and stop the threat of disrupting our competition."

Such a radical change would mean rewriting the most fundamental of all NCAA regulations.

"I know there are some {people who} would oppose this philosophically," Hansen said, "and this system would create a different set of problems because once you start that flow of money, how do you stop it from becoming a torrent? . . . But we need to have a very frank and open dialogue to this and other agent problems."

The current interest in the agent problem was triggered by the revelations last year by Sports Illustrated that agents had easy access to members of Florida State's 1993 national championship football team and that a representative of one agent took seven members of that team on a $6,000 shopping spree at a Foot Locker store in Tallahassee.

But the modus operandi used by the agent involved with the Florida State shopping spree is no longer state of the art. The latest wrinkle is agents hiring athletes' former teammates or current roommates to contact and cultivate the athlete for delivery to that agent.

These so-called runners, who investigators say are becoming younger and younger, easily blend into campus life. "Any high-profile program in the country is at risk," said Bill Saum, an NCAA enforcement representative who reviews investigations of cases involving agents.

A 29-year-old former track athlete named Jesse Martinez worked for five agents and a financial advisor from 1989 to 1994 before he decided to become a whistle-blower. He has provided the NCAA with the names of at least 20 pro prospects who allegedly jeopardized their eligibility at 11 high-profile schools: USC, Ohio State, Nebraska, Miami, Florida, Tennessee, Arizona, Arizona State, Texas A&M, Baylor and Houston.

Saum said he considers Martinez credible because his information on possible NCAA violations proved accurate in cases involving three star athletes -- Ohio State wide receiver Joey Galloway, Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips and Arizona basketball point guard Damon Stoudamire. All were declared ineligible temporarily, with Galloway missing two games at the start of the 1994 season and Stoudamire one at the end of last season.

But even with inside information -- Pac-10 campus sources speculate that in the case involving Walters, Herrin and Ifeanyi, Caron's ledger and phone list was provided to the NCAA by a third party -- it's hard for campus, conference and NCAA investigators to make a case without subpoena power. In addition, many agents deal in cash, and when they wire money or send checks, the payee is someone close to the athlete rather than the athlete himself -- so there is not a direct paper trail.

Such is the case with the Pac-10's ongoing investigation into allegations by Martinez that a San Diego-based agent paid $1,200 to USC star wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson in several checks allegedly made payable to an intermediary. Martinez provided the NCAA with a tape recording of the agent telling him about the $1,200 the agent allegedly had paid to Johnson. Johnson has denied that he took any money from an agent, and USC has allowed him to play in every game this season.

Martinez's attorney, Edward King of San Francisco, declined to allow Martinez to be interviewed for this report. But King confirmed Martinez's whistle-blowing activities, which were detailed last month by The Boston Globe.

The NCAA's membership might not go as far as Hansen suggests, but it appears to be taking the issue seriously. USC sued Caron, alleging, among other things, interfering with contractual relations (the athlete's scholarships), intentional interference with prospective economic advantage (the potential loss of revenue stemming from the team's record declining without Walters, Herrin and Ifeanyi), and inducing breach of contract (the scholarship agreement that states an athlete will remain eligible during the season).

Although Caron denied all the allegations, last week he agreed to an out-of-court settlement under which he will pay USC $50,000 in damages and let a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge issue a permanent injunction barring him from contact with USC athletes. The NCAA Eligibility Committee this summer instructed its staff to levy harsher penalties on athletes who break NCAA rules by taking money and gifts from agents or gamble on college sporting events.

Caron, a successful personal-injury lawyer in the Los Angeles suburb of Oxnard, could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Russell F. Sauers Jr., of Los Angeles, said yesterday that Caron is not commenting at this time because of "rumors last week of some kind of federal investigation."

Some are skeptical about whether the NCAA and its schools will remain vigilant about problems with agents.

"It's always been there and it only takes one or two events for there to be a national outcry; then it quietly fades into the sunset," said Ralph Cindrich, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1972, played in the NFL for four seasons and now represents about 50 NFL players. "There would have been a time in my youth when I thought something constructive could have -- or would have -- been done to prevent further occurences. Realistically, under the current rules, I just don't see that happening."

But the case involving UCLA's Edwards and the groceries may be an indication of how serious the NCAA is.

Although Edwards kept the groceries both times they were left for him, he "told us he did not know where the groceries came from . . . and we believed him," said David Price, the Pac-10's assistant commissioner for compliance.

Nevertheless, Edwards was suspended for one game by the NCAA's eligibility staff. The eligibility staff's director, Carrie Doyle, said the penalty was imposed "to send a message" to both athletes and agents. Edwards will play today after donating $150 to charity as restitution for the cost of the groceries. (According to sources, the informant who provided the NCAA with the ledger noting the alleged payments to USC's Walters also provided a notation from Caron's files that read, "Donnie Edwards-$150 Food.")

Although it is too late for the NCAA to fully address the agent problem at its 1996 convention, a number of interim solutions are being discussed by college athletic officials and others in the industry around the nation. They include:

Continuing to stiffen the penalties against athletes who accept gifts and money from agents or runners.

Making more money available to athletes in need. The NCAA currently has a $3 million emergency fund, administered by conference offices, for such athletes. An NCAA committee is trying to decide whether to use that fund to distribute another $10 million -- money the NCAA has received mainly from its eight-year, $1.7 billion contract with CBS for the rights to broadcast the Division I men's basketball tournament.

Increasing efforts to educate athletes, coaches and administrators about agents and runners.

Asking the NFL Players Association and the NFL to include in their next collective bargaining agreement a rookie wage scale similar to the one that took effect in the NBA this season. "How many agents would front serious dollars with a player who is known to go into a set amount and has only the possibility of realizing more serious profits after the player was in the league for four years?" Cindrich said. "I think you would have a dramatic drop in what occurs with agents and collegiate players."

Lobbying state legislatures to approve uniform and tough criminal penalties for agents who compromise the eligibility of NCAA athletes (22 states have such rules, but most do not serve as a deterrent) and pursuing civil cases against agents who, according to the NCAA, have abetted athletes in violating NCAA rules, as USC did against Caron.

"My view of it is rather simple," Arizona Athletic Director Jim Livengood told the NCAA News, the organization's weekly newspaper. "When we look back five, 10, 15 years from now in intercollegiate athletics, if we really are struggling, one of the reasons will be to get around this agents-runners issue. I would put stars and arrows and everything around it. Nothing we are involved with has a greater chance of being the ruination of college athletics than this issue."