FOR A FORMER offensive lineman, Utah football coach Ron McBride sure has been thrown for a lot of losses this off-season. First there were major graduation losses. Then there were the losses of his two top assistant coaches. Then there was the loss of his popular TV commercial with LaVell Edwards and the nice paycheck that went with it.

If this had been one big football game, McBride would be backed up to his own end zone, looking at fourth-and-30.We're happy to report that the losses have stopped. McBride actually has made some gains this week, which was why he was smiling at Tuesday morning's press conference. You'd be smiling too if your boss had just given you a new five-year contract worth approximately $200,000 per year - and you didn't even ask for it.

McBride said he didn't care about the money as much as the length of the contract, which was just like McBride. If anyone else had said that, you'd roll your eyes and maybe gag, but not with McBride.

The Utah job is the only head coaching job he's ever really wanted. All he asks from life is a job coaching the Utes, a convenient pool in which to swim his lunchtime laps, a good novel and a couple of weeks on the beach each summer. Who knows what he spends money on, but it sure isn't clothes. He doesn't seem to have much use for money himself, except to give to his family. He routinely asks his wife Vicky for spare change as he's walking out of the house.

The Utes have decided to pay him anyway, but what McBride really likes about his new contract is that it gives him Utah's head coaching job until the end of the century, or until the age of 60, whichever you prefer. All of this seems only fair, if not ironic. It took McBride three tries before the Utes finally gave him the job; since then, the Utes have given McBride three contracts in five years.

The Utes are determined to keep McBride at Utah. Not that it's difficult. McBride is a Utah man, even if he does come from California, and now he has finally awakened a sleeping giant.

All-American Luther Elliss completed his eligibility last fall without ever playing on a losing team in four years at Utah; how many Ute football players can make that claim. The Utes hadn't been to a bowl since 1964 when Mac took over; last December they appeared in their third straight bowl game. Their Freedom Bowl win completed the best season in Utah history, which included a 10-2 record and a Top 10 ranking in the final national polls.

You can see why the Utes want McBride to stick around.

Even before last season was finished, the Utes decided to give Mac a new contract. Midway through the season, Athletic Director Chris Hill informed McBride that he was preparing a new contract for him, and this was several days BEFORE the Utes' big showdown with Colorado State. Hill wanted to demonstrate that the Utes' faith in McBride was not based on one game.

Hill repeated his promise of a new contract to McBride BEFORE the season's final game against archrival BYU for the same reasons, and this was after two straight losses. Similarly, Hill completed the deal BEFORE the lean times that are sure to come next year.

The Utes aren't banking on one game or one rivalry or one season with McBride; they like the direction of the program - up. They're willing to ride out the rebuilding years, beginning next season. The Utes have lost 16 starters from last year's team, including their quarterback, running back, wide receivers, three of their four defensive backs, and their top two pass rushers.

At least those losses were expected. Since then, McBride has lost offensive coordinator Rick Rasnick, who took a head coaching job at Eastern Michigan, and defensive coordinator Fred Whittingham, who took an assistant's job with the L.A. Raiders.

That was bad enough, but then McBride lost his Bank One commercials with Edwards. It seems that there was a conflict of interest because First Security Bank - a.k.a. Spence Eccles - is also one of the school's most generous boosters. Eccles never delivered any orders, but he made it clear that he was unhappy that Mac was doing commercials for a rival bank. So the McBride-Edwards duo is finished even before they could arrange a USO tour.

All this notwithstanding, Mac is smiling again this week. He always said he wanted the Utah job to be the last job of his life, and now that could very well be the case. He's got a long-term contract in his pocket. He's got spring practice set to start on Saturday. He's got his new coaching staff in place. He's got his "best recruiting class" coming into camp next fall.

All he needs is a few wins next fall.

And some spare change.