Boston — Many a high-school coach has this slogan posted somewhere in the locker room: ''When the going gets tough, the tough get going.''
The words are meant to inspire student-athletes to greater effort. But in the thinking of some of those same coaches, the going could hardly be tougher than it is today.
Tight budgets, coupled with rising costs and declining enrollments, are straining public education to the limit. And the first place many school boards and administrators look when the time comes to make cuts is their sports programs. Basic classroom instruction, the argument goes, must be preserved at all costs, whereas sports are the most extra of extracurricular activities.
Across the United States, public schools are dropping some team sports altogether. Others are reducing coaching staffs to the bare minimum, restricting their teams to playing opponents close to home, and using uniforms and equipment past the point they normally would. Many schools are even charging user fees of would-be athletes.
Ironically, all this is happening at a time when the quality of high-school athletic competition is higher than ever before, according to expert observers.
The situation is particularly poignant because in many communities high-school sports are a major source of entertainment and pride.
''Conditions in the schools are not bright,'' says Ross Merrick of the National Council of Secondary School Athletic Directors in Reston, Va. ''I don't see any daylight for athletic directors carrying on their programs the way they'd like to.''
California ''sort of invented the problem, with Prop. 13,'' says Thomas Byrnes, executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation. That tax-cutting measure, passed by the voters in 1978, has affected the level of programs all across the public sector.
Even schools with outwardly successful sports programs aren't necessarily insulated from financial problems. Killingly High School in Danielson, Conn., won the state football championship in its division last year, but athletic director Nelson King Jr. thinks he can foresee harder times.
The school is still able to field 16 teams, he says. ''But if you were to call me a year from now, or even a couple of weeks from now, when the school budget is voted on, I might be talking differently--especially if we get $10,000 less than we're asking for.''
Few in the athletic community blame the financial problem solely on Title IX of the US Education Amendments Act of 1972. But Title IX, which mandates evenhanded funding of girls' and boys' sports in public schools, is undeniably contributing to the burden, they say.
Backers of sports argue that it is rare for an interscholastic program to cost more than 3 percent of a local school budget after the revenue from paid admissions is subtracted.
''If playing sports, or marching in the band, or being on the debating team are important to kids--and I don't think anybody argues that part of it--then I don't know why they aren't funded just like the English Department,'' complains Brice Durbin, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations. The Kansas City-based group has more than 20,000 member schools in all 50 states.
To call attention to the problem, Mr. Durbin's group started National High School Activities Week two years ago, with former President Gerald Ford as chief spokesman and the McDonald's and Seven-Up companies as sponsors. A series of television programs on the subject also is forthcoming, he says.
Durbin and others point to studies showing that participation in extracurricular activities, including sports, helps keep students in school. According to one recent study, 94 percent of US high-school dropouts were not involved in such programs.
User fees, however, are virtually certain to discourage future participation by many students, critics say. The fees hit hard at those from large or low-income families as well as at the marginal athlete who can't be sure he or she will make the team.
Other emergency measures, such as employing part-time coaches and allowing booster clubs to raise money for sports programs, also draw fire from opponents. Mr. Byrnes says all but one of the coaches of his son's high-school football team are not regular school employees.
Dr. Merrick is opposed to the hiring of part-time coaches from outside the school system. ''I call it rent-a-coach,'' he says. ''It's unsound. It becomes a hobby, so they become Vince Lombardis''--a reference to the late professional football coach who is remembered for proclaming that ''Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing.''
Rockford, Ill., school officials rejected a booster club plan to raise $350, 000 for the reinstatement of sports to the public school program in 1977. Reason: The boosters at the time weren't interested in supporting other extracurricular activities, also dropped for one year when voters failed to approve a school bond issue.
High-school sports will survive in some form, sources agree, but none are sanguine about how they will weather the financial tempests.
''For so long, education got everything it wanted and wasn't held accountable ,'' says Bill Gaine, assistant executive director of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. ''Now education has to prove that everything it's doing is worthwhile.''