NFL coaching shuffle; rookie Cummings shines; baseball bits

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Too much is probably being made over the fact that Kay Stephenson, the new head coach of the Buffalo Bills, has never been in charge of an entire football program before above the high school level. Maybe if that's all Stephenson had ever done, Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson's decision to hire Kay ahead of two former NFL head coaches might be questioned. But Stephenson has been a pro quarterback coach under Chuck Knox since 1977, so he's familiar with what it takes to put points on a scoreboard.

Stephenson has already said he won't hesitate to let Joe Ferguson throw on first down, something that Knox (who asked Wilson for his release and was not fired) frowned upon. Chuck, who has since signed on as the head man of the Seattle Seahawks, will make defense his No. 1 priority.

Meanwhile there is considerable speculation, after a highly successful season , as to why Walt Michaels suddenly retired as head coach of the New York Jets. Some theorize that he experienced coaching burnout. But Michaels denies that, saying he simply wants to spend more time with his family. Others, meanwhile, feel friction with management caused the departure. Michaels and Jet president Jim Kensil quarreled on the return flight from the AFC championship game, which New York lost to Miami. Joe Walton, the club's offensive coordinator for the past two years, will replace Michaels.

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While the opinion isn't necessarily unanimous, this season's best National Basketball Association rookies are probably forwards Terry Cummings of the San Diego Clippers and James Worthy of the Los Angeles Lakers. If the voting at the end of the season is close, look for Cummings to win on the basis of having played many more minutes as a starter than Worthy has coming off the bench. Terry also leads the Clippers in scoring and rebounding. Of course if the situation were reversed, meaning that Worthy had been drafted by San Diego and Cummings by LA, then the world would be hearing a lot more about James than they have so far. Worthy's first step to the basket from the top of the key often peels the trademark off what Philadelphia's Julius Erving has been doing for years.

The Phoenix Suns, in conjunction with the Phoenix Opportunities Industrialization Center, have donated 400 copies of a textbook entitled ''Black History and Achievement in America'' to schools throughout Arizona. . . When the NBA holds its annual college player draft on June 28, the first six seniors to be taken will probably be center Ralph Sampson of Virginia; forward Antonie Carr of Wichita State; forward Dale Ellis of Tennessee; center Steve Stipanovich of Missouri; center Randy Breuer of Minnesota; and forward Sidney Green of Nevada-Las Vegas.

Russ Nixon, who replaced John McNamara as manager of the Cincinnati Reds partway through last season, says he'll devote most of spring training to working on fundamentals, an admirable idea. The problem with that kind of bland, yet sincere, statement, is that fans feel they've heard it all before and tend to dismiss it as standard club propaganda. Anyway, the key to the 1983 Reds isn't how often they hit the cutoff man, but whether Johnny Bench can recapture his misplaced RBI swing. While 38 runs batted-in might be acceptable from Alex Trevino, Cincinnati needs at least 90 from Bench to improve significantly, a figure John hasn't approached since 1977.

By hiring former San Diego, Boston, and Texas manager Don Zimmer as his third base coach, owner George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees has protected himself in the event of any serious future disagreements with Billy Martin. Billy knows this and is willing to go along with it, but reportedly only after getting assurances from George that he won't interfere with what Martin does on the field. Meanwhile, because there are better defensive outfielders on the Yankee roster than free agent Steve Kemp, he may end up playing more than half his games as the team's designated hitter. In five previous years with the Detroit Tigers and one with the Chicago White Sox, Kemp batted .285, hit 108 homers, and drove in 520 runs. Scouts say that Steve will have to make an adjustment in his swing to take advantage of the power alleys in Yankee Stadium.

Ed Snider, owner of the Phildelphia Flyers, would like to change the exhibition format that has a team of National Hockey League All-Stars playing the Soviet Union. Snider would replace the All-Stars with the defending Stanley Cup champions. . . Shirley Muldowney is one of the superstars of drag racing, a sport in which you take a car that looks like a praying mantis from 0 to 240 m.p.h. in six seconds. Aurora Productions has made a two-hour movie of Muldowney's life entitled ''Heart Like a Wheel.'' It stars Bonnie Bebelia and Beau Bridges and will be released through Twentieth Century Fox. The final scenes were shot at this year's winter nationals at Pomona, Calif.

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