WHAT does the coach of a college football team on a winning streak that was the envy of every NCAA college say to his players at the start of the season?
If you're Peter Yetten, part-time coach (and fulltime high school physical-education instructor) of the Bentley College Falcons, you begin with a reality check.
''I tell the kids that if they were great players, they probably would have received scholarships to bigger and better schools,'' Coach Vetten says, ''and it's the same with me.''
Last Saturday, under sable skies in the woods of Waltham, Mass., some 5,000 enthusiastic fans watched - with bated breath - the end of Bentley's improbable winning streak. The Falcons lost a cliffhanger to Stonehill College, 39-36. It was Bentley's first NCAA Division II regular-season loss in almost three years.
Bentley's 30-win streak is the best by any NCAA football team this decade, one more than the Miami Hurricanes' 29 victories. It was the fifth-longest in NCAA Division II history.
But, points out Andrew Nicholson, a Bentley alum, ''What's really fascinating about these habitual winners is not the record itself, but how it was accomplished.'' Big winners in college football - teams like Ohio State or Notre Dame - usually have big money, a long tradition, and at least one full-time coach.
Bentley, with 3,100 students, has none of these things. It does have a lot of its players on the Dean's List, though.
Falcons Football began as a club sport in 1972. In 1988, it climbed to Division III, and two short years later ventured into Division II.
''That's how far back our football history goes,'' Mr. Nicholson says. ''When I went to Bentley in the '50s, bowling was the sport.''
The secret behind Bentley's success is head coach Peter Yetten, says linebacker coach Paul Wessel, who played under Yetten as a Bentley wide receiver from 1984 to 1987.
Since taking over in 1978, Yetten's teams have amassed a 123-35-2 record. That's a winning percentage of .780. Not bad for a part-time coach.
Yetten's day job is at Waltham High, where he teaches physical education. His seven assistant coaches also have other jobs.
So how did eight part-time coaches build a football team with the fifth-best record in NCAA Division II history and the best for a New England college this century and still have a squad with a combined grade-point average of about 3.0?
Yetten, a three-sport star (football, hockey, baseball) at Boston University, says he relies on two things to produce true student-athletes: He emphasizes academic responsibilities and nurtures a sense of family among his players and coaches, in which everyone knows his rights and responsibilities.
Next week, armed with a $1,000 recruiting budget, ''plus all the time I can afford,'' Yetten will embark on a search to find replacements for his graduating seniors.
Yetten says he strongly believes that a good education takes priority over football. ''What we really try to do during recruitment,'' Yetten says, ''is sell Bentley, based on its educational merit.'' Bentley, founded in 1917, is primarily a business school.
''I tell the kids 'You've come to Bentley College as a student first and as a football player second,' '' Yetten says.
That approach separates Bentley from the ubiquitous more-brawn-than-brain football stereotype. Last spring, 18 of 71 Falcon players - nearly one-fifth - made the Dean's List. Eight were nominated for GTE Academic All-America, a national award that recognizes student-athletes.
Despite its winning streak, Bentley does not figure among the Top 20 Division II teams nationwide. Bentley has a nonscholarship football program, Nicholson explains. ''They are two different leagues.'' The Falcons would be no match for scholarship Division II schools like North Alabama or Pittsburg State (Kan.).
But win or lose, what stands out to most players and coaches is a strong sense of family and bonding here.
Senior Mike Rymsha, who was 25-0 as a starting quarterback until Saturday's defeat, says the Bentley brotherhood is what appeals to him most.
''I realized I really enjoyed the relationship I had with Bentley,'' says Wessel, who quit as assistant coach at Harvard and came back to coach at his alma mater.
''We're not 'The Brady Bunch,' either,'' Yetten says, ''but we remind ourselves that in a family everybody contributes. The coaches, the players, the managers, and every kid is important.''
The winning streak may be broken, but the family tradition will continue.
At a football dinner last week a graduating senior solemnly told his teammates, ''You make sure you treat the freshmen coming in just the way we treated you.''