FOOTBALL COACHES LEAVE major college programs for a variety of reasons, but having an 8-2-1 season usually isn't one of them.

For that reason, Wayne Howard's departure from the University of Utah in 1981 - after he went 8-2-1 and came within a triumph over BYU of winning the WAC, getting a Top 20 ranking and gaining a bowl bid - continues to have a kind of haunting atmosphere to it. One that, like Elvis' death or D.B. Cooper's escape, grows with the years. Particularly as Utah football continues to struggle.Howard wasn't the greatest coach the Utes have ever had, but he's the greatest in the past 30 years. His overall mark of 30-24-2, .556, ranks No. 1 for the Utes since the days of Jack Curtice, who coached from 1950-57 and went 45-32-4, .584.

Ray Nagel (42-39-1, .519), Mike Giddings (9-12, .429), Bill Meek (33-31, .515), Tom Lovat (5-28, .152), Chuck Stobart (16-17-1, .485) and Jim Fassel (16-23, .411 . . . and counting) either preceded or succeeded Howard, all with inferior won-lost records. With the exception of Nagel and of course Fassel, all left under duress.

Howard remains, to this day, the only Utah coach to ever beat a LaVell Edwards-coached BYU team (in 1978).

But in 1981, after five seasons, Howard left. He didn't have another coaching job lined up. He went into private business. (He later coached on the junior college level in Long Beach, with success, but only briefly).

He packed up his 8-2-1 record and moved back to California.

"It was the strangest deal I've ever seen - where somebody successful just walked away," says Norm Sheya.

Sheya was the sports information director at Utah when Howard was hired for the 1977 season. Sheya left the U. of U. two seasons later, but not before getting to know Howard well, and appreciating his ability to coach football.

Sheya, like a lot of people, never could understand exactly why the coach left.

So he went to Long Beach last spring and asked him.

He details their meeting in a feature article in this month's issue of Utah Holiday magazine entitled "Why Wayne Walked."

If you're looking for the definitive answer, even from the source itself, you'll be disappointed. Because, when asked point-blank why he left, Howard told Sheya, "I just did. No real reason. I wasn't unhappy. I was not treated badly. I really never tried to get another job. I liked it there. They treated me well."

But there are plenty of contributing factors mentioned, factors that are inherent realities with coaching the Utes. Then, and now.

Like, for instance, looking in the stands during a BYU game in Salt Lake and seeing the color blue.

Howard saw the enemy, and it was us.

"You'd play the week before (the BYU game) at home and you'd have 25,000 in the stands and they would all be wearing red," Howard told Sheya. "The next week you play BYU and your season ticket holders, a quarter of them, would be wearing blue . . . I hated that. I couldn't believe that in the biggest game of the year, your season ticket holders are not really your fans. They are just Salt Lake people who are really BYU fans.

"When I really felt I had to make a decision . . . that's what did it. Who cares, I'm asking. I'm trying to make this decision that's really important, and the Utah program was a bag of (bleep) when I got there . . . When I left we're coming off an 8-2-1 record and guys are goin' into pro ball. I'm playing for the championship every year and doing all those things, and no one cared. No one cared at all. It didn't make any difference to them."

As if to bottom line his indictments, Howard's only sendoff was one small party organized by a local booster.

"Do you know what they gave me when I left?" he asked Sheya. "Jimmy Dunn got 10 guys together and they presented me with a sweater. I'll tell you who treated me best when I left was Mr. Mac (local clothier Mac Christensen, owner of the Mr. Mac stores). And he's a BYU guy!"

In the article, Howard talks at length about the Utah-BYU rivalry. "There's too much religion involved," he says. "I did not like that. I really didn't."

He got more letters for once saying he "hated" BYU - after a 38-8 loss in 1977 that saw Cougar quarterback Marc Wilson go back in the game to set an NCAA single-game passing record - than he ever got for any of his triumphs.

So in the end, he just left, leaving the Utes to mediocrity and Norm Sheya and a few others - although far from a majority or even a significant minority - wondering why.