He has gone from a form of football purgatory to the lip of the NFL's penthouse. From the cold, stark environs of Buffalo to a shot at a Tequila Sunrise in Miami.

Ted Tollner breaks into that warm, hearty laugh of his and shakes his head."This has been fun for us, fun for all of us," says the Buffalo Bills' assistant coach. "To be with a team experiencing this much success after losing for so long . . . well, there's been a lot of pride and confidence generated in turning something like this around."

There was little pride and confidence left two years ago, when Tollner suddenly discovered he had been fired as USC's head football coach after four seasons on the job. It was a tough time for this man who has always been associated with winning programs.

His sentence? To leave one of college football's premier jobs for a position in one of America's grimmest cities. Going from head coach at USC to assistant in charge of pass receivers for the Buffalo Bills couldn't have been easy on the ego. Or the heating bill.

But then, Tollner's strength always has been his firm belief in a) His own ability, and b) The future.

"A lot of my thoughts about the SC situation have faded," he says now. "I'll always have some reflection, but the first year was a lot tougher. I really don't dwell on it too much anymore."

Lately, he has been too busy to dwell on much of anything except Buffalo's march toward the American Football Conference championship. The Bills play Cincinnati's high-powered Bengals on Sunday for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXIII in Miami.

"You don't know how exciting it is to realize you're only one game away from the big one," Tollner says. "But we all know how tough Cincinnati figures to be. We've already lost here once (35-21) this year, but we honestly feel we can play a lot better than we did that day."

To beat the Bengals this afternoon, much of the Buffalo pressure will be on Tollner's side of the ball. Everyone knows the Bills' defense is strong enough to get to the Super Bowl.

But the offense has been struggling these past few weeks. "The frustrating thing is, we've been moving the ball really well," notes Ted. "We just haven't scored many points. We keep running out of downs right near the goal line, but thank goodness our field-goal guy (Scott Norwood) has had a great year."

Andre Reed, one of Tollner's prize students, hasn't had too bad a year himself. He has caught a team-record 71 passes for 968 yards and six touchdowns.

"Andre does everything you really want a receiver to do, even though he doesn't have that blazing deep speed," explains Tollner. "He's done a great job for us."

Reed and quarterback Jim Kelly will need to be at the top of their game if they hope to match touchdowns with Boomer Esiason and the point-happy Bengals.

Tollner thinks it can be done, especially if the weather holds and Kelly can heat up the Bills' passing offense.

"Kelly is really something," Ted says. "He's just a tremendous young guy. He's a competitor and very talented, and he's gone out of his way to fit into our scheme. He's a man you know would like to stand back there and throw the ball like Dan Marino. But he understands what Marv (Levy, the head coach) is trying to do and he has attempted to blend the running with the passing.

"I think Marv's right, too. You have to be able to run the ball to play consistently in the weather we have in Buffalo."

Not that Tollner expects to spend the rest of his coaching days in Buffalo. As a matter of fact, he was among the finalists for the Stanford head coaching job that went to 49ers assistant Dennis Green last week.

"The Stanford athletic director flew here and we had a nice chat," Tollner says. "But the next step was to go to California and meet some other people. I couldn't do that until our team was eliminated from the playoffs. They understood, and after Green was selected, I called them and thanked them for considering me."

Others are likely to consider him in the future. Tollner is too bright and too enthusiastic not to wind up as a head coach again, probably at a big-time university.

It wouldn't hurt, of course, if he could include a trip to the Super Bowl on his resume.

"That would be nice, I have to admit," Ted says. "But I'm optimistic about my future, whatever happens. In my own mind, I think I'm a good football coach. Everywhere I've been, we've won championships. So I feel good about continuing that trend."

As for his feelings toward USC ... well, yes, he knows the Trojans, most of whom he recruited, captured the Pac-10 championship. And he is aware they lost for the second straight time in the Rose Bowl, where, by the way, Tollner happened to win in his only appearance.

"Sure, I knew they'd be good this year, no matter who was coaching them," Tollner says. "But I don't want anybody to take that the wrong way. Any sour grapes are for somebody else's perspective."

The only perspective this man presently is concerned with is the one that could take him from cold, bleak Buffalo, through Cincinnati's brisk Riverfront Stadium and on to the sun-splashed beaches of Miami.

From football purgatory to the Super Bowl.

Ted Tollner's heartwarming comeback is only one more victory away.