AMONG the four major North American pro sports, only one team carries a regional banner - the New England Patriots, who play in Foxboro, Mass. The trend, however, is toward wider geographic identification.
In the last five years, baseball has added the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins, basketball the Minnesota Timberwolves, hockey the Florida Panthers, and football the Carolina Cougars, who begin play next season.
Altogether there are now 17 teams in the big four pro leagues whose metropolitan affiliations are obscured by their nominal state and regional identities. Mostly this is a case of casting a wider marketing net, tapping the natural geographic loyalties of people living beyond a single city's limits.
Certainly that was a strong motivation for the National Football League's Arizona Cardinals, who were the Phoenix Cardinals before this year. The team plays its games in Tempe, trains in Flagstaff, and broadcasts games in northern Arizona in the Navajo language.
This broad-brush approach also has its down side: Teams can appear in limbo, with no clear-cut roots. To grasp this point, consider this question: Where do baseball's Texas Rangers play their games? The guess here is that few out-of-staters can provide the correct answer, which is Arlington, situated between Dallas and Fort Worth.
TO celebrate the National Football League's 75th anniversary, teams have spent part of the season wearing old-looking uniforms. Practically all, however, incorporated one telltale modern sign - a large face guard on the helmet.
The guard has been partly a bane to the NFL, as it encourages players to use their heads indiscriminately, almost as weapons in some cases. Bucko Kilroy, a linemen in the 1950s and '60s, told Sports Illustrated that the face mask's introduction suddenly made a lot of players ``very brave.''
The league attempts to penalize those with battering-ram proclivities, but in these eyes, professional football has a long way to go.
Pros go to college
ONE of the most interesting developments in football this season is the growing number of former pro head coaches at the college level. Most don't seem eager to be recalled by the National Football League. Dan Henning at Boston College (formerly with the Atlanta Falcons and San Diego Chargers) told Sports Illustrated: ``In the pros you walk on eggs, worried about upsetting high-priced players.''
Others who have made the pro-to-college switch in recent years are:
* Bill Walsh, who went from the San Francisco 49ers to Stanford, with a stop in the broadcast booth.
* John Robinson, from the Los Angeles Rams to the University of Southern California.
* Gene Stallings, from the St. Louis Cardinals to the University of Alabama.
* John Mackovic, from the Kansas City Chiefs to the University of Texas.
* Joe Walton, from the New York Jets to Robert Morris College in Pennsylvania.
Lou Saban, who once coached O.J. Simpson with the Buffalo Bills, will build a program from scratch at Alfred State College in Alfred, N.Y., next season.
One coach who has gone in the opposite direction is Barry Switzer, the former University of Oklahoma coach, who gave up a career in business to take the Dallas Cowboys job. Switzer recently told the New York Times that serving as a surrogate father to college-age athletes can be a burdensome responsibility. ``There wasn't a day went by that one of 'em wasn't in my office with a crisis,'' he's quoted as saying.
Touching other bases
* Pop quiz: What is the the largest United States city without either a National Basketball Association or National Hockey League team?
* Larry Bird is, at least nominally, a member of the Boston Celtics' front office. He carries the title ``Special Assistant.'' A sportswriter who recently shared an elevator with Bird, however, doubts that the team's retired star does much in his new capacity. The tipoff? Neither he nor Bird knew which elevator button to press for the Celtic offices.
* Quiz answer: San Diego, which has lost two NBA franchises: the Rockets to Houston in 1971 and the Clippers to Los Angeles in 1984.