June 30, 1997 12:00 PM

ADDRESSING GRADUATES OF OHIO University on June 14, Matt Lauer, 39, had a confession to make. “When I look at myself on television in a business suit,” said the Today show coanchor, “there is a 22-year-old kid in jeans and an OU T-shirt screaming to get out.”

In 1979 that kid was 21 and just four credits shy of a Bachelor of Science degree from the Athens, Ohio, university when WOWK-TV, the Huntington, W.Va., station he’d interned at his senior year, made him a dream-come-true offer: producing its noon newscast. “I decided a bird in the hand was worth four credits,” he says. Long after the bird turned into the NBC peacock, Lauer determined to finish what he began so long ago. He struck a bargain with OU president Robert Glidden to write a letter detailing his 18 years in TV to make up the credit shortfall. The letter completed, and the commencement address delivered, Lauer took his place with the Class of ’97 to receive his overdue sheepskin.

At an earlier reception, fellow grads from the School of Communications lined up to have their pictures snapped with the class celebrity. (“He’s getting more recognition than Hillary,” gushed one, referring to the First Lady, OU’s other speaker.) An elated Lauer sounded relieved. Not getting a degree “had always bothered me,” he said.

Great jobs kept getting in the way. After his stint at WOWK, Lauer moved from market to market until 1991. And though he had to spend the next year and a half waiting, he said, “for my phone to ring,” Today did call on Lauer to become its newsreader in 1994, and last January he succeeded Bryant Gumbel. “The degree is not going to help me in my career,” he says of his diploma (which will hang in his Manhattan office). “But this piece of paper means more to me at almost 40 than to most 21-year-olds.”

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