When the D.C. public schools open their football practice sessions last week, five experienced coaches were missing from the sidelines. All five had been caught in the city budget cuts that eliminated their teaching positions and, consequently, their coaching jobs.

Six other coaches have been named to take their places but, as the football season gets underway, there are some serious questions to be answered:

Is there an attempt to deemphasize athletics in the D.C. schools?

Will the school system, which now pays D.C. coaches, cut off their funds in the future -- as they nearly did this year?

Are all of the new football coaches competent to prepare students for college football?

Will the changes in coaches encourage athletes to transfer to high schools they feel will better prepare them for college football?

These questions and others are being asked by coaches, parents and athletes in an atmosphere of confusion, frustration and paranoia.

The recent D.C. budget cuts hit the public school system hard. A number of other teachers were fired, along with the coaches. Some of the coaches who were cut had just begun to rebuild their football squads.

Mckinley, Cardozo, Anacostia, Bell, and Wilson High Schools all will have new coaches. Football programs in other schools also will be affected by the loss of at least six key assistant coaches.

The $900 annual fee that coaches are paid comes to about 25 cents an hour, according to one coach. It does not put more food on the table. But it can at least help to justify the countless hours many coaches spend away from their families.

Coaches will tell you that the money doesn't mean that much to them. They put in so many hours before the start of the season and often on Saturdays and Sundays, they say, because of their dedication and commitment to your people. But how long can a person psych himself to give so much time and effort when there is no reward?

At four of the schools, the new coaches have worked as assistants to the men they replaced. As a result, the new coaches know how things run. But the question is, do they have the experience, talent and organizational ability to handle head coaching jobs?

The answer won't be clear until the season is over.

Certainly, the new coaches will find that the scene is different from the top of the mountain than from down below.

Football continues to become more specialized and sophisticated, particularly on the college level. D.C. athletes need a large amount of technical know-how and expertise if they are going to compete for scholarships with athletes from other parts of the nation.

But some parents are worried: One troubled father vowed: "Before I allow my son to be coached by someone who doesn't know a goal post from a field marker, I'll go in debt to send him to a private school."

Since there are no firm rules against students transferring to different schools within the city, there is now a possibility that unhappy athletes might move to schools they feel will give them a better chance to develop and offer more opportunities for scholarships.

As one coach remarked: "Several of my players told me in no uncertain terms that if I was not coming back, they would surely transfer. I'm not saying that is right, but that's the way they felt."

Such transfers, if they take place, almost certainly would create a disparity in the distribution of talent among the schools, as well as chaos for those teams where many players felt assured of starting positions.

In the past three years, the D.C. schools have had more and more success producing blue-chip athletes. These are the students who are able to compete physically and academically in major college athletic programs.

Six D.C. athletes are now performing for Purdue, the University of Illinois, Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Indiana University. Their successes have helped establish a new credibility for D.C. athletes, who used to have to attend second-rate colleges because of this city's reputation for turning out athletes who could not make it at the big schools.

Given the problems in the D.C. schools, how do Big Ten and Big Eight recruiters view the situation?

"We are now getting to the point where the coaches in D.C. are helping prepare their young student athletes for major college football," observed a recruiter from a university in the Big Ten conference. "But if the (recent) situation is like I've heard, then it might affect the thinking of recruiters assigned to this area."

While the situation grows bleaker day by day, there still is time to change the direction of events, if anyone cares enough about the future of the D.C. athletic program. The real tragedy would be if the dedication of the coaches and the efforts of the young people who have worked their way to top of college athletics went for naught.