When Starlit Aquatic Club in Fairfax County, a national powerhouse in swimming for nearly a decade, recently announced it would not rehire first-year coach Allan Cardwell, the decision touched off controversy between swim team members, who largely supported the coach, and club management, who approved the plan to release Cardwell.

The controversy was quieted somewhat when Starlit announced last week that Cardwell's replacement would be Holger Dietze, who led Starlit to national prominence in his seven years as head coach. A year ago, Dietze left Starlit to coach the women's team at Stanford University.

But now there is another potential problem.

Though Dietze said in a published report last week he would be returning to Starlit, he has not signed a contract with Starlit nor has he informed Stanford he is leaving, according to officials at Starlit and at Stanford.

The 30-year-old Dietze is in Romania at an international swim meeting until July 29 and could not be reached for comment. However, his wife Mary this week said through a family spokesman she could not confirm her husband's coaching plans for the fall.

Despite the lack of a formal contract with Dietze, Starlit officials insist he will be returning to the club this fall.

"We only have a very strong verbal commitment with Holger, which came July 14," said James R. Brock, president of Golf Course Specialists Inc., which leases the Starlit facilities and manages the swim program. Brock said the agreement with Dietze included a long-term commitment by Dietze and that he expects Dietze to "be on the property for several years."

At Stanford, however, athletic director Andy Geiger says as far as he knows, Dietze intends to return this fall. "I haven't heard anything from Holger," Geiger said."I heard a rumor that he was talking to the people at Starlit so I called them last week and they confirmed that they were talking. Sure, I'd like for him to return. He's a fine swim coach."

Officials at Stanford, including Geiger, assistant swim coach Peggy Haslach and sports information director Chris Preinsberger, said Dietze's first year as head coach of the women's team had been very successful.

Under Dietze, the officials said, the team placed second in the nation, and Dietze has recruited five nationally ranked high school swimmers, including two members of the 1980 Olympic squad, for next year's team.

Whatever Dietze's situation -- and Starlit official Brock seems certain Dietze will return to Starlit in time to conduct tryouts Aug. 4 -- it is clear that Cardwell, 28, is out as head coach. Brock says he decided not to rehire Cardwell, who had been Dietze's assistant from 1974 to 1977, becuse of declining membership on the swim team as well as concerns about morale and leadership.

The drop in membership also has meant a drop in income -- it costs $30.25 to $38.50 a month plus initiation fee to swim for Starlit.

William A. Torpey, a consultant hired by Brock several months ago to study the swim team's operation, says he concluded "a coach was needed who was more responsive to management."

Torpey, who also has been a consultant to the owners of Starlit for several years, contends Cardwell was slow to react to managerial requests. "Allan's a fine young man and I could give him a high recommendation for his ability as a coach on a technical basis," Torpey says. "But when management receives criticism of the program and it's passed along to the coach, he's expected to deal with it. Maybe Allan was in it above his head."

Cardwell believes criticism of the program undre his direction is unjustified and premature.

"I think you can easily come to the conclusion that I've been made a scapegoat here because the time allowed me to get my program off the ground hasn't been sufficient," Cardwell says. "When normal, everyday parent problems against me came up, management sat on them and that gave them full credence."

Added one parent who supported Cardwell: "There were really only a couple of parents who complained about Allan. Management just chose to listen to them."

Torpey admits it was he who contacted Dietze about the possibility of returning to Starlit.

"Starlit had some banner years under Mr. Dietze," Torpey says. "This past year was not what could be called a banner year for Starlit."

Two years ago, the last that Dietze was at Starlit, the swim team ranked eighth nationally; this year, that ranking dropped to 113th. Team membership has declined slightly from about 350 at the beginning of last fall to about 325 currently.

In addition, Brock said parents were unhappy with the number of high school seniors on the team -- six out of 13 -- who had received college scholarships. Neither Brock nor Cardwell knew the number of scholarships awarded in the past.

Finally, although more Starlit swimmers than ever (23) qualified for junior nationals, all but two turned in less than their best times during national competition.

Responding to charges that Starlit has slipped under his direction, Cardwell claims the membership decline is the result of little or no recruiting by Dietze last summer.

"By the time I came on, a lot of area kids had already made up their minds about their fall sports and they weren't choosing swimming," Cardwell says. "I tried to get the program going by advertising in newspapers and that got a certain number to try out, but we took 10 to 15 swimmers we might not normally have taken.

"I had a whole recruiting program prepared for this fall. Even Mr. Brock said it was impressive. But when I asked him for a contract before I put it into effect, he said no."

Says Brock: "Allan was doing that (the recruitment program) at my direction. What he showed me was good, but it was incomplete."

Regarding the poor showing in the junior national competition, Cardwell concedes his swimmers peaked too soon. "I wanted to make sure they qualified, so I pushed them in their winter meets," he says. "But I learned that I didn't taper them enough after they qualified."

With regard to the drop in national ranking, Cardwell says that some of Starlit's better swimmers are "a little younger, just ready to break into the national scene."

Cardwell clearly has the support of his swimmers. About 40 senior members of the team sent a petition to Brock and Torpey opposing Cardwell's dismissal.

"We thought it was a raw deal for Allan," says Audrius Barzdukas, 18, who drafted the petition. "We were never asked how we felt toward Allan. I think Holger is great; I swam for him and we get along just fine. But I think Allan is suffering because of a few disgruntled parents.

"Allan did so much. He got us a new weight room, he got a video tape so we could tape our strokes during practice and then watch our strokes; he was there seven days a week for practices. On Sundays he organized paper drives so we could make extra money for the team, and many times he was left there stacking papers by himself."

Barzdukas and other swimmers say the prospect of Dietze returning complicates their feelings because they like Dietze and Cardwell. But they also are upset because they say management never gave them specific reasons for its dissatisfaction with Cardwell.

"A swim team is not a democratic affair," says Brock. "When a coach says to do something, it must get done. I'm satisfied at this point that we have made a decision that is best for the team."