BLACKSBURG, VA. -- As a gag, the pep band of Virginia Tech's archrival, the University of Virginia, spelled out SAT-400 at a football game a few years ago.

The reference to low test scores was all in fun, because even the most biased boosters of U-Va. recognize that Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, as Tech is formally called, long ago shed its cow-college reputation.

Tech's supporters say that perhaps only in Virginia, where U-Va. and William and Mary are ranked among the best colleges in the country, or in California, would a school so good not be considered the state's foremost public institution of higher education.

Now come revelations about Tech's athletic program that threaten to detract from the school's academic laurels and jeopardize the tenure of its president, William E. Lavery. He helped moved Tech into the top 50 colleges in the country in research and raised $110 million in private funds for academics and capital improvements.

A six-member committee, named by Lavery in April to investigate allegations of irregularities in the athletic program, reported Thursday that it found more than a dozen violations of recruiting regulations and shoddy academic performances by many scholarship athletes, including a zero graduation record in the past six years by basketball players.

Lavery, in an interview, acknowledged that his reputation and job are on the line. He said that since becoming president in 1975, he has found himself in a "cross fire of commitment" to help the athletic program go big time while serving an increasingly selective student body.

Unlike at most schools, at Tech the athletic department is outside the direct control of the administration. Since 1949, the semi-autonomous Virginia Tech Athletic Association has run the program, including hiring the athletic director and coaching staff. Neither the coaches' salaries nor revenue-producing activities such as television shows or endorsement contracts with athletic equipment companies are public information. However, Lavery, as a member of the association board, is privy to that data.

Lavery reacted to last week's report by promising to bring the athletic association "under the university's control" and to operate it as the school does the chemistry, English and engineering departments.

The president of the faculty Senate said consideration should be given to deemphasizing basketball and football.

The athletic problems at Tech come at a time when sports programs at colleges throughout the country are under scrutiny.

A recruiting and payments-to-players scandal at Southern Methodist University resulted in cancellation of the football program at that Texas school. At the University of Maryland, the cocaine- induced death of basketball star Len Bias last year prompted a furor on the College Park campus that led to the resignation of basketball coach Charles (Lefty) Driesell and a reduction in the number of athletic scholarships Maryland awards.

Lavery said he did "not agree totally" with the characterization, posed at a Blacksburg news conference Thursday, that in recent years he and the university's board of visitors had done "little more than rubber-stamp decisions" by former athletic director Bill Dooley and other coaches.

The 13-member athletic association council, however, could hardly be described as composed of outsiders. In addition to Lavery, its members are seven professors or deans, representatives of three student groups, an alumni representative (currently Haymarket businessman William C. Latham) and the athletic department's business manager. Ex-officio members are the athletic director and the president of the Virginia Tech Student Aid Association, the booster group that raises money for athletic scholarships.

Even if the association were disbanded and the athletic program operated as a regular department of the university, Lavery noted, the athletic program still would have to be self-sustaining, because Virignia law forbids the use of state funds for intercollegiate athletics.

One university official conceded that the strong-willed Dooley "didn't even ask the council" about many decisions he made while serving as athletic director. "He couldn't have gotten away with that if he had to go through the same procedures as the deans," the administrator said.

It was the pressure to produce a winning football team that resulted in Dooley being hired in 1978 as both athletic director and football coach, Lavery said.

"We had to give him both jobs to get a recognized coach," Lavery said of Dooley, who was wooed from the University of North Carolina, where he was head football coach. "It was a reasonable decision then," Lavery said, and it "turned out to be a very good business deal" because Dooley's teams went to three bowl games.

About three years ago, when Lavery was named to a presidents' commission of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, he said, he realized that the two jobs had to be separated. He conceded that others had come to that conclusion years earlier.

But when Lavery asked Dooley to give up one of the jobs, preferably that of athletic director, Dooley refused, sued Tech for breach of contract and got a $1 million out-of-court settlement. Dooley now is the football coach at Wake Forest University.

To play big-time sports, Lavery said, a school engages in a "balancing act" in which it must recruit quality athletes so it can schedule "the blue-chippers that draw the crowds" needed to finance the athletic program.

A former high school coach whose daughter is married to a former Tech star athlete, Lavery said that he overrode objections from Tech's admissions directors and allowed "one or two" otherwise unqualified student athletes to be enrolled.

Lavery said it is "difficult to compete with half the resources of your opponents," a problem tied to Tech's inability to join a major athletic conference such as the Atlantic Coast Conference, which has voted against admitting Tech. Membership in the ACC or a similar big-name league would generate greater television revenues and enhance opportunities to play in postseason tournaments.

Tech must work with a budget of about $5 million, while U-Va., which gets more than $2 million a year as the result of its membership in the ACC, has a budget of $8 million.

Dick Schultz, athletic director at U-Va., said his department "ensures its integrity" by being a regular department of the school, which submits its budget to the state for approval.

Schultz, who is leaving Virginia next month to become executive secretary of the NCAA, said outside corporations similar to Tech's used to be common. "There was one at Cornell when I was a student there," he said, adding that "only a handful" of major schools still operate that way.

"The feeling of the faculty is that athletics should be the toy department of the university," said Jarol B. Manheim, an associate professor of political science and the faculty senate president. He complained that the senate had "a great deal of difficulty" getting information from the athletic department during Dooley's tenure.

Under Dooley's successor, A.T. (Dutch) Baughman, "the relationship became much more cooperative," Manheim said, but Baughman quit June 4, complaining about his role in the investigation.

S.D. Roberts Moore, a Roanoke attorney who represented Dooley and now represents Baughman and basketball coach Charlie Moir, said that the athletic association has been "run and controlled by Lavery" and other Tech officials and that it would "take a magician" to make it look otherwise.

The question, Moore said, is whether Lavery "exercised the control" that he had. If he did not, "it was a dereliction of duty."

The basketball program has been under investigation since March 10, when two former basketball players went to the campus police department and made allegations of attempted extortion and violations of NCAA regulations. A special Montgomery County, Va., grand jury began looking into the extortion charges last week, and the Virginia attorney general is overseeing the overall investigation.