THE UNIVERSITY of Maryland at College Park, in reconstructing a busted athletic program, is a long way from national championships or national rankings. But the university is now competing for student-athletes with better academic credentials. It is trying harder to provide those students with better academic support, tutoring, and career, psychological and anti-drug counseling. Presumably the new athletic director now being sought will embrace and advance this trend.

The College Park campus had tried to boost its overall academic stature while maintaining an expensive, high-profile athletic program involving 23 varsity sports. Financial pressures were growing, and political pressures were strong. When former athletic director Lew Perkins tried to cut four other teams, for example, Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer objected to "backing off on several programs that made the university great."

Major college athletic programs throughout the nation are large, expensive and overextended. Many division IA athletic programs, according to the College Football Association, operate at a deficit, and so does College Park. The athletic program as a whole receives no direct funding from the university. Its athletic department, like most NCAA division IA athletic programs, depends on alumni boosters to pay for most of its athletic scholarships; the boosters fell some $500,000 short this past year. That forced the campus to cut future scholarship offerings, with no new scholarships in track, tennis, men's golf and women's gymnastics. Further cuts will undoubtedly be necessary. The men's basketball team, usually a revenue producer, faces severe economic sanctions by the NCAA because of past violations.

Those sanctions will not help the university's continued quest for a higher caliber of student-athlete, and that is what makes the search for a new athletic director so important. The person chosen must be able to wade through the many bickering factions within the athletic program. It will take considerable time to build a respected program on par with those offered at other prominent state and private universities, but the College Park campus should strive for nothing less.