Barry Word, the University of Virginia tailback who was last season's Atlantic Coast Conference football player of the year, pleaded guilty in federal court today to conspiring to distribute cocaine as part of a four-state drug ring that involved other members of the team.

A detective testified that Word, a third round draft choice of the New Orleans Saints and one of four former Virginia football players named in drug charges, had begun using cocaine at parties here "where the drug was laid out for the taking."

Howard C. Petty Jr. and Kenneth P. Stadlin, members of the 1985 squad, also have been charged in the case, as has Kevin A. Turner, a former squad member who lived in the same apartment building as Word.

City police Detective J.E. (Chip) Harding said today that Word had told him that he would buy as much as an ounce of cocaine for $2,000 from one of the two dozen people charged in the ring, take a gram for himself and sell the rest to Turner.

Turner, who left the team in 1982 after suffering a knee injury, would in turn sell the cocaine to others, the officer said.

Word, 22, got more bad news today as his hopes for a professional career appeared to evaporate. The Saints announced they have no intention of offering him a contract, and the team's general manager, Jim Finks, said Word had been declared a free agent, available for any professional team without compensation to the Saints.

"We have made a decision that we won't offer Barry a contract," Finks said in a telephone interview. "We feel it's not in our best interests to bring him in."

Word appeared in the federal courthouse here this morning and told District Judge J. Harry Michael he knew from "top to bottom" what sentences he could face when he is sentenced Oct. 6. He could be given up to 15 years in prison as well as a $125,000 fine, prosecutors said.

Word, who set team rushing records before he was suspended from the university for academic reasons last year, was released on a $50,000 bond and was not available for comment.

Turner, 25, who had made the university football team without an athletic scholarship, appeared before Michael on Monday and was sentenced to five years in federal prison on cocaine distribution charges, as was former Virginia law school student Ruben D. Vahos. They were among the first arrested in the investigation.

Detective Harding said in court that Word, who was a prep star in southern Virginia's Halifax County, told him of making at least four trips in the spring of 1985 to get cocaine from Russell L. Miller, 26, of Charlottesville, who is charged in connection with the ring.

Petty, who had been expected to be Virginia's starting tailback this fall, accompanied Word on several of the trips and also obtained cocaine, Harding said.

"Word said he believed Petty took his cocaine to Stadlin," Harding said, implicating the fourth football player charged in the distribution scheme. Stadlin then would distribute the cocaine, Harding said.

When asked how a student could afford to pay the large sums paid for the cocaine, Harding said that most of the cocaine passing from Miller to Petty and Word was "fronted," or bought on credit. Harding said Word had told him he owed Miller $2,000, and that Turner owed Word $500.

Word's involvement with cocaine, according to the officer, came when his brother Kenny, who also played for Virginia, roomed with James Malcolm Luck III in the fall of 1984. The detective said Luck was a cocaine supplier who also was charged last week.

Petty and Stadlin, also charged with the same offense as Word, will be arraigned Sept. 8.

Petty, who has said through a lawyer he will not contest the charge, had no comment on the drug probe when reached today. Stadlin, a place kicker, was unavailable for comment, but The Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star newspaper quoted him as saying he still hoped to play professional football.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Morgan E. Scott Jr. said Word had been "cooperative." Harding testified that when Word was approached at his apartment in November 1985 by drug task force investigators, "he was expecting us. He said he knew what he had done was wrong, and he wanted to set the record straight and get on with his life," Harding said.

At the university, coaches and players said they hoped to put the charges behind them and remove the stigma from the team. "Whatever it was they did wrong . . . they got caught," coach George Welsh said.

Welsh held a 15-minute team meeting that 40 players attended. It was his first meeting with the team since the players were charged, but Welsh said afterward that he had not heard of Word's plea and that it had not been discussed.

"The only purpose of the team meeting was to say that I was upset about the charges but it's over and we have to face those facts," Welsh said. "If it has to be talked out, we need to do it in the next couple of days and get it done, so it doesn't track us into the season."

Senior Antonio Rice, one of the team's three captains, said the team would not forget its former teammates. "The guys who have gotten into trouble, they are like brothers to us," he said. "We won't outcast them. We can't condone what they did, but right now they need friends."

A drug task force at the university released preliminary results from a student survey that showed Virginia students are slightly less likely to use cocaine and marijuana than others nationwide. The students are more likely to use amphetamines -- especially "ecstasy," a mild stimulant some experts say can cause permanent brain damage, the survey said.

"We have a general sense of dismay that it's as bad as it is, and a sort of hesitant relief that it's not worse than it is," said task force chairman Dr. John A. Owen Jr.