Four years after the University of Maryland decided to reform its athletic program in the wake of the cocaine overdose death of basketball star Len Bias, the academic performance of its athletes has improved overall but many men's basketball and some football players continue to fall far below the university's academic standards.

The College Park campus has changed admission policies for athletes and spent more than a million dollars to give players better tutoring and career counseling. Coaches have been forbidden to pressure professors to bend rules for players in the classroom, and the faculty has more say over athletes' academic eligibility to play sports.

Overall, high school credentials of Maryland football and basketball recruits are now near the top in the Atlantic Coast Conference, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. Athletes on the College Park campus also have higher grade-point averages and graduation rates than they did a few years ago.

But the school has continued to admit athletes who do not meet the university's regular admissions standards, especially in men's basketball and football, the two sports that had the greatest academic problems in the mid-'80s but that can produce revenue for the athletic department.

About half of the 111 scholarship football and men's basketball players admitted to Maryland during the last four years did not meet the school's regular admission criteria. In 1990, of the 16 exceptions made for athletes, one was a men's basketball player and six were football players.

The freshman scholarship players on the men's basketball team during the 1989-90 season had an average Scholastic Aptitude Test score of 808 out of 1600 -- about 140 points below the average for Maryland athletes that year and nearly 300 points below the average for all new College Park students.

Last year was "a disaster" academically for the Terrapins basketball team, said history professor Richard T. Farrell, chairman of the campus athletic council's academic committee.

Two of the three freshman recruits from that season who are still at Maryland were classified as "academically dismissed" at the end of the spring semester, according to their transcripts. One of those players had spring grades of a D and three Fs. The third player was put on academic warning for the second semester in a row.

But all three remained eligible to play basketball this season by making up credits and failed grades in summer school, which offers abbreviated courses in a less-intense atmosphere.

Last summer, 58 of 97 football players and eight of the men's basketball players attended summer school. Some, including five basketball players, would have been ineligible for competition this season based on the credits and grades they had earned during the fall and spring alone.

"I didn't adjust, that's all," said sophomore Evers Burns, a basketball player who flunked out after his freshman year, passed five courses in summer school and was readmitted. "I put other stuff before academics."

"We're going to go through some rough years. . . . We right now are {seeing} the results of the years of turmoil," said Gerald S. Gurney, the associate athletic director hired in 1987 to devise a new system of academic counseling for athletes.

"My sense is that things are getting a bit better but they could get better still," said Andy Geiger, the athletic director who came to Maryland this fall after 11 years at Stanford University, an institution known for both academic excellence and a strong athletic program. "Our image in the past hasn't been that high. The whole place is trying to come up in every way it can."

"We've got a good program in place, and the dividends are beginning to show," said College Park campus president William E. Kirwan.

According to faculty members, athletic officials and athletes, academic progress of the school's revenue team members has been hindered by turmoil within the athletic department over the last few years, including a turnover of coaches, change in athletic directors and a three-year probation of the men's basketball team by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Last March, the NCAA Committee on Infractions ruled that Maryland could not participate in its postseason basketball tournament for two years, or appear on live television for one year for committing 27 rules violations, most during the tenure of coach Bob Wade from 1986 to '89. According to the committee, the school's major violations were selling complimentary tickets and not maintaining "institutional control."

Campus officials say, in trying to improve the academic performance of scholarship athletes, they also are confronting a stubborn culture, particularly in the realm of big-time football and basketball, where many of the players come from less affluent households and have had less preparation for college than the average Maryland student.

The pressure to field winning teams is intense -- so much so that some players and coaches let it overwhelm academic concerns.

Like Burns, basketball player Kevin Chamberlain flunked out and was readmitted after summer school. "In high school, I was a good student and I didn't have to study, but I couldn't do the same thing here," said Chamberlain, now a sophomore. "I turned in my assignments, but I didn't put any work into them. I did things like go to class tired because I had been out partying the night before."

At College Park, as at other schools, reform efforts have been hindered by pressure on teams to generate money from ticket sales, television revenues and booster gifts, much of it hinging on winning seasons. Of the 106 schools in the highest division of the NCAA, two-thirds, including Maryland, had money-losing athletic programs last year.

"Coaches want to win, and athletic directors want to balance the budget," said Thomas K. Hearn Jr., president of Wake Forest University, another ACC school. "The claim that education . . . takes precedence over both these concerns is the basic political struggle involved in reform."Unrealistic Career Expectations

Geiger said it isn't surprising that football and basketball players have the most academic difficulties. "Swimmers and tennis players are going to come from different socio-economic backgrounds than basketball players," he said. "We're a microcosm of a larger problem."

Many of the teenagers recruited to play basketball and football, he added, have unrealistic dreams of playing professional sports after college; as a result, some don't take academic work as seriously as other students.

A Louis Harris poll last month showed that a large percentage of high school football and boys basketball players consider athletics a higher priority than their school work. The poll, commissioned by the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, found that 59 percent of high school athletes thought they would get a college scholarship although only 1 percent actually do so. It also showed that 43 percent of black high school athletes believe they will play professionally some day; the actual rate is one in 10,000.

"It's tough to study, there's no question about that," said Maryland starting quarterback Scott Zolak, a senior. "You're always focusing in on what you have to do to win a football game this week."

Men's basketball coach Gary Williams, in his second season, said he inherited problems from his predecessor, including some players who did not regularly attend classes and who were reluctant to seek academic help.

Williams said he is trying to recruit players who are better prepared and to instill a greater emphasis on school work. "I think we can build a program here and do it right," he said. But "it's a gradual battle."

Maryland officials became aware of the depths of the problems they had after Bias died four years ago. They found a pattern of academic shortcomings in the basketball program, prompting the university's Board of Regents to create a Task Force on Academic Achievement of Student Athletes to determine the extent of abuses.Recommendations for Academic Reform

The group, composed of students, alumni, professors, administrators, coaches and athletic officials, produced a report with a stern message: The university needed to strike a balance between the conflicting interests of athletics and academics, guaranteeing players a sound education at the expense, if necessary, of winning teams.

The task force recommendations have led to an ambitious set of new requirements for athletes, including an improved orientation program, stricter eligibility standards and mandatory freshman study halls. For the first time, a central academic support office keeps track of players' grades and tries to preach a difficult lesson: Players need to have aspirations beyond sports.

One area of change in the last four years has been the admissions process. During the early and middle 1980s, basketball and football coaches often lobbied the admissions office to accept recruits with meager high school credentials. If lobbying didn't work, the coaches -- in particular former basketball coach Charles G. "Lefty" Driesell -- appealed directly to John B. Slaughter, the chancellor at the time, who personally admitted several athletes who later flunked or dropped out of school.

Today, coaches are forbidden to sign "letters of intent" with recruits until after the admissions director, Linda M. Clement, approves their high school records.

The role of tutors also has changed. Under the old system, each team used to hire its own, and some tutors had complained that coaches made it hard for them to do their jobs. A few tutors even cheated for athletes by taking their class notes and writing papers.

Now the academic support office hires tutors with expertise in different subjects. They are available to any athlete who asks for help, and tutors must submit a report describing each session.

One tutor, Michael Muscadere, a senior majoring in electrical engineering, said he and other tutors went to the classes of a few freshman athletes last season to make sure they were there. "It was a last resort in situations when someone was consistently not doing well," he said.

Ann Wylie, a geology professor on the athletic council, recalled that once during the mid-'80s she had the entire basketball team enrolled in a course. "They didn't attend my class, and I complained loudly. No one {in the athletic department} seemed to give a damn. . . . That isn't the situation now."

Yet some recommendations by the task force have been disregarded or watered down. They include advice to make freshmen ineligible and to further raise minimum grade requirements for participation.

The net effect of the changes has been mixed.

Between 1986 and this fall, the campus has reduced from 48 to 16 per year the number of incoming athletes who failed to meet the school's regular admissions standards. And the academic quality of these athletes appears to have improved.

But not every team has sharply reduced its number of marginal students.

Non-revenue-producing sports such as wrestling and field hockey now get fewer exceptions so football and basketball can get more. Last year, those two teams accounted for more than three-fourths of the 18 exceptions compared to one-third in 1986.

The school also has had uneven success in getting athletes to focus their academic careers. The school took the task force's advice in eliminating a General Studies major -- a loose interdisciplinary program that had been popular among athletes unmotivated to do schoolwork. Still, some football and basketball players remain clumped in certain majors, such as criminal justice, family studies and consumer economics.

Some faculty members believe the school needs to tighten standards further and raise eligibility rules beyond the NCAA minimum of 12 credits per semester, as well as limiting the role of summer school.

But within the athletic community, some of the changes over the past four years are being criticized as so stringent they are counterproductive, perpetuating an unhealthy culture in which athletes are segregated from other students on campus and stereotyped as inferior.Pushing Players Into Mainstream

In the three months since he arrived on campus, replacing Lew Perkins, Geiger has been pushing for changes that would merge athletes and coaches into the university's mainstream.

Foremost among them is the rule that restricts the athletic department's number of admissions exceptions -- students who enter the university with academic records below regular campus standards.

"There are an awful lot of things that are loaded into the stereotyping and labeling that comes from the term 'IA' {individual admissions}," he said recently. "Does IA mean athlete? Does IA mean black? Does IA mean stupid? Does IA mean all of those things rolled into one?"

Although many faculty members think the limits on individual admissions are the best way to improve the academic quality of recuits, Geiger said he would prefer a system in which the campus abolished admission categories and determined case by case whether an athlete can succeed academically at College Park. "I'd like to see us to get to a place where we have the confidence to admit people we would like to have here for whatever reasons they are, and not label them," Geiger said.

Geiger also has reversed a policy, put into place after Bias's death, that forbade coaches from talking to professors and the admissions department.

The culture that has grown up at College Park, he said, has created a situation in which "kids feel like they're boxed in a corner. They're being scrutinized in a most unusual way. We've stereotyped them to the point where they're almost fulfilling it.

"I want them to have some dignity and some identity as citizens of this place."

When he arrived at College Park, Geiger found what he calls "almost a siege mentality" on campus. Despite the reforms, resentment toward the athletic department was high, particularly since the university's overall efforts to raise academic standards often were overshadowed by athletic troubles.

While faculty and administrators are listening to some of Geiger's ideas, there are those who remain skeptical of Maryland's ability to merge big-time sports and the school's ambitions to be first-rate academically.

The skeptics, especially on the faculty, cite continuing attempts to undermine some of the academic reforms on campus. Some faculty members were alarmed last year when then-athletic director Perkins unsuccessfully tried to persuade the athletic council to change admissions standards to permit more individual admissions, especially for the football team.

Raymond L. Johnson, a mathematics professor and former member of the university's athletic advisory council, believed after serving on the 1986 task force that the campus could educate athletes well and stay in NCAA Division I, the top rung of competition. Today he believes "with the academic aspirations we have, we belong in Division II," referring to a category of NCAA schools in which smaller colleges play.

Others, like Wylie, the professor who headed the athletic council's academic committee last year, said the system needs more time in place before it should be judged.

"We're in the middle of an experiment, and the data isn't in yet," she said.

John Burt, a campus dean who is responsible for supervising the athletic department's academic support office, said: "We are laying the foundation for a comeback. Comebacks take a long time."