Once upon a time, like two years ago, the University of Virginia football team was a joke. A bad joke. "A moron joke," said one alumnus bright enough not to want to be identified.

It is bad enough for an athlete to be considered "a dumb jock." It is a refined sort of torture to be called a dumb jock at a smart school.

"You know," said Vince Mattox, a senior running back from Atlanta, "it is possible to be intelligent and vicious at the same time."

In the past at Virginia, the only important stats have been the academic ones. After all, who wanted to talk about a football team that has had one winning season in the last 28 years?

Athletic Director Eugene Corrigan said, "When I first came here in 1958 as a coach, it was just at the beginning of the 20-game losing streak. The school wore it like a badge: We're a great academic institution. That's why our football team is so lousy."

This "irrational logic" allowed academic types to feel smug about their programs while explaining the ineptitude of the athletic ones. The thinking, Corrigan said, went like this: "We're a better school than Clemson. That's why we got beat so bad."

The Cavaliers, once the best standup comedy team in the Atlantic Coast Conference, now demand to be taken seriously. Their record, before today's game at Clemson, was 3-1. The Cavaliers won a total of only three games the previous two seasons.

Coach Dick Bestwick arrived in 1976 with the proverbial positive attitude. He lost his first game "and far more (28 losses in all). It was almost a perpetual losing streak," he said. "And I'm not certain it's over yet."

With the toughest part of this year's schedule still ahead, it is possible -- Perhaps probable -- that visions of bowl bids that dance in some Cavalier heads will disappear long before Christmas.

But the question at Virginia no longer is whether the football program has been turned around but how it was accomplished, and at what cost to the academic traditions the school holds so dear.

The answer to the second question, said Frank L. Hereford Jr., president of the university, is none. "I was always confident that the University of Virginia could be competitive and maintain its high academic standards," he said. "It's happening now."

The school points proudly to statistics showing that, "The record of student-athletes who receive grants-in-aid is better than the undergraduate body as far as graduating is concerned," Hereford said. "There's no reason to look down on them."

Once, it would have been inconceivable that someone would want to go to Virginia primarily to play football."Scholar-athletes" at the university were more scholar than athlete. But as the team improves, that balance may change.

"The academics are not the biggest part of the day for me, to be honest," said tight end Mike Newhall. "I do what I have to to get by. I don't want to go to med school."

Newhall, a psychology major, would be interested in playing pro ball. "If you get better athletes, you're going to get more looking forward to playing after graduation," he said. "In the past, the people on the team were more academically oriented than maybe some are now."

Newhall added, "The school is super conservative. They want to convey the image that they have of the scholar-athletes that they want to maintain. They have so far. There are going to be more football players but it's not going to reach the point where they just get idiots who come solely to play football. They can't call up and say give this guy an 'A' like in other schools."

Bobby Call, a junior defensive back, did not come to Virginia to play football. He was a walk-on and he does want to go to medical school.

"I think that being an academic school helps recruiting," he said said. "The people coming out of high school are getting smarter. They're worried about getting jobs."

Brian Schumock, a defensive back who was awarded the game ball after last week's 30-17 victory over Duke said, "There was a big stink when the Corrigan Report came out. They were pushing for reducing the requirements and standards for athletes."

Corrigan said athletes do receive "special admissions consideration at Virginia. It's not so much whether they meet the highest standards but whether they can do the work and graduate." (The cumulative grade-point average of the football team last year was 2.55, compared with 3.0 for the undergraduate body as a whole.)

Corrigan, Williams and Bestwick point to schools like Michigan and Stanford as their role models, schools that have competed successfully in athletics without sacrificing their academic reputations.

"I'd either go into professional football where it is truly a business or I'd go back to small-college ball where they allow you to really have fun and coach," Bestwick said.

Bestwick has the reputation of being a workaholic. The assistant athletic director, Dave Braine said, "The other coaches pray for away games where they get to sleep a little bit."

How has Bestwick turned Virginia around? The answer is "hard work," Braine said.

Hard work and cold, hard cash. According to Corrigan, in 1971 the university's entire athletic budget was $500,000. This year's football budget, including grants-in-aid, is $900,000.

Bestwick says he spends less on recruiting than his predecessor, Sonny Randle.

"I spend it like it's my own," said Bestwick, "and I never had any."

"The first year I was here, we saved over $50,000 on recruiting alone by driving to every place instead of flying."

That is possible largely because, "We've pretty well defined our areas of recruiting as Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Ohio," Corrigan said.

Bestwick's recruiting efforts apparently have paid off. "There are only eight seniors (pre-Bestwick recruits) who play much," he said.

"We're not the biggest team in the league but we've got 40 guys 6-foot-3 or better and who are 225 pounds or better," Bestwick added. The team's new strength coach has helped make them big and strong.

Birginia also has the only starting backfield in the nation with two backs averaging more than 100 yards a game -- Greg Taylor, 5-foot-9, 183 pounds, and Tom Vigorito (5-10, 188).

Last season, Bestwick said, "We went to the veer so that we could use them at the same time without calling on them to do real heavy blocking. They can block on the corner but they can't go in and kick out linebackers.

But, Bestwick said, "One of the reasons why we're so much better offensively this year" is that Taylor and Vigorito have learned to run inside. "They can find the daylight and are tough enough to hit it," he said.

A former offensive line coach at Georgia Tech, Bestwick persuaded his offensive line coach, Jack Daniels, to "try to develop two lines last year." The result, Bestwick said, is that "even though we only have two starters back, the other four people playing got quite a bit of experience last year."

Bestwick takes pride in being very honest, one might say honest to a fault. Recently, one player told him he felt he wasn't making enough of a contribution to the team. Bestwick said, "Bull. You're just not getting the chances you want to be a hero."

He has a reputation for putting football in perspective, which might be considered a prerequisite for coaching at Virginia.

"It's all a part of the bread and circuses," he said. "In the Roman Empire, in order to keep the slave population happy, they gave them bread and circuses. All societies are essentially the same. Even here, some people have to do the dirty work and in order to get them to do it, you better give them enough bread and you better keep them happy.

"That's entertainment. That's football, basketball, the movies."

Which does not mean, if you'll pardon the expression that Bestwick has a cavalier attitude toward his job or his team's fortunes.

"I care," he said.

He was wearing a tie with quarterbacks embroidered on it.

"Did you read where Paterno said, 'It's just a game?'" He didn't really mean that."

"Games aren't always fun," he said, "especially when you're losing."