"This does a tremendous thing for the athletic program at the University of Rhode Island, joining a conference the caliber of this one," exulted URI's basketball coach, the estimable Jack Kraft.

He spoke of the Rams' acceptance into the Eastern Athletic Association, restoring it to Eastern Eight as the replacement for departing two-time league basketball champion Villanova.

Leland Byrd, E-8 comissioner, put in at the announcement in Providence yesterday, "They're very compatible with our group of schools . . . It will give us more stability (and) the coverage, the exposure, in the New England area that we've needed."

Rhode Island will play at least seven league games next season, using Providence Civic Center as home court. . .

"The pilot goofed. He made basic errors and quite a few of them," said Francis McAdams, National Transportation Safety Board member, as the board voted here, 3-1, to adopt its investigative staff's report on the death of Thurman Munson.

The pilot in the Aug. 2 crash at Akron-Canton Airport in Ohio was Munson, the New York Yankee catcher and captain.

The board ruled that malfunction of Munson's $1.4 million Cessna Citation and -- McAdams dissenting -- agreed with its investigators that training and experience were not factors. "This was just a case when the pilot disregarded basic procedures," said James B. King. NTSB chairman. "His training should have developed certain habits, but he developed in trouble. I think if he had followed a proper checklist the accident would not have happened."

One more thing, King said: Munson might have survived, as did two friends aboard as he practiced takeoffs and landings, had he used a shoulder harness as recommended by the safety board. As it was, he hit his head, was knocked unconscious and asphyxiated when flames used up the cabin's oxygen. . .

Larry Smith, who coached Tulane into Liberty Bowl last season in a 9-3 turnabout from 2-9, 3-8, 4-7 his first three years directing the Greenies, quit yesterday to coach Arizona football. Smith ventures he won't have any major problems running the show on the Pac-10 campus in Tucson from which Tony Mason resigned under fire just nine days before.Smith, 40, used to be on Jim Young's Arizona staff, 1973-75. . .

On a day on which America's reigning amateur ice skating queen became Linda Fratianne Inc. to star in her own ice shows on a $1 million guarantee, and male counterpart Charlie Tickner joined the Ice Capades, the Pittsburgh Pirates demonstrated that winners can be losers. Their financial books show a $1.2 million deficit -- $11.4 million revenue. $12.6 million expenditures -- for their world championship 1979 baseball operations. The club is less inclined to blame the big salary package to Dave Parker than to stadium operating -- for which, naturally, the Bucs are asking the lease be renegotiated more to their liking . . .

Verne Lewellen, whose punting and half-back play made him an all-time NFL great for the 1924-32 Green Bay Packers -- and who served as Packer general manager from 1954 until Coach Vince Lombardi took over as g.m. in 1959 -- died yesterday in Rockville. He was 78 and had been visiting son Verne Jr. of Gaithersburg. Mr. Lewellen continued as business manager of the Packers until retiring in 1967. In college, he captained the 1923 Nebraska team that for the second straight year pinned the only loss on the Notre Dame outfit of the Four Horsemen era . . .

Two-time all-Eastern Eight basketballer Mike Zagardo received top honors last night at the Colonial, Inc., 22nd annual sports awards banquet for George Washington stalwarts -- the Tommy O'Brien trophy as MVP and recognition as GW's outstanding senior athlete. Ziggy broke a 24-year-old school record, Joe Holup's for career field-goal percentage, .590 to .586 . . .

Count in Rick Dempsey and Al Bumbry as Oriole head-tablers for today's Touch-down Club noon lunch saluting Baltimore's finest, 1980 edition.