The question is familiar here. Should Virginia fire its football coach? If the Wahoos admit failure again, Dick Bestwick would be the eighth coach canned in 25 years. The best his team can do is 3-8, with a good chance it will be 1-10. Even Mr. Jefferson, who cared about weightier matters, might harrumph at such numbers.

"If you go strictly by wins and losses," Bestwick said today, "there's probably no way to justify it. But if you look where we were when I came here, and look where we are now and where we have the potential to be next year, it's a totally different outlook . . . You can't look at numbers here."

Bestwick, 51, is in his sixth season at The University. His records: 2-9, 1-9-1, 2-9, 6-5 and 4-7. You won't see those numbers by many of the Bearlike coaches in the Hall of Fame. Still, of the 88 athletes recruited by Bestwick in the last four years, 83 are still on scholarship -- an astonishing ratio in big-time football. Of the 61 schools in the College Football Association, only Duke graduates a greater percentage of recruits than Virginia.

Virginia's faculty is well pleased with its football coach, who preaches the values of education even as he operates a multimillion-dollar sports/entertainment enterprise. Nor is unrest apparent among students and the paying customers. Attendance at Scott Stadium will set a school record with an average of just more than 30,000.

So, it seems, Dick Bestwick is a paragon of virtue with whom the important folks are content. You may ask, then, what produces questions around the state about Bestwick being fired?

"Media talk," Bestwick said.

"Media hype," said Athletic Director Dick Schultz in a separate interview.

Speaking of media, today's controversy deals with the firing of the local sports editor, Gary Cramer, who often wrote critically of Bestwick. The Charlottesville Daily Progress fired Cramer last week after his three-part series on Virginia's football program. I read it. It was very good. It painted a picture of Bestwick as a dictatorial, stubborn, egotistical coach who infuriated his assistants and inspired his players to all-out efforts (a portrait Bestwick's friends also paint).

Suspicion for Cramer's firing points a finger at Bestwick. In 1978 he berated the sports writer, literally putting his nose against Cramer's, shouting that Cramer was not objective. Both say the coach later apologized and was cooperative in interviews. As to whether he complained to Progress management about Cramer and influenced the firing, Bestwick said, "No. I don't even know who the newspaper manager is."

Any big-time football program that goes 1-8 in a coach's sixth season is subject to speculation about the coach's security. By the sixth season, the truth generally is known. A coach has had time to recruit three senior classes. Most likely, his teams won't be better than they have been.

That speculation is heightened at Virginia by the presence of Schultz, who succeeded Gene Corrigan only this year. Corrigan had given Bestwick a new contract as reward for the 6-5 season of '79, only Virginia's second winning season in 28 years. So Bestwick likely could survive a 1-10 season with Corrigan. The boss would be hard pressed to fire a man he'd given a five-year coaching contract. But with Schultz, the music could stop.

First thing Schultz did at Cornell, when he took over there six years ago, was fire the football coach.

And first thing Schultz did here was say football was his No. 1 priority. Reaching respectability, he said. With 44,000 seats at Scott Stadium at an average of $10, selling every ticket brings in another $140,000 a Saturday. Athletic directors keep track of such stuff, especially when the price of grant-in-aids at Virginia will go up $200,000 next season.

Given Schultz's priorities and his history, and given Bestwick's six-year record going up from 2-9 to 6-5 and down to 4-7 and lower, what is the athletic director going to do? If you talk to three well-connected insiders, here's what they say:

"He'll give Dick one more year."

"I don't think he'll fire him."

"He'll keep him -- for now, if Dick agrees to change his methods."

Schultz isn't saying. He won't even give the athletic director's customary vote of confidence to a coach under pressure in the newspapers.

"That doesn't do anybody any good," Schultz said. "That's like a kiss of death, anyway . . . If it's necessary to put rumors to rest, I will make an announcement when the season is over."

Schultz has definite goals. "We have to reach a level of respectability. One, we want to win more games than we lose. And I would like to think Virginia could be in the same situation as Clemson and North Carolina. But it's going to be much more difficult for Virginia to achieve that than for North Carolina or Clemson. We just can't recruit the way they do. We're not able many times to take students who just match NCAA minimum regulations."

With back-to-back 6-5 seasons -- no big deal, certainly -- Schultz says the loyal Virginia fans would buy out Scott Stadium every week.

"After a couple six-win seasons, though, they might want more," he said, smiling.

Bestwick sees such a season next year. Because of injuries this season that ruined his defensive and offensive backfields before the third game had ended, he believes 3-8 or 1-10 is an aberration to be ignored.

"You can't judge what I've done here based on 1-8 this year," he said, "because of the unbelievably unusual circumstances. The record isn't really a good assessment of where we are and where we're apt to go from here."

And where is Virginia football apt to go with Bestwick next year?

"We only lose two seniors off the offense and five or six off the defense," the coach said. "On top of that, we have 12-18 redshirts who will help greatly. I'd like to win the ACC championship, obviously."

Bestwick smiled at his bravado and added, "I think we'll be in contention for it."