The basketball team has been the glue that held the University of Virginia athletic department together through some very lean football years. Through a decade -- when Virginia won the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament before Ralph Sampson, won three regular-season championships with him and gained the Final Four after he graduated -- there has been one constant: Coach Terry Holland.

"Right now, everybody is talking football, which is good," athletics fund-raiser Joe Mark said before the football team accepted a bid to play Purdue in the Peach Bowl. "It takes the pressure off Coach Holland. He's had the pressure to produce for so long."

Holland's second team won the 1976 ACC tournament, saving the department from what former athletic director Gene Corrigan has described as "financial chaos." Holland's teams with Sampson won 112 games in four years. Last season's trip to the Final Four erased any doubt about Virginia's tradition as an elite basketball school.

Football Coach George Welsh has said that in his first season, he knew top recruits came to visit "just to see Ralph Sampson play."

Until three years ago, basketball also subsidized football. Last season, working under a $500,000 budget, the basketball program produced revenues of more than $1.5 million, according to Athletic Director Dick Schultz. The profits have helped retire debts for new AstroTurf in Scott Stadium and expansion of the stadium. In fact, last month, the athletic department bestowed a $30,000 gift (from Final Four revenues) on academics for use by students and faculty.

Frank Hereford, the university president who set out on a three-year, $90 million private fund raising drive in early 1982, raised $126 million in a little more than two years. He credits the success of the basketball team. "Beyond the dollars," Hereford says, "it's raised the visibility, not only with alumni, but of parents and foundations, all across the country."

Hereford vididly recalls an ABC-TV evening newscast last spring, a week before the Final Four.

"The announcer said, 'Here's Houston,' and they show a tape of Akeem Olajuwon," Hereford said. "Then he says, 'Here's Kentucky,' and they show a tape of the Twin Towers (Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin). Then he says, 'Here's Georgetown,' and they show a tape of Patrick Ewing. Finally, he says, 'Here's Virginia,' and they show students."

Schultz said: "The university has received from the athletic program some national exposure that, if you hired a Madison Avenue firm with an unlimited budget, you couldn't get any better publicity, even if you wrote it yourself."

It is because of this untarnished athletic image that Hereford, other administrators, faculty and boosters revere Holland, 42, a tall, low-key, erudite man who majored in economics at Davidson, played there under Lefty Driesell, coached under him and then replaced him when Driesell moved on to Maryland.

Like his college coach, Holland is driven by a work ethic that his first team accepted quickly, establishing a base for Virginia's success.

He does not think his image has been seriously damaged by the recent incident involving sophomore center Olden Polynice, who admitted to plagarizing a paper but was cleared by a student honors committee jury and, thus, was not expelled from the university.

Holland played a large part in the 20-hour honors trial by testifying that Polynice was motivated to hand in someone else's work because of pressure from the coaches. At Virginia, where the honor code is 150 years old, a student is either cleared or expelled; there is no middle ground for punishment.

Initially, reaction to the Polynice decision was extremely negative, with letters to the student newspaper in Charlottesville calling for Holland's ouster and for a boycott of Virginia home games. Although Polynice was greeted with students waving term papers in road games at William and Mary and VMI, and left the team to avoid a game at Duke, he got a standing ovation at the next home game.

"It's finally turning around," Holland said last week. "Cooler heads are prevailing. People were taking the letters as if it was a story that had been written. People have realized that Olden, if anything, has been treated as a regular student and, if anything, has been persecuted since then, because he was an athlete."

Holland is sure he hasn't changed. "I think I'm the same guy I was yesterday, and the same guy I was 10 years ago," he said. "There was a vocal minority. But quite the opposite is true from the letters I've gotten and he's gotten . . . I don't think these people had to respond until they saw what the other people did.

"When Olden goes on the road, he'll get some grief. That's part of college basketball. But as far as the internal aspect goes, there's been a lot of support. Let's face it. He's been through hell."

There are some people who think Holland has been through tough times because of the lofty expectations placed on him during the Sampson era, particularly when Virginia could not win a national championship.

Rich Hendricks, a University of Illinois graduate, became a Virginia booster and later a friend of Holland's because their children attend the same school. He has been successful in business, owning 17 McDonald's franchises in this area, but says, "I don't think there's enough money to pay me for what he does."

But Holland, who says he cannot conceive of leaving Virginia for another coaching job, continues to drive himself: "In most people's occupations, they are killing themselves trying to keep up with the Joneses. We're killing ourselves trying to keep up with the Smiths."

Even before Corrigan hired Holland in 1974, the basketball team was considered a unifying factor on campus. In the 1971-72 season, Coach Bill Gibson's team (21-7 after an 18-1 start) was taking people's minds off the fact that the school was changing.

Gibson set the groundwork for Holland. He started getting businessmen interested in supporting the basketball program. And he recruited such players as Barry Parkhill, Wally Walker and Marc Iavaroni. He had coached three of Virginia's four winning seasons since the ACC was formed in 1953, but he was always a player or two short of being consistently successful. When Gibson left after the 1973-74 season, Virginia had just started its first black player, Al Drummond.

Virginia was the last ACC school to recruit black athletes. But, early in his second season, Holland discovered quite by accident, as he would say recently, "times were changing."

Holland had received the transcript of a black basketball prospect who wanted to attend the university. Holland looked at the prospect's test scores. He decided they were too low even to ask the admissions office to consider. A few months later, the prospect called Holland, told the coach he had been admitted to the university and wanted to try out for the team as a walk-on.

"I figured he must have been confused," Holland said in retelling the story. "The admissions office acknowledges receipt of applications . . . So I had an assistant call the admissions office before I went any further. Not only was he admitted, he received more financial aid than we could have given him. That sort of made us realize times were changing."

That athlete, whom Holland declined to identify, played only junior-varsity basketball. But other black athletes, such as Bobby Stokes, Mike Owens, Lamont Carr and Kenton Edelin, played vital roles for the Cavaliers and were even more successful in the classroom. Stokes now is a doctor, Owens is in the third year of medical school, Carr is in law school and Edelin, a key reserve last season, is planning on entering law school soon, according to Holland.

Until the late '60s and early '70s, the University of Virginia had a tradition of being mainly white, mainly male and certainly southern. Then the student population began to double to its current size, largely because barriers to blacks and women were falling. And Holland, the new, young basketball coach, was a man in the right place at the right time.

Virginia's admissions policy for athletes is still among the strictest in the ACC. But in Holland's 10 years, only four of his seniors have not graduated, according to D. Alan Williams, the school's faculty athletic representative. And, yes, Holland said, the school will, in special circumstances, take a player with the 2.0 minimum grade-point average the NCAA requires for scholarship athletes.

"They don't go so much on the SATs any more," Holland said of the admissions process. "If the kid has core (curriculum) courses, has done a good job and is willing to reach out, knowing what he's getting into, Virginia's willing to reach out as much in the other direction."

At Virginia, Sampson turned down offers to turn pro after his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons; he stayed and received a degree in communications. "It doesn't often occur to a student here that they aren't going to get their degree," Hereford said. "I felt fairly confident Ralph would stay when he turned down $1 million after his freshman year. And he did."

Sampson was the second recruiting landmark in Holland's tenure. It gave the program national credibility, just as it gained regional recognition when Jeff Lamp reconsidered and chose Virginia over Indiana, joining high school teammate Lee Raker and Richard Schmidt, his high school coach in Louisville. Lamp and Raker had been ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in voting for Mr. Kentucky basketball.

Virginia has found some recruiting success in the Midwest (such as this fall, when 6-foot-8 Jeff Daniel of Indianapolis announced he was choosing Virginia over Purdue). But it recruits most heavily in its home state, the Washington, D.C., area and New York-New Jersey. It has done well instate, getting such players as Sampson; the Stokes brothers, Bobby and Rickey, Othell Wilson and, in this year's freshman class, Darrick Simms from Flint Hill.

Holland's recruiters also are especially active in the New York-New Jersey area, where Jimmy Larranaga, one of his assistants, has ties from high school.

Few basketball coaches at major schools are working for a former basketball coach. But Holland is one. Schultz, who was hired after Corrigan became athletic director at Notre Dame four years ago, coached Iowa for 14 seasons, five as head coach.

"The strength of the program is Terry Holland," Schultz says. "I coached basketball for 25 years. I was in the Big Ten. I've been around basketball a long time. The real strength of the program is Holland. The program was very, very mediocre until he got here. What happened last year showed where the strength of the program is. One of his strengths is being able to get players to accept their roles on the team. You can't have all superstars. He's really good at that."

When Holland arrived, he made one basic decision, setting the tone for the future. "My assistants said, 'Coach, we'll live on the road and recruit people so we can win,' " Holland says. "I said, 'No, we have to build a base.' "

After an initial 12-13 season, and an 11-16 record in an injury-filled season the year after the Cavaliers won the ACC tournament, Virginia has not had a losing season, winning 172 of 225 games in eight seasons and starting 5-3 this year. "We're going to get good players who want to work hard to get better," Holland said. "That included Ralph. He did all the preseason stuff. He wasn't a prima donna. He understood his part."

And, according to Holland, that carried over to last season's team, which lost to Houston in the NCAA semifinals. "That's why getting to the Final Four last year was important. It established tradition. Now, kids follow us as freshmen in high school," Holland said. "It takes a strong trickle-down effect to get the top recruits. That kid has to recognize you in eighth or ninth grade, when he's in his formative basketball years.

"Can you imagine a kid going to Chicago and not stopping off to see Notre Dame? We (now) have people do that, too. They stop off to see Ralph's jersey or the arena. It can generate some very positive effects in the long run."