He had played on a high school basketball team ranked among the best in the country, and when it was time for many big-name colleges to recruit him, his grades apparently were not all that important to the sweet-talking coaches who came calling.

In his first three years of high school, he had failed English once and world history twice and had Ds in three other English courses, including reading. His high school transcript further notes he was absent 84 days and tardy 68 other days in those years. He ranked 388th in a class of 435.

Going into his second semester of his senior year, which ends next week, he had a 1.8 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale, buoyed by courses in physical education, health, art and music. To get the required 2.0 average, qualify for a scholarship and be eligible to play at the prominent private university whose national letter of intent he signed, he needs an 88 average on a 100 scale in his final semester.

His name cannot be used because there are laws protecting confidentiality of students' grades and transcripts. Yet this transcript, one of many obtained by The Washington Post from three college coaches, was typical, they said.

And few coaches in America have any reason to believe the player will not achieve the grades he needs to play college basketball.

In the first semester of his senior year, like many other star athletes, he improved dramatically in his academic performance. His mainly Ds and Fs metamorphosed to an 85 in algebra, 83 in social sciences, 75 in American history and 75 in physical sciences, not to mention the 90s in physical education and music.

"All of a sudden, he saw beyond the end of his nose," insisted the coach who signed him. This athlete may very well have buckled down, but several coaches familiar with the player say more likely than not he has benefited from a system that allows its star athletes to keep advancing to the next level, even if it means fudging on grades.

In a college athletic system many say has gone awry because of commercialization and the accompanying pressure to win, the nameless player in the example may be the rule, not the exception, among many players entering big-time college programs.

In a recent poll by The Washington Post, more than one in every three Division I college presidents said their campuses had at least some athletes who do not belong in college. One in every five presidents cited the lowering of academic standards for athletes as a problem at their schools within the past five years. "There are functional illiterates in every major college football program," said Tom Reed, football coach at North Carolina State.

The NCAA is holding a special convention starting Thursday in New Orleans to deal with eight proposals concerning the integrity and economics of college sports. According to The Post poll, most of the proposals will be passed overwhelmingly. Many presidents say it can't happen soon enough.

"The mood now is to act. It's moved from the debate scene to action," said Bill Friday, president of the University of North Carolina system. "In our country now, sports has taken the form of a religion. All these forces have generated enormous pressures on the schools . . . It forces institutions to do things they didn't do in the old days.

" . . . There are allegations that colleges and universities are in the entertainment business, that they mold themselves and their existence to accommodate that pressure and that demand. All of these circumstances raise questions that deal with academic requirements, recruiting abuses, scheduling abuses, impact of commercial television, ineffective sanctions, salary excesses and the ultimate abuse -- gambling and cheating that we have witnessed."

"If you let the business aspects and the winning aspects get ahead of the academic aspects in your mind, you're probably into trouble," said Terry Sanford, president of Duke University, where 92 percent of varsity football and basketball players graduate. "It's absolutely true that some people have got their values wrong. It's not up to me to criticize them. But it's up to me as a member of the NCAA to support more stringent regulations, and I don't think that they're stringent enough."

Eamon Kelly, president of Tulane University, which dropped its basketball program in the wake of a point-shaving scandal two months ago, says this week's meeting "is a major step in the right direction." Yet, Kelly said, it apparently will fail to address head-on the two root problems: "commercialization, where the principal goal is satisfying the mass TV market rather than providing competitive activity for students," and "the differential in admissions standards, and I really see that as the linchpin in the entire set of problems in terms of academic performance."

To keep up with other teams, many schools -- including some of the most prestigious academic institutions -- have lowered admissions standards for athletes. At Tulane, for instance, admitting athletes with minimum NCAA requirements meant in some instances taking students whose combined verbal and math college board scores were 600-700 points lower than the average Tulane freshman.

Transcripts obtained by The Washington Post (with the proviso that the athlete's name and current school not be revealed) produce a clear pattern of the quality of high school education needed to qualify for a scholarship at a major university.

A multisport high school star last season whose transcript was sent to such schools as Texas, Penn State, Maryland, Purdue, UCLA and North Carolina. His college board scores were 460 -- the minimum 200 on the verbal portion, 260 in math. He has signed a grant-in-aid to play basketball at one of the East's more academically respected state universities.

A player now at a large eastern state university. Going into his final semester of high school, the player was ineligible for an athletic scholarship under NCAA rules because his overall grade-point average was below 2.0 -- a C. In that last senior semester, he apparently became, relatively, an academic whiz, according to his transcript: B in language skills, B in economics, B in geometry, A in independent living, A in physical education, A in personal typing.

A player who attended a big-city public high school where, in the first semester of his junior year, he failed English and psychology and had Ds in government and data processing. He transferred the next semester to a private school, well known for its basketball team. Getting an A there in volunteer service, A in physical education and B in food I in his first semester, he improved his grade-point average enough to earn a scholarship at a Big Ten university. He will be a sophomore there next season.

Still, Stan Morrison, basketball coach at USC, says he can justify recruiting academically deficient players.

"It's something that transcends SAT scores and grade-point averages," he said. "It's a gut feeling about a guy's environment. If I've been in a kid's home and know there are no books, no magazines or no encyclopedias, and he's at a school where the faculty emphasis is not on academics, then we'll take a chance, while giving him the environment and academic support to succeed. I don't accept it (the system), I don't condone it, but I do understand it."

Clearly, there is little or no incentive to strive for academic excellence, and so few football and basketball players graduate that Rep. James Howard (D-N.J.) recently introduced a bill that would take away the tax deduction for donations to booster clubs at schools that do not graduate 75 percent of their athletes over a five-year period.

According to the College Football Association, only four of 47 member schools (Duke, Notre Dame, Virginia and Wyoming) who reported last year and three of 53 this year graduated 75 percent or more of their players. The latest CFA survey also shows eight of 53 schools with graduation rates of less than 25 percent. In basketball, there is no clearinghouse for information on graduation rates.

The academic difficulties of players like Chris Washburn of North Carolina State and Michael Graham of Georgetown became well known within the last year. Washburn's academic deficiencies -- he had 470 on his college boards -- came out in court papers filed during a criminal proceeding against him for stealing a stereo from another student. Graham's situation became known when he was declared academically ineligible by his coach, John Thompson. Apparently there are many athletes with similar problems nevertheless playing, starting and starring on some of America's best teams.

The questions of academic integrity permeate all aspects of win-at-all-costs athletics. Youths are recruited in junior high school by overzealous high school coaches. In high school, many teachers and administrators look the other way in order to keep a star athlete eligible.

College coaches, some of whom parlay their players' talents into as much as $500,000 annual income, often fawn over these teen-agers. By the time the players reach college, many of them are cashing in, too, if not directly from the coaches, then through more-than-willing boosters or agents.

And if a coach has no qualms about paying players under the table, why should the players have qualms about shaving a few points? The Tulane scandal added a new element to the mix. The fixers allegedly hooked the players on cocaine first, and the combination of drugs and gambling clearly has university administrators concerned.

Memphis State University, its image endangered in recent months by a federal grand jury investigation into big-money bookmaking in its area, hired a retired FBI agent to advise the university about dealing with gambling and drugs. Charles Cavagnaro, the school's athletic director, predicted that more law enforcement officers will be hired in the future.

The latest push for reform is nothing new. Ever since the early 1900s, major reports have been issued that cited extensive problems in college sports and sought changes. Yet, over the years, many of the nation's biggest athletic programs became virtually autonomous, and college presidents -- sometimes with pressure exerted by governing boards -- let them exist. Coaches have been fired frequently for not winning enough games, but there have been few if any reports of college presidents and athletic directors being fired because of abysmal graduation rates for athletes.

The presidents at the University of San Francisco and Tulane dropped basketball programs because of unsavory situations within the last three years, and Oklahoma City University this year decided to drop out of NCAA Division I and join the NAIA, saying it could not compete financially against other major schools without cheating. Many other colleges have been embarrassed by cheating and academic scandals.

Early this year William Atchley, Clemson University president, resigned after his efforts to clean up the school's athletic program were rebuffed by the athletic director and board of trustees. Bill McLellan, the athletic director since 1971, finally was reassigned to another department to wait out a short period to retirement, but he had survived major probations in both football and basketball.

Leaders of the latest reform movement see this week's convention as merely a beginning, looking ahead to business at future conventions designed to reinforce the notion that athletes are students first. The presidents have already begun to raise the academic standards necessary for an athlete to earn a scholarship. They have also made it more difficult to stay eligible. If the rules are followed, it will be difficult for athletes "to major in eligiblity," as James Wharton, president of Louisiana State University, puts it.

During the 1983 NCAA convention, after an emotional floor debate, the controversial Proposition 48, which goes into effect in August 1986, was passed. Unless amended, it will require a 700 (out of 1,600) combined score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test or a 15 (out of 36) on the American College Test and a 2.0 grade-point average (out of 4.0) in a core curriculum of 11 academic subjects to be eligible to play as a freshman. Athletes who do not qualify will be permitted a scholarship, but will lose a year's eligibility.

Many educators, including Leroy Walker, chancellor at North Carolina Central University and a former coach of the U.S. Olympic track and field team, believe that the minds of many athletes are being wasted. Walker and others say if the athlete has the incentives to score 700 on the college boards and earn a C average in a core curriculum, he will do so.

Once in college, there are ways for the nonacademically oriented to stay eligible, despite all the reforms, including a current rule that athletes must make satisfactory progress toward a specific degree.

According to a 1980 graduate who was a starting lineman for a major southern state university, even academically inclined athletes are often pushed toward easy courses that will allow them to maintain what the NCAA describes as "satisfactory progress" toward a degree.

This straight-A high school student-athlete had every intention of getting a meaningful degree, and he did. But that did not deter the coaching staff from advising him, in his first semester, to take music appreciation and fundamental education. He got a B in music appreciation, even though he said he didn't study and went to class every other week. He received an A in the education course. "The professor, as they say, was 'very, very sympathetic,' " he said. "It was taught Monday nights. We'd sleep through the whole thing because we were too exhausted from practice to stay awake."

Planning to major in zoology, he also took a zoology course with a lab and freshman English. He got a D in zoology, the only D he said he ever made in school. "That zoology course just about killed me," he said. "I missed every lab but one. There was a team meeting from 12 to 1, and the lab was at 12:30. It was impossible to make all the classes."

For many athletes, apparently it still is.