There was plenty of space on the Minnesota bench Thursday night when the Golden Gophers played host to Ohio State. And plenty of irony, too.

Only a few days earlier, a headline in a local newspaper blared: "Scandals at U Cover 14 Years." And now, Minnesota was playing a game in the same old rickety arena, the one with the arcane raised floor, against the same school -- Ohio State -- that was involved in an infamous brawl in 1972, leading to the suspension of two Minnesota players.

On Thursday night, Rick Marsden, the team's academic advisor, sat on the bench for the first time. And Jimmy Williams, the interim coach, said he planned to take Marsden along on road trips, too. Perhaps it would help improve the school's nine percent graduation rate for basketball players from 1978 to 1983, according to the latest Big Ten statistics available.

The Minnesota bench was mostly bare because five scholarship players had been dismissed from the team in the previous week. Coach Jim Dutcher had resigned after the team's top three forwards were charged with sexually assaulting a woman in Madison, Wis., a week earlier. The team's game last Sunday against Northwestern was forfeited.

Incredibly, Minnesota beat Ohio State, 70-65, but the game was not the reason the national media had descended on Minneapolis last week. They had come a few days earlier to find out if Kenneth Keller, the university president, would continue the season or drop basketball, just as Eamon Kelly, his counterpart at Tulane, did 10 months earlier in the wake of a point-shaving scandal.

Keller, a chemical engineer who once worked for Admiral Hyman Rickover, decided to keep the program alive. But he also made it clear that the environment created by the win-at-all-costs philosophy no longer was acceptable at his school. Perhaps, he said at a news conference Monday, the latest scandal at Minnesota could serve as a catalyst to speed up a reform movement in college athletics.

"My reaction is horror, disgust and some amount of despair that we, as academic institutions, have created the environment at which this can happen," Keller said. " . . . I view continuation of the basketball program as the only noncynical thing we can do because we are not looking for . . . scapegoats. We're not looking for a pound of flesh. We're looking for a solution."

Keller knows that one school cannot solve all the ills of college sports. "You have to draw the issues in such a way that you don't find yourself tilting at windmills," Keller said Thursday. "You have to make practical, incremental changes and every one of them offers possibilities."

He is starting by forming a task force to make recommendations to him, urging his fellow presidents in the Big Ten conference to implement reforms in the hopes that others will follow.

"A year from today I would certainly like to be able to say that we are taking a totally different approach to recruiting basketball players," Keller said. "That's narrow, not as broad a goal as I hope we can accomplish. But that's certainly an achievable goal.

"There are three things that we want to know. One, is he interested in becoming a student-athlete? Two, does the person have the potential for self-discipline and development of character that is necessary to make this a possibility? And thirdly, does the person have athletic ability? I'd like to see those all considered in that order."

Keller acknowledged that not using athletic skill as the No. 1 recruiting criteria might hurt the Golden Gophers in the won-lost column. But he said that winning championships does not increase fund-raising, only that perpetual losing causes it to decrease. He has commissioned a study by university statisticians to determine the correlation between fund-raising and winning over the past 30 years to arm himself with ammunition against the proponents of continuing business as usual.

"What I hope to be able to keep people focused on is that the record of the basketball team is not important now," Keller said. "If you want to play good basketball, you have to start by playing clean basketball. We're willing to rebuild the basketball program from a different set of premises. It's not that we expect to lose, it's just that we expect to change the premises."

Keller has been president only since last March. In interviews with him and other university officials, it quickly becomes clear that Minnesota knew, as Keller put it, the school was "one day away from disaster" in the relationship of athletics to the campus community.

Still, very little was done about it until Dutcher's resignation.

When problems arose in the past, Frank Wilderson, the school's vice president for student affairs, said: "We thought it was an individual case, not systematic.

"What happened recently showed us that was the wrong attitude. It was the early symptoms of a breakdown in team behavior."

Until the early 1980s, athletics was almost a separate entity from the main university community at Minnesota. Three years ago, when Bobby Ross of Maryland turned down Minnesota's offer to coach its football team, one of the things that turned him off was the lack of a strong academic support system, he said recently. Realizing this shortcoming, university officials had one put in place shortly thereafter.

Women's sports and the academic support system now are funded through the university, instead of taxing the revenue-producing sports to even a greater extent. A year ago, Keller replaced the ice hockey coach because the president wanted a stronger commitment to academics.

That emphasis was not always present at Minnesota. In 1975, for example, the university admitted to 111 violations of NCAA rules, resulting in a three-year probation, the end of Bill Musselman's career as a college coach and the hiring of Dutcher, then an assistant at Michigan.

Subsequently there were other problems in the basketball program over the years: player Mark Hall billing to the university nearly $800 of personal phone calls in 1982; Mitch Lee, one of the three players charged in Madison, having been acquitted in another sexual misconduct case only two weeks earlier; Todd Alexander, a starting guard and one of two players also suspended last week, for a curfew violation, being charged with a pair of misdemeanors involving a stolen credit card and stereo.

There still are questions left unresolved. Is the job of Paul Giel, the athletic director, secure? Will Williams, an assistant under both Musselman and Dutcher, keep his job after the season?

Keller won't say. "I'm not looking to point fingers or collect my pound of flesh or to come out holding the head of the culprit," he said. "What I'm trying to do is assess how athletics ought to be organized and see where each person can fit in to the organization. There's enough blame to go around for everyone -- people within the university, the sports fans, the media."

Of Dutcher's resignation, Keller said: "It was appropriate for the good of the program and the new directions we want to go. I think that Jim Dutcher was a gentleman of high principle and high standards and a nice guy. As people have written the past week or so, these standards themselves may have been a flaw in that his expectation of the behavior of other people was beyond where it should have been."

Keller's task force will not issue a report. A similar report done eight years ago was mostly ignored and not focused, Keller said. The new task force, Keller added, will have "a mixture of some people who have good ideas professionally with some movers and shakers in the community who are known for their support of athletics and therefore are in a position to take a lead in allowing change to take place."

The focus will be to create an environment in which athletic programs will be able to exist primarily on gate receipts and private resources and not be so dependent on television revenues. One way to achieve this, said Wilderson, is to lobby the state legislature to include athletic scholarships as part of university scholarships.

University administrators also believe in reducing scholarships and limiting the length of seasons. And they also want to study the fundamental question of whether athletic scholarships should be granted on a need basis, a concept that would require across-the-board acceptance so that those conferences that did choose such a plan would not be at a competitive disadvantage.

"We're very realistic and very frank with ourselves about that," Wilderson said. "That's why the president says he's going to work through the Big Ten council of presidents, so we can at least get our conference to do the things we want to do. We don't think we have to have everybody in the NCAA to go along. You could look at smaller spheres of influence. The Big Ten is of reasonable enough size that if you got some things changed in the Big Ten at least you could play Big Ten sports the way you want to . . .

"It would be good to get another conference of comparable size and competitiveness to go along with you, like the Pac-10, or the Big Eight. You would have started down a road whereby smaller, more manageable groups of schools agree to do some things which make the basic kind of changes in athletics we'd like to see in the country.

"Then you'd have a better platform to get into the NCAA, not a maverick or off base. But you're speaking from the strength of a respected conference. It wouldn't castigate everyone who didn't follow along. But we have to take some control of our own lives."