It is virtually impossible for an athletic department to build winning programs and fill stadiums without using some athletes who are marginally prepared for college, University of Maryland Athletic Director Dick Dull said yesterday.

"Being a manager of an athletic program while being an educator is a conflicting issue," Dull said. " By Maryland law we have to be self-sustaining. To do that we have to win, and then we barely break even. It's a vicious cycle.

"It's an issue that hasn't been faced, and it's the biggest issue. It puts people in conflicting roles that are difficult to fulfill."

Attention has been focused on academic performance of Maryland athletes since it was reported Sunday that Len Bias, who died of cocaine intoxication June 19, was one of five basketball players to flunk out last semester and that he was 21 credits short of graduation. Even before that, Chancellor John B. Slaughter had said he was not satisfied with the academic performance of Maryland's athletes and intended to get the university more involved in it, which he did Thursday by saying he would move management of the athletes' academic support unit out of the athletic department to the academic sector.

Last night, Gertie Lewis, whose son Derrick Lewis is a sophomore on the basketball team, said on CBS-TV that she and some other parents had expressed concerns to Coach Lefty Driesell about their sons' academic performances last semester.

"Speaking on behalf of the parents, we weren't upset with Coach Driesell, we just thought if we all got together we could express some of our concerns and give him some support," she said later.

Lewis said the parents wrote two letters to Driesell, one of which they signed at the wake following Bias' death.

Dull said Maryland's problems are no different than those facing most big-time athletic programs, which frequently get no financial support from their universities.

"Duke doesn't have big football crowds, and it's my understanding that, for a long time, Duke had a deficit every year," Dull said of an Atlantic Coast Conference rival that graduates 92 percent of all athletes, according to its admissions office. "But those deficits were absorbed by the university. That's what all universities should do.

"As long as they require athletic directors and coaches to be financial managers, that's where you're going to run into problems of compromising yourself to take marginally prepared athletes and problems with graduation rates. I've said it before this happened. The entire structure of intercollegiate athletics needs to be examined."

Dull said neither he nor any other athletic director at a large, public university can balance the budget without compromising himself on education.

"People want to see us win," he said. "When we were 4-6-1 in football , we had 30,000 in the stands. With Coach Bobby Ross, we were 8-3 and averaged 52,000 last season. People don't come to the stadium to watch Boomer Esiason graduate. The public itself needs to examine its priorities."

Dull said that the more qualified student-athletes will choose a private school such as Duke, Notre Dame or Stanford, sometimes leaving public universities such as Maryland with athletes "who are right behind the eight-ball" academically.

That these athletes are marginally prepared academically or may be using drugs does not begin the day they arrive at college. In fact, he said, the roots are planted as far back as elementary school, "not college when they are almost through their educations. . . . Their greatest inability is not to think or to reason. It's their reading and their writing."

He says he sees transcripts of high school athletes and "some of them are totally unprepared to do the work anywhere." Maryland has a cutoff of a 550 (out of 1,600) score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test -- for which 400 points are awarded for signing your name -- and a 1.5 (out of 4.0) grade-point average on academic courses as a cutoff for considering athletes for admission as exceptions, according to guidelines drawn up by the vice chancellor for academic affairs last year.

Under the guidelines, Maryland will admit any athlete who qualifies under the new NCAA rule -- Proposition 48 -- requiring a minimum SAT score and minimum grade-point average in a core curriculum of academic courses. The athletic department is given 15 exceptions, but will use no more than four for next year, according to Linda Clement, director of admissions. These athletes are ineligible to compete or practice as freshmen, a policy Maryland had in place before the implementation of the NCAA's Proposition 48.

When Dull became athletic director five years ago, the athletes' academic support unit had one part-time counselor and a $25,000 budget. Now, there are five full-time counselors and a $250,000 budget. Yet, one of every five Maryland athletes was either on academic warning or was dismissed at the end of the 1984-85 academic year.

"I don't want to downplay what we've done with academics," Dull said. "You look at the total program and you see great improvement the last three years. We've made efforts and in some areas it appears there are people that can't be reached. Maybe we don't have a comprehensive enough program. Proposition 48 will help get a better-prepared student. But I don't like Proposition 48. It's discriminatory. That's why we voted against it. We need to get back to the days when freshman noneligibility was imposed."

Dull said missed class time is the biggest problem. "When you come in with marginal ability, the only way you're going to succeed is by going to class," he said.

To try to combat the problem, Dull said he is recommending to Slaughter that athletes who cut three classes in one semester be ruled ineligible for two weeks. This would apply only to athletes already either on academic probation or categorized as marginal students.

"Dr. Slaughter's very forthcoming in trying to get athletes treated more as students and less as athletes," said Dull, who said a committee within the athletic department drafted the policy before Bias' death.