Univer-sity of Virginia reserve quarterback Scott Secules knows he will hear the whispering whenever he walks across the school's tree-lined campus to go to practice or the library. "Everywhere you go, people are going to say, 'There's a U-Va. football player. They're all coke heads,' " Secules said Friday, the day after three of his former teammates were charged with cocaine distribution.

"There will be a shadow cast over the football program, and I don't think it will go away quickly."

The charges filed Thursday against 1985 football standouts Barry Word, Howard Petty and Kenny Stadlin were the latest in a recent series of minor athletic scandals at Thomas Jefferson's university. Most athletes, coaches, officials and others say they are confident the university will repair the damage.

But the drug allegations are unsettling to many at a school whose reputation is as an academics-first institution where, as one alumnus put it, "I'd rather lose with students than win with athletes."

Athletic Director Dick Schultz reacted with relief that the "millstone" of waiting finally was lifted when, after nine months of investigation into local drug trafficking, federal prosecutors charged the three players with one count each of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

Twenty-one other individuals also were charged. Both Petty's lawyer, John C. Lowe of Charlottesville, and Word's lawyer, Frank Slayton of South Boston, Va., have said their clients would not contest the charge. Petty is the only one of the three still at Virginia, and has been suspended from the football team. Stadlin could not be reached for comment.

The athletic department's recent troubles began last November, when Coach George Welsh suspended quarterback Don Majkowski for the North Carolina game for being seen in a bar drinking a beer.

Word was suspended from the team before the season-ending Maryland game for academic reasons and later dropped out of school.

Olden Polynice, the school's 1985-86 basketball center, pleaded no contest recently to stealing a $17 pair of headphones from a department store and has had his athletic scholarship revoked.

Investigators repeatedly have said their cocaine probe did not concentrate on the university or its athletic program. The lion's share of attention, however, has gone to the football players' involvement in the four-state ring as alleged small-time cocaine distributors. University alumni, who pack the stands each year and contribute generously to athletic scholarship funds, reacted to the charges with shock and troubled reflection.

"My generation can't believe it all," said Henry L. Valentine, who graduated in 1950 and is now vice president of the alumni association. "We drank whiskey -- and too much of it."

Valentine said his own faith in the university is unshaken, but he anticipates not all graduates will agree. "I'm sure there are some alumni who are going to say, 'Heck, I'm not going to support it anymore,' " he said.

Other alumni say Virginia could be helped by the contrast to the University of Maryland, where Coach Lefty Driesell asked players not to talk with reporters about the cocaine-induced death of basketball player Len Bias. Virginia President Robert M. O'Neil conceded drugs are a serious problem -- although no more so in Charlottesville than on other campuses, he said -- and said there is no such thing as a "tolerable" level of drug use at his university.

O'Neil, who recently named a task force to study how to reduce drug use at the university, aid one potential benefit of the cocaine charges may be to focus university attention on the panel's recommendations. In addition, the athletic department began mandatory drug testing for all varsity athletes in December, and will institute its first full year of testing this year.

One university official believes the timing of the arrests could help the school in the long run. Many colleges will have drug scandals over the next few years, and Virginia is lucky to have its troubles over with early, he said.

Many alumni said they are standing by their school. "Simply because a few students exercised, at the very least, bad judgment is no reason for me to say the institution doesn't deserve my support," said Henry B. Frazier III, immediate past president of the alumni association. "People come and go . . . but the institution remains."

As for the football team itself, it is easier to gauge the physical impact of Petty's loss than the psychological implications of the charges. The team has reversed a long history of dismal seasons with three straight winning years, including 1985's 6-5 mark. Petty would have been the starting tailback and been relied on heavily in the 1986 season. He and the others charged were three of the top four scorers last season.

"I was expecting him to put it on the line and to be the next ACC player of the year," said Virginia offensive backfield coach Ken Mack, who recruited Petty at high school in Annapolis.

"Somebody like Petty is very difficult to replace," Welsh said.

But team members say that Petty's loss, along with the charges against Word and Stadlin, will pull them closer together. Senior tri-captain Antonio Rice said the team will have a players-only meeting Monday to discuss the charges.

"It's just another form of adversity we have to get through," Rice said. "I'm just going to tell the guys not to get down, to stay positive. They've heard enough negative things already."

Team members have tried to forget the past, said Majkowski, and think about the season, which will open in September. "People are going to say whatever they like, but we can't let it affect us," he said.

Whatever it does, Rice said, the team will be caught in a no-win situation this season -- however unfair that might be. "People are going to put us in a Catch-22," he said. "If we do well, they will say, 'Of course they won, the players are all on drugs.'

"If we do badly, people will say, 'Of course they did badly, they're all on drugs.' "