Virginia football Coach George Welsh, faced with rebuilding the Cavaliers' image, said he is baffled by the recent drug charges against three of his star players from last season.

"I thought it was bad when I was in college coaching in the late 1960s and early '70s as an assistant at Penn State ," he said in an interview Tuesday night. "There was a lot of it around then, although I never saw any of it on our football team. But now I understand there's more of it, there's more trafficking and maybe higher usage. That's amazing to me."

Barry Word, Howard Petty and Kenny Stadlin have been charged with conspiring to distribute cocaine as part of a four-state ring. Word, last year's Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, pleaded guilty Tuesday at his arraignment in federal court and could receive up to 15 years imprisonment and a fine of $125,000 at his sentencing Oct. 6. Stadlin, a kicker on last year's team, and Petty, who had been expected to be the team's starting tailback this season, will be arraigned Sept. 8.

Charlottesville detective J.E. (Chip) Harding testified at Word's arraignment Tuesday that most of the drug dealing that involved the players occurred in the spring of 1985.

That spring followed Virginia's finest football hour, a 27-24 victory over Purdue in the Peach Bowl that finished off an 8-2-2 season for the Cavaliers in 1984. Welsh was named ACC coach of the year for the second season in a row.

Asked how the drug dealing could have gone on at Virginia, Welsh said, "I don't know how. I don't have any answer to that. I don't understand what's going on."

Welsh said he had no knowledge of cocaine use on the team, then or now. He said his chief goal is to get the players ready for this season, and to put the events of the past week behind them. He held a team meeting Tuesday attended by 40 players.

Welsh said he didn't know how the team felt regarding the charges. "It's tough for me to put myself at 52 into their shoes at 19 and 20 about drugs. But I know how I feel and how the staff feels. It has a tendency to dominate our conversation right now.

"The only purpose of the team meeting was to say that I was upset about the charges , but it's over and we have to face the facts. If it has to be talked out, we need to do it in the next couple of days and get it done, so it doesn't track us into the season."

He issued no warnings or threats to the team, Welsh said. "I didn't think that was the time," he said. He also said that even if Petty were to become eligible for part of this season, Welsh would not let him play. Word and Stadlin have no eligibility remaining.