CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Correct or not, the common perception of the University of North Carolina athletic department has always been that it is squeaky clean, a model of propriety in the sometimes sleazy world of college athletics.

But in the last six months, that image has been slightly tarnished. One former Tar Heel football player has been charged with several serious crimes, including first-degree murder, another has lambasted the university and its football coach in a best-selling book, and two basketball players were charged this week with simple assault as a result of their involvement in a barroom brawl: In short, all smudges on the shiny veneer.

"Obviously, we are very proud of that image," said William Pfaff, a priest, professor of history and Secretary of the Faculty. "It is a high-visibility program with a pretty high graduation rate. Any time that is smirched, it's sad. But I haven't heard anyone on campus, in conversations with faculty members, say that we have more rotten apples than we thought."

Consider these apples:

On June 30, former Oxon Hill High School running back Derrick Fenner was indicted on charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder, unlawful use of a handgun and on unrelated charges of possession of cocaine and unlawful transport of a handgun. The charges stemmed from a May 23 shooting incident, in which one man was killed at the Kirkwood Village Apartments in West Hyattsville. Fenner, who has pleaded innocent, had been scheduled for trial this week in Prince Georges County Circuit Court, but the case was postponed until early December. Fenner's attorney, Fred R. Joseph, said this week, "I don't expect any plea bargain. My client maintains his innocence."

In August, excerpts from former Tar Heel linebacker Lawrence Taylor's book, "LT: Living on the Edge," appeared in newspapers across the country. In the book, Taylor was extremely critical of the university and its football coach, Dick Crum. In short, Taylor said he slid through school because he was an athlete; that he hardly ever went to class; that he cheated on assignments and lots more.

This past weekend, two current members of North Carolina's basketball team, J.R. Reid and Steve Bucknall, were charged with simple assault after an incident in the early hours of Saturday morning at a nightclub in Raleigh, N.C., near North Carolina State's campus. Reid and Bucknall are scheduled to appear in Wake County District Court on Nov. 16 concerning the misdemeanor charges.

"Any time an athlete in a program like this gets involved in legal problems, it is not positive for the program," North Carolina Athletic Director John Swofford said. "But I absolutely do not think that it is necessarily indicative of a program. We've been very fortunate in that we've had very few of those problems in this program. Certainly, the values are the same as they have been."

After playing one season under Bill Dooley, who is now the football coach at Wake Forest, Taylor played his last three years under Crum. Crum, whose team will play Maryland Saturday at Byrd Stadium, said he had not read Taylor's book, though he had been told about it.

"It's hard to understand Lawrence's feelings about the university," Crum said this week. "He had a great opportunity here and he accomplished some things that put him in position to do what he's doing now. And I'm not sure how much of it Lawrence said. I mean one thing that book had to be was controversial. If what Lawrence said wasn't controversial enough, then the guy who wrote it might have added his own.

"One thing was that Lawrence implied that Bill Dooley did some illegal things, and that I changed that and he {Taylor} didn't like it. Whether Bill Dooley did that, I don't know. But I'm going to run the program the way this university wants it run."

Taylor lumped North Carolina with other major-college schools, asserting that football players are there to be football players and not regular students.

"I think anybody who knows much about this university and this athletic program," said Swofford, "knows this is not a football factory."

Crum said of the 16 seniors on his team this season, "14 will have the degrees, some with summer school, and the two others can have their degrees if they really want it."

Reid and Bucknall could not be reached for comment on the charges pending against them, which were filed by a North Carolina State student. Tar Heels Coach Dean Smith said he would not discuss the charges until he had gathered more information. Not surprisingly, though, he thought the North Carolina image has not been damaged.

"I can only speak for basketball, but we only recruit great people who are very good students, and we'll take one exception a year to the general admissions category," Smith said. "And that person has to be so highly recommended by his coach and his principal.

"We've been very fortunate to avoid a lot of the negative press. I think we're squeaky clean in that we've recruited legally and represented the university well."

"We haven't changed the type of young man we recruit, but all of us make dumb choices sometimes," Smith said. "God has given us the freedom to choose and sometimes we mess up. I'm concerned with the individual players, and I'm concerned about the university. But with so many college students together, a lot can happen. Especially, as in this case, at a rival institution. I think they should have stayed at home, on their home court if you will."

Quarterback Mark Maye, who came to Chapel Hill on a prestigious Morehead Scholarship and has a 3.25 grade point average, acknowledged that the recent events don't help the school's image.

"Those things did not do anything to enhance the situation," Maye said. "Those are unfortunate things, but it's something we, as players, can't worry about."

A North Carolina professor, who asked to remain anonymous, said: "It's my general sense that all {major-college athletic} programs are tarnished; it's just a question of degree."

"Every time a scandal like SMU {Southern Methodist} breaks, there's a little relief and smugness," said Pfaff, who says he is a basketball fan. "As far as any of us are aware, the program is clean. I think the general faculty impression is that Dick Crum and Dean Smith are outstanding people in their field. But then, we're not dealing with a communion of saints."