Waking up Monday morning to find Maryland undefeated and ranked among the nation's top 20 football teams would likely send Terrapins fans into palpitations, but the news would bring little more than a smile to university president William E. Kirwan.

"I don't want to put too much stock in where we happened to be rated at any given time," he said yesterday, two days before the Terrapins' crucial game against Clemson. "I'm looking for more permanent values and indicators of the strength of our program."

Kirwan's moment of uncontrolled joy came a week ago, when he announced the hiring of Andy Geiger as athletic director, a move he said "captures what we're trying to do here." More than one athletic department employee swore that it was the happiest they'd seen the president in years.

"It just, to me, I don't know if there was any one person in the country who better fit the idea of doing things right and being competitive athletically," Kirwan said. "I've been talking with the other Atlantic Coast Conference presidents and others around the country and the usual response is that we've scored quite a coup. This has caught people's attention."

After years in which it seemed as if the only attention Maryland could gather came from its latest attempt at crisis management, the last month has developed into something of an athletic renaissance in College Park.

Geiger's hiring, a pair of stirring victories by the football team, the decision of basketball point guard Walt Williams to remain at the school and the soccer's team ascension to the nation's 15th spot have fostered hope that some sort of emotional watershed has been reached.

The question that remains is, how legitimate are those feelings?

"No one can predict the future, and if nothing else I've learned that life is full of surprises," said Kirwan. "But I believe that we've turned a corner and are coming into a new era -- one that we can feel good about."

The onset of the last era came with the cocaine-induced death of Len Bias in 1986, an event that had negative repercussions through every branch of the athletic department.

Perhaps no group suffered more than the football team. Coach Bobby Ross, who led the Terrapins to bowl games the previous four seasons, left for Georgia Tech the same year, adding to a malaise that the team might just be recovering from in 1990.

"I guess I'd like to see the respect that we had before all that given back, get to the point where we don't always have to keep going back to what happened in 1986," said co-captain Rick Fleece. "Before that it was normal for all the teams to be doing well, there were no problems athletically or administratively."

That's another reason to point toward Saturday's game against Clemson. Since beating the Tigers in 1985 and tying them the following season, Maryland has been crushed by 29, 24 and 24 points.

Each of the losses has come under Joe Krivak's tenure, perhaps one reason the Terrapins coach has been noticeably subdued this week, despite victories over Virginia Tech and West Virginia and an honorable mention listing in the national polls.

"I know it would mean a tremendous amount to him {to beat Clemson}, knowing how good they've been," said assistant coach Tony Whittlesey. "They've been the benchmark of the conference through the late '80s and everyone knows it."

Should the Terrapins score their second consecutive upset, the turnaround in Maryland's football fortunes would take a giant leap forward, and perhaps even convince some skeptical fans that this year's team may be for real.

"I'm really excited about football and everything seems a lot better all around but that can be real superficial; there have always been a number of die-hard fans but there are also a lot of fair-weather ones too," said former football and basketball player Mike Anderson.

Krivak undoubtedly knows that while a burgeoning era of good feelings is nice, another one-sided loss to Clemson or failure to sustain a winning attitude might cause clamoring for his ouster.

"I've always said that institutions always survive and the University of Maryland is a great institution," Krivak said. "It's just a matter of time" before things turn around.

Kirwan said that the decision of whether Krivak will be around ultimately rests with Geiger, who has known the coach since both were at Syracuse in the late 1960s and early '70s. While a successful season would make Geiger's decision easy, it's just one of the issues with which the incoming athletic director must contend.

The basketball team, which won't play on live television this season and won't appear in postseason tournaments the next two years, still faces an NCAA decision on its investigation into charges that Coach Gary Williams's staff conducted illegal practices last year before the official Oct. 15 starting date.

"Every time it seems that basketball gets rolling something else pops up," Anderson said. "I can remember when we went to the {1988} NCAA tournament with Rudy Archer and Brian Williams . . . then the Bob Wade stuff happened . . . . It's hard to tell."

There are murkier issues to resolve as well. Eliminating some of the political infighting that has plagued the athletic department may be just as important as winning and losing.

"I think it has to be a gradual thing, I don't think there's a specific line that you cross over," said Gary Williams. "It may come when Andy gets here and gets the department going the way he wants it to, when we're all working toward where he wants to go.

"I think we do have a great opportunity now to get things where they should be. It's not like we're trying to do anything that can't be done; it's something realistic -- trying to get everyone working toward the same things."

On Saturday, the football team will be working toward one goal -- beating Clemson and keeping all those smiles on the College Park campus firmly in place.

Terps-Tigers Tickets Available

Tickets are still available for Saturday's game between Maryland and Clemson at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. Byrd Stadium in College Park will sell tickets today between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.; ticket window E-1 at Memorial Stadium will be open between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Those wishing to order by phone can call 1-800-I'M-A-TERP (462-8377) at the university.

Maryland played Penn State to a 13-13 tie in last season's game in Baltimore, ending a 23-game losing streak to the Nittany Lions. A 17-17 tie against Clemson at Memorial Stadium in 1986 preceded the Terrapins' current three-game losing streak to the Tigers.