CHARLOTTESVILLE -- It's somehow fitting that an athletic powerhouse has arisen here in this low-key atmosphere known as Thomas Jefferson's University. For it was Jefferson who wrote: "Exercise and recreation are as necessary as reading. I will say rather more necessary because health is worth more than learning."

But even Jefferson could not have envisioned the balance struck between academia and athletics at the school he founded 171 years ago. Virginia has appeared in almost every top-20 poll this fall, with equal pride taken in its No. 18 ranking among U.S. News & World Report's top 25 national universities and its No. 1 football ranking by The Associated Press, both of which were released Oct. 15. -- the first day of basketball practice.

Preseason basketball polls also have favored the Cavaliers, what with one magazine dubbing the women's team -- a Final Four participant last season -- No. 1 and another publication naming the men No. 7. The women's soccer team, a club program until 1986, was ranked No. 1 last week before falling to third Monday. The men's soccer team was eighth this week and field hockey, fifth last month, remains well-regarded at No. 18.

The men's and women's lacrosse teams remain largely intact from last season, when they finished ranked sixth and third respectively, as do the ACC champion swim teams, both top 20 finishers last winter.

The only newcomer to national prominence is the football team, which received its first top-10 ranking in 38 years last month, prompting a media crunch not seen since basketball star Ralph Sampson took up residence here 11 years ago.

"What people don't realize is that this is not an unusual year, with the exception of football," said soccer coach Bruce Arena. "Whether the soccer program wins a national championship or not in the total picture is sometimes very insignificant. But with football and basketball being successful, it has a windfall effect on everyone."

The net result has been the rise of the most unlikely of sports forces here, where a strong athletic program was once thought inconsistent with Jefferson's vision of an academical village. The football program had experienced only two winning seasons in the 29 years before Coach George Welsh's arrival in 1982, and had made no bowl appearances until Welsh's third team won the Peach Bowl. A general mindset had developed in the department that athletics ran contrary to the spirit of the university's mission, and goals loftier than competing on the state level were not only unimaginable, but undesirable.

But a workmanlike band of ambitious coaches began arriving in the late '70s and early '80s and with them a five-year pattern of growth in many sports emerged that took the athletic department to a level of national competition reserved formerly for Virginia academics.

"I was shocked with the losing mentality our athletic department had," said Arena, who arrived in 1978 and two years later started a string of nine consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. "The institution would always rationalize losing because of the academic standards. We had a big-time loser's mentality. I was almost embarrassed by it."

"It didn't really bother me that much," said women's basketball coach Debbie Ryan, who took the job in 1977 at age 24. "I was so young I probably didn't even really notice."

Arena came to Virginia from Cornell as an assistant to new lacrosse coach Jim Adams, and was told "to keep the soccer team happy, not to try to win any games." But Arena built the team into the nation's premier program, sending two players -- John Harkes and Tony Meola -- to the U.S. World Cup team, while capturing a national co-championship last season.

Lauren Gregg, who captained North Carolina's 1982 national champion women's soccer team, felt she could coach Virginia to that level. She did, taking the Cavaliers from club status four years ago to parity with her alma mater this fall. "We came in at the peak of {North} Carolina's program and gave players a chance to be an impact player here," Gregg said. "Back then we had to sell kids on the hope of playing for a national championship. Now we sell them on the reality."

But the facilities, for so long ignored, now stand as the bane of Virginia athletic recruiting. With the rise of the program has come an increasing need for a replacement for University Hall, which was built in 1964 before women were admitted to Virginia. It now houses offices for all 23 teams and ranks as the ACC's smallest basketball arena -- with which former coach Terry Holland often expressed his displeasure.

But even if the groundbreaking for a new building does not occur until 2000 -- a likely prospect given grim feasibility studies and state budgetary constraints -- athletic department officials remain confident that top athletes will come. The Frank McCue football support facility will open this summer, although the target date for completion of a new soccer stadium has been pushed back to 1992. "The university as a whole has risen in the minds of most people," said Athletic Director Jim Copeland, who played football here from 1964-66. "The school and the coaches do a good job selling our assets and neutralizing the lack of facilities."

Virginia coaches enter the homes of high school seniors armed with the university's 95 percent athlete graduation rate -- higher than the student population as a whole -- and the top-20 academic ranking.

State-wide budget cuts have fostered a greater emphasis on in-state recruits, whose scholarships are markedly cheaper than for out-of-state counterparts, who account for a majority of the lacrosse, soccer and swimming rosters. Arena insists his 24-man team, which includes only six Virginians, will not be affected, but other coaches have doubts. "It could hurt us in the long run," men's and women's swimming coach Mark Bernardino said. "It might mean we have to shake the trees a little harder to find state talent."

That becomes the latest challenge for a coaching staff that has conquered a lack of facilities and a institutional mindset of losing. "Everyone collectively said we could win here," Arena said. "We probably had to convince the administration more than they had to convince us."