Characterizing the reform package to be considered at next month's NCAA convention as "the largest, most ambitious . . . in a single year in NCAA history," the chairman of an umbrella group of university and college presidents said yesterday the package is a "realistic approach."

Its defeat, said University of Illinois President Stanley K. Ikenberry, would be an "incredibly negative blow" to reform of college sports.

"I think there will be some who will criticize the package as being too timid and there will be others who will criticize it as going too far," Ikenberry said at a news conference at the Washington-based American Council on Education, which he chairs.

"I think it is a moderate, intelligent next step," he said. "I'm sure whatever is done in January will be refined in subsequent years. But I think the package this year is a significant step forward."

He said the Knight Commission -- a group of NCAA officials, university presidents, businessmen and politicians funded by the Akron-based Knight Foundation -- will report its recommendations in March, "and I think it will provide some additional direction and impetus to the reform movement."

Ikenberry predicted the Jan. 7-11 convention in Nashville will be the first of several reform conventions and that the role of the six-year NCAA Presidents Commission of which he is a member will change from being "reactive" to "looking at reform in a multiyear context."

The reform package this year includes proposals on cost containment, time demands on athletes, lengths of seasons, phasing out athletic dormitories and refinements in the NCAA governance structure. Among the cost containment items, a reduction in coaching staffs seems the most controversial. Cutbacks also would include a 10 percent reduction in scholarships and additional limitations on recruiting.

"If one could describe the overall package with one word, I suspect I would use the word de-escalation," he said. "It marks a swinging of the pendulum back in the direction of attempting to bring about a better balance between the athletic programs and the basic academic culture."

The proposals were written by a group of major conference commissioners and endorsed by the Presidents Commission, thus putting the struggle of presidents vs. athletic directors "at its lowest ebb ever," Ikenberry said. The presidents suffered a major loss when all but one of their cost containment issues were defeated at the 1987 NCAA convention.

Ikenberry said outside pressure from the federal and state governments for reform is immense, especially in the enforcement area. "If we don't change, the federal government will intervene," Ikenberry predicted. He said a defeat next month would "throw institutions into a state of confusion" and be "a demoralizing blow to commissioners and the Presidents Commission."