A season that began with Super Bowl aspirations for the Minnesota Vikings has gone awry in just about every way imaginable. The latest black eye for the team has come with the revelation this week that Vikings players are being investigated for lewd and possibly criminal conduct during a party on a boat cruise last week that reportedly was arranged in part by former Washington Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot and one of his teammates.

The controversy comes amid growing speculation that Vikings Coach Mike Tice has lost control of his underachieving team and could be fired during or after the season. The Vikings are 1-3 going into a game Sunday against Chicago, and the turmoil has only increased in the season after the club attempted to create a more peaceful environment for itself by getting rid of wide receiver Randy Moss.

"It can tear a team apart or pull a team together," Tice said during a news conference yesterday. "It's my job to pull the team together. . . . We'll just see how that plays out. I can't crystal-ball it for you."

The Hennepin County Sheriff's Department is investigating allegations that Vikings players were involved in inappropriate sexual behavior during last week's cruise. A department spokesman said yesterday that the probe was ongoing and investigators were attempting to determine not only whether the alleged activities took place, but whether they constituted a crime even if they did.

An NFL spokesman declined to comment, but the league was monitoring the case and could take disciplinary action against players, perhaps in the form of a fine or suspension under the league's personal conduct policy.

Attempts to reach Smoot, who left the Redskins via free agency in the offseason by signing a six-year, $34 million contract with the Vikings, were unsuccessful yesterday. He did not return messages left through the team and his representatives. His agent, James "Bus" Cook, did not return a message seeking comment. Smoot told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in yesterday's editions that the allegations being made were "slanderous."

Tice said yesterday: "Obviously our job is to get ready to win football games and any time you have something like these allegations occur, it doesn't make it any simpler. And quite frankly, I'm not happy. . . . I fashion these young men as an extension of my family. So as a father and a family man, you can sense probably how I feel."

Tice said he'd discussed the allegations with first-year Vikings owner Zygmunt Wilf. Club officials are in the process of formulating a code of conduct for employees, Tice said.

According to reports by several Twin Cities media outlets, about 20 players were among the approximately 90 people on two boats for last Thursday's chartered cruise on Lake Minnetonka. Crew members on the boats alleged that the cruise was cut short because nude women were performing lap dances and sexual acts with male cruise participants, including some of the players.

Running back Mewelde Moore told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune he was onboard one boat but said reports that characterized the trip as a sex party "got it all wrong, I guess."

Moore said he "didn't see anything," including sex acts. "Sex? What are you talking about?" Moore said. "That's crazy. Sex? Come on. Look, I'm engaged. So none of that. That will put me in trouble."

The Vikings had a bye last weekend on the heels of a lopsided loss to the Atlanta Falcons 11 days ago. The defeat to the Falcons was followed by a meeting between Tice and his players in which the embattled coach left his assistants outside the room and reportedly told players a story about how his father had taught him never to give up under trying circumstances. Some Vikings players reportedly were left with the impression that Tice had contemplated resigning, although others later were quoted as being adamant that the coach never had given them that idea. Wilf has said publicly that he is not considering firing Tice, whose job security seemed precarious when the team suffered late-season collapses the previous two seasons.

The general manager of one NFL team said yesterday it appeared during the Atlanta game that Tice's players were not giving all-out effort. "From everything you see and hear, it's going to be next to impossible for him to get that thing turned around," said the GM, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be viewed as piling on Tice publicly.

The Vikings traded Moss to the Oakland Raiders in the offseason after the receiver was involved in a string of controversies, including pretending to moon fans at Lambeau Field in Green Bay during a touchdown celebration in a playoff game last season.

Then Tice was involved in a ticket-scalping scandal that led to him being fined $100,000 by the NFL in June, and suspended running back Onterrio Smith was found to be carrying a device to circumvent drug tests when he was detained at an airport security checkpoint in April.