NEWARK, Del. (AP) _ Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Turcol told officials at the University of Delaware he had a reporting assignment and couldn't give the Winter Commencement speech.

What he really had was stage fright.

''I choked,'' he said Tuesday. ''That is why I wasn't there.''

Turcol, a 1976 political science graduate of the university, won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for general reporting while he was a reporter at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and Ledger Star.

Just before Christmas, he told university officials he had to cancel because he was assigned to cover a story in North Carolina for his new employer, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

''I wasn't in North Carolina. I was in southern Virginia, but it had nothing to do with being on a story,'' Turcol, 32, said.

''I didn't want to admit the real reason. I've always dealt with words and have never given a speech before, so I panicked,'' he said.

Turcol, who had written a speech, sent the statement to the university.

Robert R. Davis, director of university relations, said he was not aware of Turcol's cold feet. He added no stand-in was sought for Turcol for Sunday's ceremony.