Jim Kehoe, a member of the University of Maryland athletic department for 39 years and the athletic director the last nine, yesterday notified university officials he would retire Sept. 1. Tension between himself and the university chancellor was cited as a major factor.

Kehoe's decision to retire early at age 59 surprised the university community. During his tenure as athletic director, Kehoe took over a fading program at his alma mater and helped return its football and basketball teams to national prominence.

But his term also was marked by controversies over implementation of programs under Title 9 sex discrimination legislation and feuds with the student body over its athletic fees.

A spokesman for the university chancellor, Robert Bluckstern, said Kehoe, in his letter of resignation, noted "tensions with the chancellor" were a major reason he was retiring.

Gluckstern late yesterday sent Kehoe a letter saying tension is "to be expected" in the course of campus management, that he supported his athletic director and that the wanted him to reconsider his decision. The spokesman, Pat Hunt, said Gluckstern responded to Kehoe because his office had learned that the athletic director's letter was being made public.

When Gluckstern made his letter to Kehoe public, Kehoe, who is attending the Atlantic Coast Conference's annual meeting in Myrtle Beach, S.C., said, "It's been 40 years. I'm tired. There have been some problems, but now is not the time to discuss them . . . Barbara (his wife) and I want to spend more time together. It's a young man's game, a young man's time. This is the way I wanted it presented and said."

Earlier, he had issued a statement through his office:

"After nearly 40 years in Maryland athletics, I just think it's time for younger and new leadership to fight the battle. I have had my turn. It is time for someone else to take over. It's how it should be."

Sources said that other retirements, including that of university President Wilson H. Elkins and Al Hanlon, the associate athletic director who is retiring June 30, played a part in Kehoe's decision. Joe Blair, a sports publicist, is returing to the Redskins, and Kehoe recently severely cut his leg with a chain saw.

The surprise of Kehoe's retirement was underscored by the appointment Wednesday of Russ Potts, one of his top aides, as athletic director at Southern Methodist University. Potts, 38, assistant athletic director for advertising and promotion, had been considered the heir apparent to Kehoe.

But, sources said, Potts could not get Kehoe to pin down a retirement date and decided that he could not wait longer for the job he has aleays coveted.

Unless Potts reconsiders and resigns at SMU, there is no apparent front-runner to replace Kehoe as the head of a 23-sport, $3 million program.

Jerry Claiborne, the coach under whom Maryland's football team returned to prominence, said last night he would be interested in the job only if he could remain football coach, as well.

"I will certainly discuss it with the powers to be," he said. "I'm not ready to get out of coaching. If I took it it would be in a dual role and they might not even want to discuss it that way."

Other possibilities as a successor are Frank Weedon, a Maryland graduate and assistant athletic director at North Carolina State; Jack Scarbath, former star Maryland quarterback and current member of Maryland's Board of Regents, and basketball Coach Lefty Dresell, who said he would listen to university officials but did not consider himself a candidate for the job.

Kehoe said he would not help pick his successor. "I'm not going to get involved in that," he said. "I'm retiring."

When Kehoe was named athletic director by Elkins in 1969 after 23 years as one of the nation's most successful track coaches, Maryland's program was $170,000 in the red.

Elkins said at the time that he wanted strong leadership and a man who could balance the budget. Kehoe delivered that, and winning teams.

Maryland now ranks among the national leaders in football and basketball. Its football team has been to five straight bowl games. Overall, the Terps have won 40 conference team championships during Kehoe's term, more than any other ACC school (North Carolina is next with 24).

"When Kehoe brought me here," said Claiborne, "he said he wanted a winning football program. And he's done everything we've asked to produce a winning program. I'm sorry to see him retire. He's a tireless worker. Hours meant nothing to him. I was hoping he'd stay until he was 65."

"I don't know what to say. I'm just shocked, surprised," said Driesell. "he brought me here. He's been super to work with. I hope they get a good man for the job. That is my major concern."

Kehoe was perhaps the most outspoken critic of Title 9 sex-bias legislation for women's athletics. Nevertheless, Maryland is a national power in women's intercollegiate sports.

At the time the legislation was passed, Kehoe said, "While I support philosophically the principles of equality, as a practical matter it just won't work."

With the students, Kehoe was continually at odds over the mandatory student athletic activities fee. Students wanted it abolished. Kehoe fought vigorously to keep it and in the end was able to get it increased in order to help cover the cost of women's sports.

Kehoe is a native of Bel Air, Md., and became a student at the university in 1936. He was a standout in track and field. He graduated in 1940 and left for military service in 1941.

When he returned in the fall of 1945 he became assistant track coach under Geary F. (Swede) Eppley and succeeded him as both track and cross-country coach in the spring of 1946. In 16 years of ACC competition, Kehoe's teams won all but one of the ACC indoor and outdoor championships. He captured the IC4A track and field championships in 1965, 1966 and 1969 and his last nine teams were undefeated in dual-meet competition.

In February 1969, he was appointed athletic director by Elkins, effective July 1 of that year.