Russ Potts was told by a high University of Maryland official the school's athletic director's job was his if he backed out of his recent appointment as athletic director at Southern Methodist University, it was learned yesterday.

Despite intense pressure from athletic interests and the university's board of regents, Potts decided to keep his word to SMU officials and remain at the Southwest Conference school.

The Maryland job, which Potts coveted but did not want to wait for any longer, opened the day after Potts, assistant athletic director for promotion and advertising, was hired by SMU. Jim Kehoe announced he would retire Sept. 1 after nine years as athletic director.

"The sad part of this thing," said a Potts advocate, "is that all he needed was one phone call from Jim Kehoe and he never would have left Maryland."

That phone call never was made, although sources close to Kehoe said he sat on his decision to retire for at least two weeks before announcing it. Kehoe maintains that the swiftness of Potts' appointment at SMU caught him by surprise.

Today, almost two weeks later, the question remains unanswered: Why didn't Kehoe give Potts advance notice, if he wanted Potts to succeed him?

Kehoe will say nothing other than, "Chancellors don't choose chancellors, athletic directors don't choose athletic directors and coaches don't choose coaches.

Other sources said that Kehoe did not want his retirement to promote an unpheaval in what had become a successful and profitable $3 million program in 23 sports.

Kehoe and his No. 1 lieutenant, associate athletic director Al Hanlon, were retiring and publicist Joe Blair was rejoining the Redskins.

Beyond his talent in promotion, Potts also had gained a reputation in the department as an individual who would fire people if he became boss.

Had Potts become athletic director, sources said, he would have fired Jack Zane, sports information director, and Frank Gray, assistant athletic director, who was the departments's chief bookkeeper. There was friction between the three, sources indicated.

Pressure for Potts to reconsider leaving Maryland came from officials as high as B. Herbert Brown, chairman of the board of regents, and from such coaches as football's Jerry Claiborne and basketball's Lefty Driesell.

"The job was his if he said he was coming back," one source said.

Maryland's retiring president Wilson H. Elkins, a former University of Texas football star with excellent contacts in the Dallas area, had gone out of his way in helping Potts get the CMU job. It would have embarrassed him had Potts changed his mind at SMU.

When Potts talked to his closest advisers, they warned him that breaking his word with SMU was an albatross he would have to carry around his neck the rest of his life.