"If I were Russ Potts I wouldn't leave SMU for Maryland. Two years ago he would have been taking a step up. Now he would be taking a step down." -- An ACC athletic director

Four years ago there were few athletic directorships in the country that were a step up from the job at the University of Maryland.

Jim Kehoe was at the height of his power as athletic department head.

The football team under Jerry Claiborne had finished a 9-2-1 season with a Gator Bowl victory, winning a second consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference title in the process. The basketball team was coming off an ACC regular-season title the previous year and would finish in the top 20 for the fifth straight year. The indoor and outdoor track teams easily won ACC titles, as did the lacrosse team.

In all, 11 of Maryland's 13 men's varsity teams finished at least second in ACC play and the Terrapins easily won their third consecutive Carmichael Cup, symbolic of overall sports supremacy in the ACC.

Now, 24 hours after the resignation of Carl James as athletic director, that scenario has changed.

For the first time in the 12-year history of the Carmichael Cup Maryland finished fourth. The first nine years the Terps were first or second. In 1978 and 1979 they slipped to third.

In the 1979-80 school year only five of the 13 varsity teams at Maryland finished as high as second in the ACC and that includes the football team's three-way tie for second. The wrestling team, once THE team in the conference, finished fifth. The soccer team, second in 1976, was sixth in a six-team conference. The tennis team was eighth of eight. The golf team sixth, just three years after back-to-back second-place finishes. The swimming team came in sixth.

There were other signs of decline. Although the lacrosse team finished in a three-way tie for first in the ACC with Virginia and North Carolina, it is ranked only seventh nationally -- unheard of for Bud Beardmore teams, traditionally in the nation's top three.

The track team, Kehoe's pride and joy first as coach, then as athletic director, lost the ACC outdoor title for the first time in 25 years. Adding to that was the resignation of Coach Frank Costello, which came in the middle of a battle with star hurdler and world record holder Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah, who eventually quit the team and gave up his scholarship.

The football team, a bowl participant for six straight years, did not make a bowl appearance, drew paltry crowds at Byrd Stadium at the end of the season and suffered a four-game losing streak, the longest in Jerry Claiborne's eight-year tenure as coach.

Even the basketball team, which had a superb 24-7 season, drew poorly at Cole Field House in December when the opposition was weak.

In a move that surprised almost everyone at the school, James resigned to become commissioner of the Big Eight Conference this summer.

The biggest of those disappointments may have been the defection of Nehemiah. If ever Maryland had an athlete who brought it tons of positive publicity, it was Nehemiah, the world record holder in the 110-meter hurdles.

But instead of parlaying Nehemiah's final two years as an undergraduate into more publcity and national exposure for the entire program, Maryland ended up losing his services entirely. Adding to that black eye was the bitter public exchange between Nehemiah and Costello, who had feuded quietly almost since Nehemiah first came to Maryland.

One fact stands out -- and comes up constantly -- when the current state of Maryland athletics is discussed: the Terrapins have fallen noticeably behind two ACC schools in the Carmichael Cup standings -- North Carolina and Clemson.

It is no small coincidence that those two schools will more than double Maryland's fund raising total this fiscal year.

"It isn't that we've done badly," said Tom Fields, the school's chief athletic fund raiser. "It's just that the other schools have done so much better recently. In 1970 Clemson was raising about $375,000 a year. Now it's over $2 million." (It's actually closer to $2.5 million).

Fields said that Terrapin Club donations are up about $80,000 this year, meaning total contributions will reach $1.1 million. That is still less than the total raised this year at North Carolina. "Our problems aren't any different than at any other school in the country," James said. "Title 9 and inflation are two major factors."

But Maryland's problems are different from other schools. Few schools have to complete for the sports dollar in football the way Maryland must with the Redskins, an omnipotent obsession to Washingtonians.

Thus, a consistent winner alone will not fill Byrd Stadium's 50,000 seats. The Terrapins must either be in the top 10 or play a razzle-dazzle, crowd-pleasing style to sell out. They have not finished in the top 10 since 1976 and Claiborne's style of football is definitely not razzle-dazzle.

In the mid-'70s, when practically al of Maryland's teams were winning and the football and basketball teams were selling out regularly, the athletic department was full of colorful personalities.

Kehoe, love him or hate him, always drew a reaction with his loud sport coats and fist-waving antics at ball games. Potts, then the promotions director, had a gimmick for every hour of the day. Driesell was still entering Cole Field House like a king approaching his throne. Claiborne's lack of color was barely noticed because winning was such a new experience for Maryland football.

Today, Kehoe is chafing in semiretirement and would, according to friends, jump at the chance to come back as interim athletic director while the search for a permanent replacement goes on.

Potts is selling "Mustang Mania," at Southern Methodist the way Republicans were giving away "Win" buttons four years ago. Driesell, by his own admission, has mellowed considerably. He even called Dean Smith "a friend" in a weaker moment last season. Claiborne is Claiborne.

Add to that mixture the quiet, stay-in-the-back-ground leadership of James and it is clear thaat Maryland has had no focus, no dynamic leadership since the sudden departures of Kehoe and Potts in 1978.

But to say that strong, flamboyant leadership is the answer to Maryland's problems is an oversimplification. The program right now is full of holes: football attendance is still a problem; the track program is coaches and in chaos; men's and women's coaches are jealous of one another as they battle for funds, and now, there will probably be a struggle over the new athletic director.

One group, led by Driesell, will push hard for Potts. Another group, led by Fields, will probably push to bring back Kehoe, at least on an interim basis. If that happens, former North Carolina athletic director Bill Cobey Jr., now running for lieutenant governor in North Carolina, would become a factor. A third group, led by Claiborne, will want a football-oriented man, perhaps even Claiborne himself, although that seems unlikely.

Few will beat down the campus gates to apply for this job. The new athletic director will be taking over a program which, after dominating the ACC because of its organization and outstanding nonrevenue programs for years, now languishes in the middle of the pack amidst confusion and infighting at its core.

Clearly, 1979-80 was a long year for Carl James. Its disappointments made his answer to the Big Eight an automatic yes. As James leaves, he carries with him one thought he will not voice: his successor -- whoever it may be -- is probably in for an even longer year in 1980-81.