The path is being cleared at the University of Maryland for Jim Kehoe to return as athletic director on a permanent basis. He retired prematurely two years ago, citng tension with the university chancellory as a major factor.

The first step will be taken Tuesday when the athletic committee of the Board of Regents is expected to name the 61-year-old Kehoe as acting athletic director while a search committee seeks a replacement for Carl James, who resigned May 5 to become commissioner of the Big Eight Conference.

When he resigned, James said he would remain at Maryland until July 1. James said yesterday he would do "whatever the university wants me to do" and agreed that the naming of an acting athletic director so soon would help him in assuring hib Big Eight duties more quickly.

It was learned that Kehoe is the choice of the Board of Regents to again become the permanent athletic director. The members cite his ability at balancing budgets and handling personnel problems, as well as being a proven commodity, as reasons for their favoring him, sources said.

Maryland will have about a $400,000 deficit for the fiscal year ending June and has been beset by some personnel problems involving track and fencing.

It was learned that Kehoe has been approached and has indicated that he would be willing to resume the job permanently. After retiring, he became athletic consultant to the unversity president, John Toll, and served the past year as athletic director at the Eastern Shore campus.

There, he has balanced the athletic budget, although the school will not field a football team this fall, and is seeking an athletic director and chairman of the physical education department.

Sources said the regents are hoping the selection committee chooses Kehoe. But they also note that the selection committee formed to find Kehoe's successor made Moyer Smith, an assistant athletic director at North Carolina, its No. 1 choice.

Smith was unacceptable to the Board of Regents, which named James.

A meeting of the selection committee has been called for Monday.

"It would be absolutely stupid if they don't come up with Jim," said a source with close ties to the regents about the selection committee. "He's indicated he will take it; there's no time frame. There's no other solution really.He's just the logical man.

"The term 'acting' probably will be changed later. This makes sense. They have to get somebody in there right away. When you're a lame duck, you can't give it the same attention. Jim is willing to take the job and there is enough movement afoot so it will happen."

Chancellor Robert Gluckstern was not available for comment yesterday and Kehoe, except for restating his deep commitment to his alma matter, refused to comment about the current situation.

Sources said that the passage of time has helped settle the tension between Kehoe and Gluckstern and a man close to Kehoe said, "I'm sure that can be handled."

Jack-Scarbath, the chairman of the regent's athletic committee and an advocate of the controversial Kehoe's return, could not be reached for comment.

Kehoe's nine years as athletic director were marked by occasional confrontations over student athletic fees and Title 9. He may not be a popular choice among some factions at Maryland, but as one of his friends put it, "He may not have friends at the lower level, but he has them at the highest."