Jerry Claiborne appears to be the leading candidate to become head football coach at the University of Kentucky, sources close to the university said yesterday.

Claiborne, a Kentucky alumnus and Maryland's head coach for the last 10 years, was interviewed Thursday in Lexington by a selection committee headed by Athletic Director Cliff Hagan. Dick Dull, Maryland's athletic director, gave Hagan permission Wednesday to talk to Claiborne after Howard Schnellenberger, head coach at the University of Miami, rejected Kentucky's offer.

"You could speculate he (Claiborne) would be a popular choice," said a member of Kentucky's athletic board, who requested anonymity. "He has to be at the top of the heap now, although that decision has not been made (by the selection committee)."

Hagan last night said Claiborne has not been offered the job, but issued a vague denial of a report published in the Louisville Times Saturday that Claiborne will be the next Wildcat coach, replacing Fran Curci, who was fired last month. The source on the athletic board said that the 21-member board must approve the selection committee's choice before the job can be offered. That has not happened since Schnellenberger turned down Kentucky.

"The screening committee still is meeting, still screening people, and has reached no decision at this time," Hagan said from his home in Lexington. He refused comment on other questions, other than to say he did not know whether the committee would be ready to take a name to the athletic board early this week.

Other than to deny the Times' report that he had the job, Claiborne refused comment yesterday, saying: "I don't know anything at all and you guys won't believe me."

In addition to Claiborne, the Kentucky selection committee has interviewed Roy Kidd, head coach at Eastern Kentucky, a finalist in the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs; John Cooper, head coach at Tulsa, and Charles Bailey, Kentucky's defensive coordinator.

"You should not say Jerry has the job if he wanted it," the source on the athletic board said. "But on that list of guys, there's no one I'd rather have . . . .he's a Kentucky graduate, he's a head coach and he's had a winning record at Maryland (77-37-3)."

However, there is an outside possibility that Kentucky might be able to land "a bigger name than Claiborne," the member of the athletic board said. "It's something that I don't think will happen," he added.

Another source with close ties to the university said that Schnellenberger and Claiborne were the top choices of the K-Men Club, a group of former Kentucky lettermen, which includes Claiborne, a Hopkinsville, Ky., native who in 1949 was voted the outstanding senior on Kentucky's Orange Bowl team.

Claiborne has turned down job offers from Colorado and Texas during his tenure at Maryland. Each time, he reportedly was able to get a better financial deal from Maryland for himself and his staff.

Maryland sources said yesterday that Claiborne's salary package there is in the $100,000 range. With one of the nation's most lucrative television contracts for a coach's show, the Kentucky job probably is worth more than $150,000 annually.

Dull said that he "would want to try and keep Jerry." But Jack Scarbath, a member of Maryland's Board of Regents and chairman of its athletic oversight committee, said he does not think money will keep Claiborne at Maryland.

"Everyone likes to go home," Scarbath said. "I'd hate to lose him. He's a super guy as well as a football coach. I couldn't ask for a better gentleman to work with and forget about the football . . . Brer Rabbit likes to go back to his home. That's the situation, more than money."

Dull said he would not stand in Claiborne's way if he is offered and accepts the Kentucky job.

"But I would try to get him to stay here," Dull said. "His record speaks for itself. I would want to sit down with him and try to keep him for the University of Maryland."

Of the scenario Wednesday and Thursday, Dull said: "Kentucky called me first thing Wednesday morning. Cliff Hagan asked my permission to talk with Jerry and I granted it. Thursday morning Jerry . . . requested permission to speak with Kentucky. We didn't get into any specifics of it. He just said that as an alumnus . . . he felt obligated to his family and to himself as a coach to look into the situation.

"That's the last we talked about it. As far as I'm concerned, the ball is in Jerry's park, and Kentucky's park."