Leo F. Miles, who fought critics for 16 years in his effort to build a viable program at Howard University, said yesterday he is retiring as athletic director.

Miles, 54, said he had planned to retire in three to four years, but instead decided to take advantage of the school's offer of extra benefits associated with an early retirement. Neither Miles nor university officials would say what the package was worth.

"It was a decision I had to make immediately," Miles said. "From now until June 30, I'll be putting things in order for my incoming successor. I don't know who that will be, but I know there will be a nationwide search for the new AD. I will keep busy, though. I hope to do a little consulting and work on special projects here."

Carl Anderson, Howard's vice president of student affairs, said Miles barely qualified for the one-time early retirement offer extended to all Howard employes.

"Leo has a birthday next month and got in under the wire," Anderson said. "He informed me last month he was going to take advantage of the package and retire. In the years he was here, he did a good job building a program from nothing. It is a fitting tribute to him and a high note for him to retire while his project -- the new field -- is being completed."

Anderson said he will form a search committee to find a new athletic director as soon as possible.

Willie Jeffries, beginning his third season as football coach at Howard, said he plans to apply for the job. Jeffries also said he knew of Miles' conservative, low-key approach to athletics before he accepted the coaching position. "His conservatism was to his advantage in this type of academic setting," Jeffries said. "But he was productive and did the job efficiently within the framework of the institution."

Miles, a District of Columbia native, enjoyed a marvelous high school and collegiate athletic career, and he played with the NFL's New York Giants in 1953-54. Then, after working as a teacher, football coach and assistant principal in the D.C. public school system, he was appointed athletic director at Howard in 1970.

He has been an NFL official for 16 years, too.

Although Miles is credited with instituting Howard's extensive scholarship program and improving the overall athletic program, what some characterized as his rigid attitude and old-fashioned approach to problems often put him at odds with his coaches and athletes.

"I always did what I felt was right for this school and the students," Miles said. "When I took over here, there was a lot of tension and uneasiness among the staff. My first goal was to create an atmosphere of reasonable happiness.

"There were bumps and bruises along the way and I know I was perceived in certain ways. I know people laughed at the way I did things," Miles said. "I had to do some things I didn't enjoy, such as dismiss some people. But my job here was to uphold the integrity of the school and operate within the rules and regulations by which we abide. I tried to do that."

Miles is pleased his long-range project of an artificial surface for Howard's football field, long known as "The Dust Bowl," should be installed by the end of the school year.

In addition, the school this week announced its hope of building a $150 million complex in the next few years, which is projected to include a 30,000-seat domed stadium.

"It's a good feeling to know the football field is about completed. I had input in both projects and I'm pleased they are realities," Miles said.