William Moultrie has resigned as Howard University's athletic director, and vice president of student affairs Steven Favors said yesterday a national search has been started for a replacement who can lead the university to a higher level of intercollegiate competition.

Moultrie, who has been the school's track coach since 1973 and also served as athletic director for four years, submitted a letter of resignation from the latter position this week. Moultrie, who has helped produce 69 track all-Americans, will continue as track coach and will be a relay and sprint coach for the 1992 U.S. Olympic team.

"It was strictly a decision that I had come to because both positions are very time consuming," said Moultrie. "The demands are so much because of all the {NCAA} legislation that has been passed. . . . But I am grateful to the university for the opportunity to have served as athletic director."

Favors, hired in June by President Franklyn Jenifer, said he hopes to have a report from a search committee within 10 days. Until then he will handle the athletic director's duties.

Favors said the school will look for someone who can oversee a total upgrade of the athletic program, including exploration of a move from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Among options to be studied is entrance into a league not composed solely of historically black colleges.

Favors said he will attend an upcoming meeting of officials from the MEAC and the historically black Southwestern Athletic Conference. Among the topics to be discussed are a closer working relationship between the leagues, possibly even a merger.

The MEAC has struggled since its inception. Most members are in a more difficult financial position than Howard, which has the largest endowment among the nation's black colleges. The league no longer has an automatic berth in the Division I-AA football playoffs and starting this year, will not have an automatic bid to the NCAA basketball tournament.

Favors said the school will study possible moves to a new conference over the next six months, but admitted that a move to a conference not composed of black colleges would be complicated because Howard is looked at as a leader among black schools.

"Any type of move like that would be difficult to make, for obvious reasons," said Favors. "But we have to look and see where the MEAC is headed and what is best for Howard. . . . I am not ready to make a commitment. There are a lot of conferences for Howard to explore. We may have to make some bold decisions."

Under Moultrie, Howard hired football coach Steve Wilson and basketball coach Butch Beard. The stadium was refurbished and plans are in place for further facility expansion. The football team has made a gradual improvement in what had been an exceedingly weak schedule for a Division I-AA team and has played in several profitable "classic" games that gained national exposure.

His tenure, however, also was marked by the 1987 football team, under coach Willie Jeffries, being stripped of the school's only MEAC football title after it was learned at least three players were ineligible.

Before that discovery, the team, which finished with nation's second-best I-AA record at 9-1, was left out of the 16-team I-AA playoffs. The NCAA selection committee cited several factors for the omission, including that Howard could not gain entry into the rankings until the sixth week of the season because the school had not filed required paperwork.

The school filed a lawsuit against the NCAA, but the suit was dropped after revelations of the ineligible players. Moultrie said at that time that his office could not be blamed because he inherited a bad record-keeping system on athletes' eligibility.

Favors said Moultrie's replacement would face the immediate task of discovering how much support exists for upgrading the athletic program, with an idea toward creating a booster program. He used the Terrapin Club at the University of Maryland as an example.

"We have a lot of untapped support from our alumni and this would be a way to tap into that," said Favors. "We will test the waters in the spring to see if we can get support. One person told me today that if we had a luncheon, he would guarantee at least 50 people attending at $100 each. That's the type of support I am looking for."