Mike Ditka's three-year reign as head coach of the New Orleans Saints ended yesterday when he was fired in a major housecleaning that also claimed General Manager Bill Kuharich, the son of former Redskins coach Joe Kuharich.

Team owner Tom Benson returned home a day early from a Florida vacation to fire Ditka and his assistants, Kurarich and Terry O'Neil, the executive in charge of the salary cap. Ditka had said he wanted to return after this season's 3-13 finish that ran his three-year record to 15-33.

Kuharich's departure could open the door for former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly. Casserly was ousted as GM and moved to a consultant's role in September by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, and NFL sources indicate he's a strong candidate to be the head of football operations in both New Orleans and Houston, where an expansion franchise will begin play in 2002.

"I have had conversations with some of the clubs," Casserly said yesterday, "but I'm not going to name them. That's really all I want to say right now."

Casserly will be in Houston Friday to interview with executives of the new team, according to an NFL source who said Casserly is the front-runner for the position. But Casserly also will be asked to interview for the New Orleans position, according to league sources.

Meanwhile, in other coaching developments, the New England Patriots continued the process of trying to replace fired head coach Pete Carroll. A Patriots spokesman denied a report the team was no longer interested in Bill Belichick, who resigned as head coach of the Jets after one day on the job Tuesday. Other league sources said team owner Robert Kraft remained interested in discussing the job with Belichick and would be amenable to giving up some draft choices to the Jets to do it.

The Patriots did interview Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Willie Shaw yesterday, according to a team spokesman. In New York, Bill Parcells, in an interview with CNN/SI, didn't rule out returning to coach the Jets even though he handed in his resignation Monday. Parcells is still the chief operating officer for the franchise, and a league source said the Jets were continuing their preparations for free agency and the draft with Parcells at the helm.

Parcells told CNN/SI that "I'm not going to abandon the franchise."

In Green Bay, where General Manager Ron Wolf must replace fired head coach Ray Rhodes, there were reports the Packers had asked the University of Wisconsin for permission to speak with head coach Barry Alvarez, whose teams have won three Rose Bowl titles in five years.

As for Ditka, 60, he said he'll never coach again. But the colorful and controversial coach who won a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears in 1985-86 almost certainly will be highly sought after in the television business. He had left a studio position with NBC three years ago to take the New Orleans job and the daunting task of rebuilding a perennial cellar-dwelling franchise.

"I'm sorry it didn't work out," Ditka said. "I understand it fully. You're 3-13, you have the expectations we do, you bring in Ricky Williams, and it doesn't work out. I mean, we got to be realists."

Casserly pulled the trigger on a controversial trade during last spring's draft that may have cost Ditka and his colleagues their jobs. It was Ditka's idea to trade all of the team's choices in the '99 draft, as well as first- and third-round picks in the 2000 draft, to Washington to move into position to take Heisman Trophy winning running back Williams.

The move, which Kuharich heartily endorsed and Benson approved, clearly backfired when Williams went through an injury-plagued rookie season. Williams, college football's all-time leading rusher when he left Texas, gained only 864 yards, averaged 3.5 yards a carry and scored only two rushing touchdowns.

The Redskins now have the No. 2 overall selection in April because of the Saints' 3-13 record. The Cleveland Browns have the first pick.

"It was necessary to clear the slate," Benson said. "Bill rose through the ranks here to become president of the company. Mike Ditka is one of the greatest football people ever. Both men were tremendous contributors to our community."

Ditka signed a contract last year that pays him about $2 million annually until 2002. Kuharich signed in August for about $500,000 a year through 2003.

Ditka said that despite the team's weak record, he thought he and his staff would have another year. But Kuharich, who has been with the Saints for 14 years and hired Ditka, said he wasn't surprised.

"Unfortunately in this business if you don't win enough games, there are days like this," he said.