Sources familiar with the track program said they believed that Stern, 57, had been forced to resign.
They said that the Villanova adminstration failed to back Stern or to extend his contract, which is to expire on Aug. 1, and that several Villanova athletes had complained to his superiors about his coaching methods.
"There's a lot more to this than a coach tired of the road," said one source, who asked to remain anonymous. "It was almost like a conspiracy to drive him out."
Stern left open the possibility of returning to coaching at another university.
"You may see me resurface and coach somewhere else," Stern said. "If I do, it's going to be at a Division I school where I can be of some help to the kids. The trouble with the Villanova track team is we don't have any home meets. We're always on the road."
Stern has been at Villanova since 1983, when he arrived at the Main Line school as a volunteer assistant coach, one season before he was promoted to head coach of the Wildcats' women's team.
As a result of his success with the women, Stern was given additional responsibilities four seasons ago, when he was named to succeed Charlie Jenkins as head coach of the men's team.
Stern said that trying to coach both teams might have been a mistake.
"Coaching both programs may have shortened my career here," he said. "I blame myself for that."
Stern enjoyed considerable success. His teams captured 23 Big East championships and the last five NCAA women's cross-country titles and came up with an inordinate run of high-profile victories at the Penn Relays at Franklin Field.
Going into the current season, Stern had produced 142 NCAA all-Americans, 16 individual and five NCAA relay champions, and three Olympians - Vicki Huber, Sonia O'Sullivan of Ireland, and Salaam Gariba of Ghana.
Huber who finished sixth in the 3,000 meters at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, probably will be remembered as the athlete who profited most from Stern's tutelage and his emphasis on rest rather than too much competition.
And Kathy Franey, who won her first national championship at the age of 26 last week at the USA/Mobil indoor championships in Atlanta, also owes a debt to Stern for the perseverence she learned at 'Nova.
Not every experience was positive, though.
Kim Certain, a middle-distance runner whom Stern cut from the Wildcats squad when she refused to end a working relationship with her high school coach, contended that the dismissal hurt her prospects for competing in the 1992 Olympic Games. She filed a harassment suit that was settled out of court.
Judy West, an assistant coach on Stern's staff a year ago, also alleged harassment after she was dismissed. A university investigation determined that the allegations were groundless.
Stern said yesterday that any past problems he might have had with the school had nothing to do with his decision to retire. He told Gene DeFilippo, the Villanova athletic director, of his decision only Monday.
"Yesterday, he came in and he surprised the heck out of me," DeFilippo said. "He said he was tired. I didn't say a lot. I tried to talk him out of it, but he said he was ready to retire."
DeFillippo said he had yet to take up the matter of Stern's successor. It is expected, however, that John Marshall and Bruce Bickford, the team's assistant coaches, will be interviewed, along with prospects from other schools.
Stern also discounted speculation that his move was tied to disappointment that no Villanova men will compete in the NCAA indoor championships in Indianapolis this weekend.
"It wasn't that or the legal things that happened to me last year," Stern said, "but maybe all those things got to me. I guess you'd have to walk in my spiked shoes to understand this."
Stern mentioned the late Jim Valvano, the former North Carolina State basketball coach who once confided that because of the demands of his work, he had never trimmed a Christmas tree.
"I think I'd like to take a year off," Stern said, "and that's what I'll probably do."
Stern said he intended to finish his tenure with enthusiam.
"I'm going to to coach my (head) off on this last trip around the league," he said. "I'm really looking forward to this week in Indianapolis."