Florida State will throw ACC balance for a loss


As Maryland's football team was returning from North Carolin last Saturday, celebrating a victory over Duke and a 5-3 record few had expected, Florida State was playing Auburn in one of those to-the-death games between top 10 teams accustomed to huge, hysterical crowds and national television cameras.

The week before, as Maryland was beating up Wake Forest, Florida State was playing Miami in their customary in-state Armageddon with national championship implications.

Different worlds? You bet. Florida State lives in the biggest of the football big time; it has finished in the nation's top three for three straight years. Maryland exists in an arena that is competent, but not of the same caliber, a place where wins and losses are not as magnified. It is where all of the Atlantic Coast Conference teams play, except Clemson and, these days, Virginia.

Does it make sense then, or is it possible, to integrate Florida State into the modest football world of Maryland and the ACC? The conference administrators who voted to admit Florida State obviously thought so. You want to believe they knew what they FTC were doing. But you have to wonder.

They wanted to improve the quality of football in the conference and increase the size of their television market -- not necessarily in that order. The idea, of course, was to make more money. They will. You have to wonder, though, if they were blinded by the dollars, if they really stopped to think about what it would mean to put Florida State in their house.

Andy Geiger thought about it, and he didn't like it. Maryland's new athletic director voted against annexing Florida State. He had a number of reasons, none more swaying than the vision of competing in football with Florida State.

"What are you saying to your coaches about their ability to compete on a level playing field?" Geiger said the other day. "I'm being asked a lot of questions these days about the fate of a football coach. Well, is there going to be a level field that is fair for him?"

The primary problem is that Florida State is more lenient than other ACC schools about admitting athletes who do not meet the school's academic standards. These are known as "special" admissions, and it is sad but true that, all too often, they are the best athletes, those around whom teams are built.

Schools' policies regarding such players -- it's a game called "How Low Can You Go?" -- often dictate whether they have winning or losing programs, whether they belong in Florida State's society or somewhere below. A game between teams with a wide disparity is not likely to be close. Hey, Clemson's recent dominance of the ACC is not just the result of good coaching.

"We have 18 [special admissions] a year to be spread around the entire athletic department," Geiger said. "They [Florida State] have three times as many. I don't know how it breaks down for the football team. But there's a big difference."

Indeed. Very big. And let's be blunt about this: That is a string of blowouts waiting to happen. Teams can overcome many obstacles, but consistently better personnel is not one.

Maryland is not alone among ACC schools in facing this predicament. Duke is a top private school, North Carolina and Virginia among the best state schools. They do not compromise their standards in large numbers. But now what? If they don't increase their "specials," they are going to get blasted on the field. If they do increase, they have lowered their standards.

Again, let's be blunt: The ACC has voted itself right out of its league in football.

"We're on the horns of a dilemma, for sure," Geiger said. "There's a very mixed message in all this. At the same time as [the National Collegiate Athletic Association] is talking about an academic-reform package, we're raising the temperature competitively. Can you do both? It's a tough trick. They seem dichotomous to me."

Geiger wants it understood that he isn't whining. "It [the fight over annexing Florida State] is done. We'll welcome them, roll up our sleeves and fight," he said. "I hear good things about their people."

But -- and Geiger wouldn't say this, but he was just being a good conference supporter -- it certainly is debatable whether Florida State really belongs in one of the country's top academic conferences, a place where standards are not so freely compromised.

"It is very difficult to see how it is going to work out," Geiger said. "I don't think we can change our philosophy. That's not the answer. It comes down to a question of what's your philosophy. On the vote [to expand] we wanted to stake out a position on [academic] reform as a priority."

That leaves Geiger and Maryland in the minority. The current climate in the college game is money-mad, more so than ever before, schools and conferences performing all sorts of realignment gymnastics to line up the best possible television contracts. Sometimes, things get so frenzied that people just don't stop and think.

"The stake for ACC football just got that much higher," Geiger said, raising his hand from eye level to over his head, the symbolism perhaps inadvertent, but most appropriate.

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