ACC packs punch, not just punch line


November 06, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

There was this old joke about ACC football, and, well, I don't remember exactly how it goes, but this was the punch line: ACC football.

You ACC grads, remember when autumn meant sweaters, leaves and turning your class ring face down? It's not ancient history. As recently as five years ago, ACC football basically meant Clemson and seven ducks a-quackin'. Before that, it basically meant Maryland and seven ducks a-quackin'. Always, it basically meant Dean Smith marking time.

But now -- Holy coach K! -- the ACC belongs in any discussion of the country's best football conferences.

"Top three, easy," said Beano Cook, the football guru. "The Pac-10 is the best this year, the SEC is the best year in and year out, and the ACC is right behind them."

Remarkable? Astounding? Ridiculous?

"If you told me in 1980 that either the Berlin Wall would come down or the quality of ACC football would go up, I probably would have picked the ACC, but not by much," Cook said. "I mean, it wasn't very good. And now the ACC is much better than the Big 10. People would have called you crazy for saying that."

Certainly, the decline of the Big Ten, Southwest and Big Eight has helped. Those conferences used to win national titles, and now they don't scare a soul. The Big East might be tougher than those three, for crying out loud, and it just started playing football.

But the ACC's elevated standing is not just the result of other people's business. It's the result of better coaching and, as our outgoing president would say, the Florida State thing.

"Getting Florida State in there is like getting Bogart to play in your movie," Cook said. "It's the bold stroke. Right away, you know you're going to be pretty good."

Florida State doesn't really fit into the league academically or geographically, but ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan pushed for it because suddenly every league was expanding to get a larger wedge of the ripe apple that is TV money, and the ACC didn't want to get left out.

Some athletic directors in the league were against it, but they're probably not as upset now that their schools are getting something like $100,000 every time the Seminoles play on television, which is just about every weekend.

The Seminoles are so good they're too big even for the upgraded ACC. As one player said after winning the ACC title: "I guess this'll do until we beat Miami."

Hey, the league has managed to avoid noticing Clemson's graduation rate all these years, so why not make it two schools?

Of course, Bobby Bowden's team has not exactly taken its anticipated rip through the league this year. Maryland won't have much fun tomorrow, but Clemson and particularly Georgia Tech made the Seminoles come from behind to win. Virginia also played them tough without Terry Kirby.

But see, it used to be that the ACC champion's season consisted of one tough game and six weeks to get ready for their bowl. There just weren't any challengers.

No longer. Six of the nine ACC teams have been ranked this year. Sure, Clemson is down, Virginia is disappointing and only Florida State is deserving of a major bowl. But State, Virginia and Tech are all ranking-worthy just about every year. That's substance where there once was none.

It isn't hard to figure out what happened. Virginia's George Welsh is one of the best coaches in the game. State's Dick Sheridan is always turning down offers. Bobby Ross built a champion at Tech. Bowden's critics say he can't win big games, but he seems to win 11 little ones every year.

"The coaching in the ACC is close to the SEC as the best," Cook said. "There are good ones all over. The guy at Maryland is doing a great job. He's going to win there."

Naysayers will point out that only three ACC teams are ranked this week, but that actually is evidence of a deep league. It means teams are beating each other and knocking each other out of the polls, which is what happens in the SEC every year.

"Every game in the SEC is like France against Germany," Cook said. "That's the best football to watch. I don't know if the ACC will ever get to that point, like when Ole Miss plays LSU and there are maybe 70 people in both states who aren't watching."

No, the ACC will never get to that point -- in football. Of course, the SEC may never get to the point where the football graduation rate is higher than a touchdown and a couple of field goals. But that's another story.

"The point is that the ACC is still a better basketball league," Cook said, "but now at least you have to say it."

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