There's a new three-letter word for hypocrites

Saturday, June 28, 2003

The only thing even remotely amateurish about big-time college sports anymore are some of the people in charge.

The university presidents of the Atlantic Coast Conference are this week's Exhibit A. Told by a consultant to consider adding schools or risk losing the ACC's front-row seat at the trough of TV payola in the not-too-distant future, they immediately launched the worst public courtship since the advent of "Elimidate."

In the bargain, they've embarrassed their schools and reminded us that colleges keep score like everybody else: at the bottom line. And the same twists and turns that made it painful to watch at the start suggest an all-too-familiar ending: Everybody looking out for himself.

First, the ACC and smooth-as-salad-oil commissioner John Swofford, tried to steal three football-playing schools from the Big East Conference. Then, four. Then, as lawsuits started being thrown around with a frequency usually reserved for the Duke secondary, only Miami and Virginia Tech.

"These two institutions represent and share the values for which the ACC has long been known," Clemson president James F. Barker, head of the league's Council of Presidents, said with a straight face Wednesday.

Of course, that was right after Virginia Tech said it was "inclined to accept" the ACC overture, but before Miami said it was going to look long and hard at some last-minute deals being offered by the Big East.

On Thursday, Miami president Donna Shalala, sounding every bit like the high-ranking politico she was during the Clinton administration, said, "We feel a responsibility to review them."

Shalala promised to announce her decision Monday, but probably not because she suffered pangs of loyalty. More likely is the fact that the Big East's penalty fee for leaving the conference doubles to $2 million the same day.

It's fine to say this kind of behavior takes place in the business world every day. And that universities are businesses and their presidents are CEOs as much as anything else, charged with overseeing billion-dollar budgets and thousands of employees, and responding to the demands of the marketplace. True enough.

But so far, it's hard to see where the benefits are. Right now, raiding the Big East has only turned friends against each other and wrecked relationships that in some cases stretched back more than a decade. Worse, it's set the tone for the longer term: do unto a rival conference before they do unto you.

"Obviously we haven't distinguished ourselves in how we've gone about this," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "That's sad."

A moment later, he added, "I hope we mend fences because we've obviously gone into another person's yard with our tractor-trailer and knocked down a few trees."

If Swofford gets his way, the landscape of college football and basketball will look something like another one of his pet projects, the Bowl Championship Series. There will be a handful of championship games and a large payout at the end of each season, divided among a handful of powerhouse conferences whose members will all front athletic departments with increasingly muscular budgets.

It's exactly the opposite scenario envisioned by the members of the Knight Commission, that bunch of pointy-headed do-gooders who every 10 years or so try to take the measure of college sports.

The last one cautioned about the impending arms race that during the 1990s, the amount of money schools spent on facilities, staff and especially coaches soared like the Dow. More schools trying to break into the big time took greater risks. The number of arrests, scandals and investigations went up, up, up. Accountability went down.

What made it more painful was that the central proposal in the 1991 report -- that university presidents take control of the NCAA -- was achieved soon after it came out. The presidents weren't really ready for reform, at least not individually. Too many still schmoozed influential boosters, kowtowed to coaches or let themselves be bullied by athletic directors. Now we find out they hardly need to be bullied. Just the promise of making a buck faster seems to be incentive enough. And the NCAA, far from getting involved, will only watch as the "Conferences Gone Wild" phenomenon gains momentum.

"University presidents deal with a multitude of issues ... including conference realignment," NCAA chief and former Indiana president Myles Brand said Thursday.

Which is what's wrong in the first place.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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