THE ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE really didn't have a choice. Either expand or another college sports conference would enter the picture and attempt to lure the stronger athletic schools in the ACC, especially in football, into a big, new conference sure to attract the enthusiasm of fans and a huge television contract. That's the way things work in college sports now, like it or not.

So the presidents of the 9 ACC schools took the first step Tuesday night to create a 12 team conference by adding Miami and two other teams from the Big East Conference. The ACC-12, which could begin as early as the 2004 football season, would become one of the premier athletic conferences in the country, rivaling the Big 10, the Big 12, and the Southeastern Conference. No doubt it would also increase pressure for an 8-team playoff series to determine the national college football champion, with the large conferences guaranteed berths in the playoffs and other teams eligible for wild card spots.

Fine. But there's a threshold question about all this we need to dispose of before evaluating the ACC move. Is bigness in college sports a good thing? Or is it just a financial thing? Well, there's a large financial aspect--and it's not bad. By bringing in more revenue from television, college athletic programs have more money to support "non-revenue" sports, such as track and field, tennis, wrestling, and nearly all women's sports. More revenue makes it easier to comply with Title IX.

Yes, big time college athletics, with its recruiting scandals and coddling of "student athletes," has its drawbacks. The basic question is whether the emphasis on sports detracts significantly from the education agenda. I really don't think it does. Is the University of North Carolina weaker academically because it has a great basketball program and the best (and heavily recruited) women's soccer team? Of course not. Would Florida State be the Harvard of the South absent its powerhouse football team? I don't think so. College sports at all levels of competition supplement the rest of college life. They don't subtract from it.

Another question is whether colleges compromise too much on their standards by admitting athletes who have no academic or intellectual reason for attending college--the dumb-jock problem. The answer is probably yes. At times, this is a large and embarrassing problem. Too often athletes get payoffs, rarely attend class, and have papers written for them. You'd have to be in a state of utter denial to believe there's not an alarming amount of corruption in major college sports. It's endemic, like corruption in politics. But containment, as practiced by the NCAA, has kept the problem from getting out of control, while not eliminating it.

Here's a key point. Big time college athletics is not going away and most people don't want it to. It can't be willed away any more than the United States can say the country is not going to be a superpower anymore. The analogy to getting rid of major college sports would be to jettison big-league baseball and have only the minor leagues. You don't have to love college sports played at the national level, but you should accept it as inevitable as the emergence of Fortune 500 companies.

Okay, back to the ACC. Its members are Florida State, UNC, Duke, Wake Forest, NC State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Virginia, and Maryland. When Florida State joined in 1991, it lifted the level of football in the league. By adding Miami, ACC football would move to a still higher level. And by bringing in Syracuse, the 2003 national basketball champ, the already high level of ACC basketball would rise.

The twelfth team to round out the ACC-12 is up in the air. For financial reasons, Boston College makes sense because it would enthrall the entire New England media market. But geography argues for adding Virginia Tech. Both Virginia Governor Mark Warner and UVA are insisting on the Hokies. We'll see.

An ACC-12 isn't in the bag yet. If the conference hadn't acted, there was a real possibility the football powers in the Big East (Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Pitt, BC, Miami, and West Virginia) would have pulled out of their conference and tried to recruit several ACC schools into a large East Coast conference that stressed football. That still might happen, but it's less likely now that the ACC has made the first move.

The vote among the ACC college presidents was 7-2, with Duke and North Carolina voting no. My guess is those two schools voted selfishly to protect their dominant basketball programs. As things stand now, the other ACC schools can't consistently recruit the number of blue chippers Duke and UNC can, though Maryland has come close in recent years. Syracuse, however, can, and represents a threat to Tobacco Road.

An ACC-12 is the missing link in a national football playoff series, replacing the loathed Bowl Championship Series. It would constitute the fifth big-time conference along with the Big 10, Big 12, Southeastern Conference, and PAC-10. It would make sense for the Big 10, which has 11 members, to add a twelfth--Pitt--and for the PAC-10 to recruit two new members from a list including BYU, Utah, Colorado State, and Hawaii.

The conference winner would get a place in the 8-team playoffs and 3 wildcard teams would be added that should include at least one team from a non-major conference. Sound exciting? It does to me.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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