Astonishing though it may be, what might just be college football's game of the year is to be played this week and both contestants are teams from -- can you believe this? -- the Atlantic Coast Conference. But that's hardly the end of it: One of the teams -- are you sitting down? -- is from the University of Virginia, which throughout its entire history has been to football prowess as Liechtenstein is to military might.
Ah yes, Virginia football. The bard of Notre Dame may have been Grantland Rice, with his stirring doggerel about the Four Horsemen, but the Wahoos have required sterner, and gloomier, literary memorialization. Their poet laureate is William Styron, who in his extraordinary first novel, "Lie Down in Darkness," described the besotted Milton Loftis lurching into the stadium -- buying a ticket at the gate was no problem in those days -- and finding himself surrounded by thousands "gathered here between the halves, sitting idly, mainly silent now ... as if, imprisoned by their boredom, they had been here since the beginning of time and would go on being here forever."
The game ended in the usual way -- "Virginia had been defeated, but who cared?" -- and Loftis staggered off to continue what must rank, even by the exalted standards of Charlottesville, as one of the champion benders of all time. In so doing he was merely honoring local tradition, which has it that strong drink is better company than weak football, and that in any event the former exists solely to provide an excuse for the latter. Oh, there have been brief periods when respectability threatened -- I have happy if vague memories of sitting in Scott Stadium nearly four decades ago and watching the Wahoo quarterback, Mel Roach, embarrass the opposition -- but they were aberrations, violations of Wahoo tradition and Jeffersonian decorum.
But now ... now, with scarcely a moment's warning, The University has become the Mid-Atlantic's answer to Notre Dame and Miami and Southern Cal, a power so muscular that all of the polls, even the one presided over by the computers at the New York Times, have joined in chorus to proclaim it first in the land. No, that is no typographical error you've seen in the sports pages these recent weeks: That is Virginia, Number One. If only it can get past Georgia Tech -- Georgia Tech! -- this Saturday, Number One it is likely to remain unto season's end.
All of which is being received as great news in chilly rooms along the Colonnade, wherein reside the most exalted undergraduate Wahoos, and in the fraternity parlors where rank-and-file sons of Virginia's Finest gather to lift high their Jefferson cups brimming over with Virginia Gentleman. Not only that, but it is being cheered elsewhere, welcomed as evidence that a university with high academic standards can meet high football standards as well, and without sacrificing the former in the process.
But is this really so? Is Virginia's overnight excellence a triumph of academic purity or a capitulation to the harsh and compromising realities of big-time intercollegiate football? The answer probably lies somewhere in between -- on the one hand the probity of the coach, George Welsh, seems beyond question, but on the other hand SAT scores for incoming U-Va. football players average about 200 points lower than those for ordinary freshmen -- as indeed do most answers in the tangled world where higher education and lower commerce intersect. But of one thing we can be certain: The rise of Virginia football is a sign, however inadvertent, of a new era for the Atlantic Coast Conference, one not to be welcomed by those who cherish academic principles more highly than athletic victories.
In its relatively brief history the ACC has had the reputation of being a clean conference -- not quite so semi-pure (or so self-righteous) as the Ivy League, but not so soiled as the Big Eight and Southeastern conferences, to cite two especially flagrant examples. This reputation has had something to do with puffery -- it overlooks the scandals with which ACC basketball periodically is afflicted as well as the continuing misbehavior of Clemson and its boosters -- and something to do with fact: The rather acrimonious departure from the ACC of the University of South Carolina came about at least in part because that institution was felt to fall short of ACC standards.
For the schools of the conference, all but two of which are public and thus especially susceptible to pressures from outside, maintaining those standards has been a difficult balancing act. Until recently, though, they have brought it off -- until, that is, last month, when they executed a complete about-face and voted to admit Florida State University as their ninth member.
Nothing against Florida State, mind you; academically it's probably no worse, if not much better, than Clemson, which is to say that there's precedent for it. But Florida State is above all else a football school -- put that in italics, above all else -- which is to say that in accepting FSU as a member, the ACC made a whole-hog commitment to big-time football, with all the television exposure and revenue this entails, but also with all the same potential for excess and self-inflicted embarrassment.
The only schools to vote against the decision were Maryland and Duke. The athletic director of the former told Christine Brennan of The Washington Post: "At a time in which there is supposed to be reform, when we are concerned about time pressures on our student-athletes, the number of games they are playing and the hours they are practicing, we've just raised the price of the game by putting in place a very powerful athletic institution in the league." To which the athletic director of the latter added: "Obviously, it was football-driven. The ACC looked at other factors, but the decision was driven by football."
Yes, but more to the point it was driven by athletic directors, with the enthusiastic collaboration of the ACC's commissioner, Gene Corrigan. To all of these gentlemen -- who answer more to themselves and their various boosters than to the academic authorities of the institutions they ostensibly represent -- Florida State means one thing, and one thing only: money. They can talk all they want about broadening the ACC's geographic representation and raising its level of competition, but it all boils down to the additional cash they'll rake in as a result of FSU's national visibility and its huge following in rich, populous Florida.
Bringing in FSU is an act of rank cynicism, pure and simple. If ever the superannuated jocks who preside over the ACC's athletic departments considered scaling down their programs to something approximating proper perspective within the university community, they forfeited that opportunity when they chose to go with FSU; had they chosen the University of Miami instead, or any one of the big-time schools shopping around for conference affiliation, the effect would have been the same. Don't blame FSU; blame the ACC.
So U-Va.'s improbable football success may be out of character with the ACC's past, but it looks all too symptomatic of its future; the ACC has chosen the low road, and it seems that Charlottesville, of all places, will lead it there. Which is why, though doubtless I will tune in Saturday's game as I drive through southern Virginia, my interest in its outcome will be decidedly subdued. This is because whichever team scores the most points, the real winners will be those to whom universities are not places for academic instruction and research but mere sets for high-profile television shows. That may be the ACC's gain, but it is education's loss.