They play football in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Always have. But once upon a time they played football in the ACC the way Rosemary Woods ran a tape recorder.

The highlight films were usually one large 18 1/2-minute gap.

In 1964, not one of the ACC's eight schools finished above .500. In 1966 the eight schools played 34 games against nonconference opponents and won seven. From 1960-69 the ACC received a total of six bowl bids. As recently as 1975 the record against outside opponents was 13-27.

Football Saturdays in the ACC didn't mean color and pageantry. They provided a chance for students to get their parties started and for alumni to talk about the basketball team's prospects for the coming winter.

ACC people will tell you none of that is true anymore, that the ACC has emerged as a football conference. If nothing else, the conference has come a long way baby.

The record against outside competition in 1979 is 15-3 for five weeks, by far the fastest start ever. The record against the Southeastern Conference thus far is 3-2-1.

Ironically, the ACC's newest member, Georgia Tech, brought in to enhance the football image, is 2-1-1 on the season. Tech will not officially be a conference member in football until 1983.

The ACC is still known more as a basketball conference. Only Clemson can truly be considered a football school although Maryland, North Carolina and N.C. State have been in the top 20 and, in Maryland's case, the top 10, on a semiregular basis the past five years.

Unlike the 1960s, when ACC football teams would have had trouble competing with Snot White and the seven dwarfs (even with three extra players), there is not an aura of respectability in the league even though the stigmas of the dismal past still remain.

"You have to go one step at a time," Maryland Athletic Director Carl James said. "Last year, Clemson was 10-1 and they went to the Gator Bowl. They beat Ohio State -- a Big Ten team. That creates credibility. If they go 10-1 this year, they should go to a major bowl."

Unfortunately for the ACC, the three outstanding teams of the 1970s have not been able to maintain their momentum the following season, dipping to mediocre records.

In 1972, North Carolina's record was 11-1, with a victory in the Sun Bowl. The following season, the Tar Heels finished 3-8. In 1976, Maryland was 11-0, got a cherished Cotton Bowl bit and lost to Houston 30-21. In 1977 the Terps lost three of their first four and ended up 8-4. Only the creation of a new bowl game -- The Hall of Fame Classic -- got them into postseason play.

This season, Clemson is coming off an 11-1 record and the Gator Bowl win. The Tigers are 2-1 and looked very shaky losing, 19-0, to Maryland at home two weeks ago.

"Every football program needs a solid foundation," said Clemson's Danny Ford, who at 31 is the nation's youngest Division 1 head coach. "The problem is a lot of coaches start building that foundation in the ACC and just when they're ready to get it going they getan offer from the SEC or the Big Eight and take off. Then, you start from scratch again."

Ford's school is a prime example. In his two seasons at Clemson, Charley Pell brought out the best in his players, rolling up an 18-4-1 record. But when Florida beckoned, Pell took off.

"Nothing against Clemson or the ACC," Pell insisted. "It's just simple math. Each year there are probably more than 100 recruitable football players in Florida high schools. In South Carolina there might be 15 or 16. I have a better chance of building a national championship program here, for that reason, than at Clemson.

"That doesn't mean I don't think you can't win a national championship in the ACC. A playoff is still their best bet because that way politics doesn't enter into it. But even without it, they can do it. It's just going to take some time. Rome wasn't built in a day."

The era of ACC competitiveness dates back to three major events, according to league sources.

The arrival of Bill Dooley at the University of North Carolina in 1967.

The end of segregation on conference schools that eventually brought about the wholesale recruitment of black athletes -- something that really did not begin until the 1970s.

The abolition of the "800 rule" which required that all athletes in the conference score at least 800 total (out of a possible 1600) on their college board scores.

These three events completely changed the face of ACC football -- for vastly different reasons.

Dooley arrived at North Carolina in 1967 with a Southeastern Conference football background. He had played and coached at Mississippi State and had coached under his brother Vince at Georgia.

When Dooley got to Carolina, the program there was struggling, just like the other programs throughout the conference.

The ACC had not had a team in a bowl game since 1963, and in 1964, none of the eight teams had finished above .500. In 1966, the ACC's record against teams outside the conference had been 7-27, worst in history but not much worse than records in years just prior to 1966.

"Basically, no one was really going out and recruiting very hard," Dooley, now head coach at Virginia Tech, said recently. "They were all doing a kind of laid-back kind of recruiting, waiting for the kids to come to them.

"That's not the way I learned to do things. We went out and recruited hard, we were aggressive and we did a lot of recruiting out of state. We went into Virginia where they have all sorts of good ballplayers and found that no one in the state was really coming after them."

From 2-8 in 1966, Dooley built the Tar Heels into an 8-4 bowl team in 1970; 9-3 in 1971 and 11-1 in 1972. Dooley's teams slipped somewhat after that. Many, including Dooley, attribute the slippage to the death in practice of a player in September 1971. The incident was extremely controversial, almost cost Dooley his job and hurt Carolina's recruiting for several years.

But the groundwork had been laid. Other ACC schools did not like being stomped by Carolina and began seeking quality coaches. Jerry Claiborne arrived at Maryland in 1972, Lou Holtz at N.C. State the same year. They made it a three-team league and Clemson, in 1977, made it a four-team league.

At about the same time Dooley's program was beginning to take shape at UNC, black athletes were being accepted into ACC schools. The first black all-conference player was Duke's Ernie Jackson in 1971. Since then, blacks have played an important role in the programs at all seven league schools and have helped make the conference competitive outside the league.

In 1971, South Carolina dropped out of the league -- because of the 800 rule. In 1974, the league dropped the rule and the gates swung open to recruit players that automatically would have gone to the SEC Big Ten, or major independents.

"I don't think Dooley made the difference," Virginia Coach Dick Bestwick said. "Black athletes and the 800 rule did. You can do all the aggressive recruiting in the world, work as hard as you want. But you're cut off from a lot of the best athletes, you aren't going to be able to compete."

Virginia, Duke, and Wake Forest, with smaller budgets than the other four schools and, in general, tougher academic requirements, have had trouble competing in the 1970s. Wake won the championship in 1970 -- with a 6-5 overall record -- but since then, except for Duke's second place in 1975, the three schools have virtually dominated the bottom of the league.

James, the athletic director at Duke before coming to Maryland, points out that part of the ACC's image problem has come from the fact that the have-nots -- Duke, Wake Forst and Virginia -- have been more likely to schedule powerhouses in the past because they needed the money.

That has produced such scores as Texas 68, Virginia 0; Michigan 52, Duke 0, and Oklahoma 63, Wake Forest 0. "That is what people think about when they think about ACC football in a lot of areas," James said. "What do people remember about last year? That we had three teams in Bowls and won two of them? No, they remember Texas 42, Maryland 0."

James' coach, Claiborne, has encouraged tougher scheduling at Maryland ever since he arrived on the scene. Claiborne sums up the problem simply.

"The league's gotten better," he said. "We've got more good teams and more good coaches than ever before. The more games we win against quality opposition, the more people will notice us. It doesn't happen overnight."

Pell agreed. "If they want to be thought of in the same breath as the SEC they have to play the SEC, the good teams in the league and start beating them. That's what people notice."

People noticed two weeks ago when Wake stunned Georgia, a perennial Bowl team, 22-21, at Georgia. Then they noticed again when Clemson beat the Bulldogs a week later and Maryland routed Mississippi State of the SEC.

The inclination of many was the same as that of an Atlanta sportswriter commenting on Georgia's losses to Wake and Clemson: "Obviously," he wrote, "the Bulldogs don't have it this year, starting the season in humiliating fashion with back-to-back losses to ACC schools."

ACC people do not like to hear or read such things, but they accept them as part of life in a conference whose last national championship -- at Maryland -- came in 1953.

"We can win a national championship in the ACC but not as easily as a team from the SEC, the Big Ten or the Pac 10," said Bill McLellan, Clemson athletic director. "We were 10-1 last year, Maryland was 11-0 in 1976. But never during the regular season was either one of us ranked up there one, two or three.

"When we start getting rankings like that during the regular season, that's when we can start thinking about a national championship. You can't be ranked sixth or seventh going into the bowls and do it."

Another problem for the conference is that of the bowls. Maryland was invited to the Cotton Bowl reluctantly. The school does not sell tickets on the scale of a Notre Dame, Michigan, Alabama or, for that matter, a Clemson, which sold 30,000 Gator Bowl tickets the last two years.

North Carolina and State are better, but still not in a class with the big schools in terms of ability to sell tickets. Football tickets in the Big Ten or SEC are much like basketball tickets in the ACC -- nearly impossible to get.

In addition, the recent trend in the major bowls to conference tieups hurts the ACC. They are shut out of the Rose Bowl and there is only one slot available in each of the Cotton, Sugar and Orange bowls. The Sugar Bowl, with the SEC champ, is not likely to take an ACC team, notes James, Sugar Bowl chairman for a year, because of geographic considerations. That leaves the Orange and Cotton Bowls. Slim pickings.

"But if we had beaten Clemson last year I'm convinced we would have had an Orange Bowl bid," James said. "We had told the Sun Bowl we would take their bid if the Orange wasn't offered. The fact that we were in contention represents progress in itself."

Progress definitely has been made. Conference attendance records are being set each season. Four ACC teams received bowl bids in 1977 and three more received them in 1978. The bowl record was a respectable 4-3.

"They need more Clemson-Ohio State games," Pell said. "They have to do that again and again and again. One day people are going to look up and realize it's not a fluke. They're going to say, "Hey, they play good football in that ACC.'"

That day has not yet arrived. But it is getting closer.