When you have a brush fire out of control and surrounding the homestead, you first fight the flames licking closest to the front porch. And in every grubby way possible. Which is why that NCAA special convention last week passed some rules that otherwise would be an insult to normal intelligence and an assault on human dignity.

As they left New Orleans, college presidents and other reformers of a system raging out of control almost could be heard chanting:

"Two . . . four . . . six . . . eight.

"Who can we in-car-cer-ate?"

It's about time.

The folks in charge of the bucket brigade, the presidents, are the very ones who should have spotted the smoke in the first place -- but either didn't or thought maybe the wind direction would change and blow away the danger without any tough, messy work.

No way.

What seemed in most serious trouble was credibility, the very real fear that cheating has become so rampant that fans no longer will underwrite the games -- and the schools.

So . . .

A school that twice sins mightily within a five-year period might well lose some or all of its games for the next two years. This so-called "death penalty" is fairly complicated -- and long overdue.

You may take notes.

Let's say the tennis coach at Buy U. had been caught stuffing $20 bills in the shoes of his nationally ranked doubles team and was slapped with probation in 1983. Then, if the booster club at Buy U. gets convicted in 1987 by the NCAA of, say, paying linebackers $15 per quarterback sack, the football program would be in danger of being sidelined for a while.

Or if the golf team at Clemson happens to be naughty shortly after Sept. 1, it may find its schedule dropped because football has been on NCAA probation.

This is rather like the bizarre double-secret probation in Animal House.



And, in this instance, wonderful.

For too long, collegiate athletic banditry either has gone largely unnoticed or embarrassingly underpunished.

"The real shame," the president of Northwestern (La.) State, Joseph Orze, told The Post's Mark Asher, "is that intercollegiate athletics need to have such strict and threatening rules to keep them from such abuses. There should be a certain level of integrity at colleges, and this hellfire and brimstone approach should not be necessary. It's a shame that it is."


It seems reasonable, for instance, for a basketball prospect to get every chance to assure that his choice of a college is sound. Then a Moses Malone visits about two dozen schools, becomes known as "America's guest" and legislation, limiting paid trips to six, is required.

Trust is fine, until a losing coach on the final year of a contract can sign the premier player of his generation by altering a couple of Ds to Bs and arranging a loan that never will be repaid. Some schools, one of them being Oklahoma in football, can lose bowl appearances and television money for a year or so and still not suffer much.

Canceling the program for a year or so is a powerful jolt. A lost season in football at Florida would affect recruiting enough to be harmful for several years. Because football finances so much at most schools, lost gate receipts that season might cause innocent minor sports at Florida to cease.

"(The NCAA) might not need as many (investigatory) people," Penn State's Joe Paterno argues. "There may be fewer people tempted to cheat, because the consequences are so dire."

The other important rule says that a school that hires a coach found guilty of a violation within two years must have a powerfully pure reason. Otherwise, it will be punished. That will keep those such as Charley Pell from hopping from Clemson to Florida just before NCAA marshals, guns blazing, ride into town.

The other half-dozen or so rules are more cosmetic than cosmic.

To some, the downside of this landmark legislation is that it won't hold up in court. If Al Davis cannot be tied to Oakland, as NFL law demanded, brilliant lawyers might well be persuasive enough to make last week's good work unworkable.

"It's going to be difficult to carry out what these proposals are supposed to do," Florida President Marshall Criser admitted. "I expect a lot of lawsuits."

Anticipating that sort of reaction, perhaps each contract for each future game could include a cancellation clause that would void it if the program were found guilty of NCAA infractions. The new rules, after all, seem to be saying: we won't play with a cheater. This would make that a bit more specific.

The 44-member NCAA Presidents Commission, chaired by Indiana President John W. Ryan, deserves praise for writing the legislation and ramrodding it through the convention. Vowed Ryan: "It's a first step."

This suggests that the presidents will do whatever is necessary to douse other fires, which include lack of academic integrity, economic excesses and length of seasons. Some of those issues are more troublesome than the ones addressed in New Orleans -- and more difficult to resolve.

Still, it's welcome relief to realize that fewer college presidents are saying to those who dash into their offices with some new fire sighting: "Can't be bothered with that just now. Oh, and on your way out, will you please close the blinds?"