Was that Clemson dropping a flag, then walking off yards on its own football program? Clemson suspending four of its players and reprimanding two others for their antisocial (not to mention antediluvian) behavior at the close of last Saturday's Maryland game? Disciplining its similarly egregious coach by putting him on a probation that includes being barred from the sideline in next year's Maryland game?


Are we talking about the Clemson with the rich, fabled history of cheating? The Clemson that for years has allowed the athletic tail to wag the educational dog? That Clemson?

If you'd been told that a certain big-time football school was agreeing to quick and decisive action to punish its own miscreants, how many guesses would you have needed before you chose Clemson?

Those were repulsive performances on Saturday -- Danny Ford's berserk, profane walkabout on the field, and some of his toadies subsequently mauling Maryland's Lewis Askew on the sideline. The contemptuous tone that Ford set by stepping so far over the line, literally and figuratively, might have incited their riotous behavior. Ford's probationary status, albeit vague, and his specific banishment from the sideline for the 1986 Maryland game indicates that people agreed Ford was strategically culpable.

Was the punishment swift? Yes. Do the punishments fit the crimes? In the case of the players, yes. In the case of the coach, arguably not. Ford is the most responsible party. His punishment should reflect that. But this was no whitewashing. Clemson, in conjunction with Atlantic Coast Conference officials, reached a reasonable verdict.

Four Clemson players have been suspended from Saturday's game against South Carolina. Two of them are seniors. They will have ended their college careers ignominiously if Clemson doesn't go to a bowl game. Of the Gang of Six who were disciplined, the three underclassmen are prohibited from playing in next year's Maryland game. And Ford can't coach that game from the sideline, though it might have been fairer to suspend him for South Carolina, too. It may well be that justice has been both wise and merciful, ensuring the offenders' safety by keeping them away from the College Park field, but that is simply a graceful addendum.

The apologies that were forthcoming from Clemson, Ford and his players would not have been enough. "This behavior does not belong in intercollegiate athletics," Bobby Robinson, Clemson's athletic director, stated. "We want the athletic department to have a positive influence on Clemson University."

By quickly admitting responsibility and complying straightaway with the ACC review, by not stalling and forcing the conference, or the NCAA, into the slow, deliberate steps of bureaucratic investigation, Clemson, an unexpected source, may have taken a step forward in meaningful self-discipline.

A school's first obligation is to police itself, and a school needs courage to take on its athletic department. But there is no real deterrent without real penalty. If you want deterrent, you must take away the thing that matters most to a coach and the players: You must take away the game.

Players, who have a finite number of games to play, lose something they never can recover. Coaches, who are judged by whether they win or lose, must suffer the uncertainty of someone else's hand on their razor.

Clemson and the ACC took away the game. Good.

"I was shocked," admitted Dick Dull, Maryland's athletic director, after he learned of the punishments. "I'm not saying it wasn't appropriate, but I didn't think it would be this quick, or this severe." Having been conditioned to slaps on the wrist so light they fairly float, Dull expected "some written reprimands to the players and the kind of probation for Ford that no one would define." He was not only shocked, he was delighted: "Clemson cleaned its own house, and did it decisively and publicly."

Let the word be spread that college sports will not tolerate the labor goon mentality. The players, who are after all college students, and the coaches, who often are college graduates, shall be held accountable for aggravated assaults. If Danny Ford carries on like a rum-dum, fine him a game or two. Ohio State and Michigan should have done it years ago to Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. What paper do these guys have that exempts them from the laws of decency the rest of us are held to? Behaving like a goat doesn't make you a fierce competitor. It makes you a goat.