TALLAHASSEE, FLA. -- A month ago, Florida State joined the Atlantic Coast Conference, and eight football coaches shuddered.

The men who are in charge of the existing eight ACC football teams said they were pleased to have such fine competition, but they also know what they are in for when the Seminoles begin playing a conference schedule in 1993 or 1994.

Florida State has finished in the top three of the Associated Press poll in each of the past three seasons. Only once in those three years has an ACC team finished in the top 10; Clemson was ninth in 1988. (Virginia, of course, is ranked No. 1 now, with FSU 12th.)

The decision to invite Florida State into the ACC was couched in the flowery language of academia, but the real reason the Seminoles were brought into the fold, from the ACC's vantage point, is that they play great football.

"Obviously, it was football-driven," said Duke Athletic Director Tom Butters, who joined Maryland in voting against FSU's entry into the league. "The ACC looked at other factors, but the decision was driven by football."

However, there is much more to Florida State's athletic portfolio than football. The ACC hasn't simply invited a football bully to move onto the block. It has brought in an industrial-strength athletic juggernaut that could dominate the rest of the conference in many of the 16 sports the school plays.

Some in the ACC see this as a positive, a chance to raise the level of play throughout the league by having a strong competitor to play against. Others are not so sure.

"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," Maryland Athletic Director Andy Geiger said.

"For the Olympic sports like baseball, tennis and swimming, we've got a steep mountain to climb. Don't get me wrong. We're going to go after them, we're going to compete. But the point is they're very good and we're not so good and we need to address that. We've got a lot of work to do."The Bigger Picture

The refrain is being heard around the ACC. Florida State, recruiting and playing in the sunshine and warm weather that has attracted hundreds of blue-chip prospects over the years, brings the largest enrollment (28,077) and the second largest football stadium (60,519 to Clemson's 79,854) to the conference.

The school sent 12 of its 16 teams (or individuals from those teams) to NCAA postseason play in the 1989-90 season. The Seminoles baseball team, which has reached the College World Series three of the last five years and has qualified for the NCAA regionals 13 consecutive seasons, made the regional finals and was ranked seventh in the nation last year. The women's softball team tied for third in the College World Series. The women's track team was 13th at the NCAA championships. The men's golf team was eighth in the NCAAs.

"They provide formidable competition in many areas, but I welcome that," said Butters, whose objection in the conference vote was to ACC expansion, not to Florida State. "To me, that's not negative. We will not allow Florida State's program to change the philosophy of what we do here at Duke, but the fact that their teams are so good may help our programs."

That is the hope of Tom Bradley, a Maryland alumnus who has returned home after coaching the baseball team at Jacksonville University the last 12 years. The former major league pitcher is taking over a team that finished last in the ACC last season and has just 7 1/2 scholarships to Florida State's 13.

"The addition of Florida State is going to make it tougher for the Dukes, Marylands and Virginias to get into a regional tournament," Bradley said. "It's going to make it tougher for us to get a bid down the road, when we turn things around here. There are five powerhouse schools in the ACC in baseball: North Carolina, Clemson, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech and Florida State. The addition of Florida State will raise the stature of the league, but it will be tougher on us."The Basketball Question

What effect Florida State will have on the crown jewel of the conference -- basketball -- is anyone's guess. Coach Pat Kennedy's team was 16-15 last season and was not selected for the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years. The Seminoles will begin conference play in 1991-92, and most observers expect them to be strong contenders within a few years.

As schools jump regional barriers and conferences continue to shift and realign, Florida State's leap from football independent and Metro Conference member to the ACC makes as much sense as any of the recent high-profile moves.

The ACC studied the state of Florida as it negotiated with the Seminoles and found some statistics very much to its liking. There are about nine million homes with televisions in ACC states. There are 5.5 million homes with TVs in Florida alone. Also, there are more newspapers with circulation of 200,000 or more in Florida than there are in the five other states combined that have ACC members.

"This brings us into the state of Florida," ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan said when the decision was announced Sept. 15. "That's the key, I think. That may be the thing more on our people's minds than anything else."

"We've opened up the state of Florida," Geiger said. "The major networks could be expected to be much more excited about ACC football now."

There is something in this for Florida State too. The Seminoles were talking with the Southeastern Conference, but football coach Bobby Bowden said bluntly he didn't think he could win a national title playing a murderous SEC schedule. Bowden knows what it takes to win the national title, even if he hasn't won it yet. What it doesn't take is three or four losses.

"With the SEC, we'd really be sectionalized if we played there, played a schedule of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and so and so," Bowden said in a recent interview. "You can't afford to take on all of them and Notre Dame, Miami and Florida unless you want to go 7-4 every year, at the best."

Florida State did not need the football identity of the SEC. It already had it.

But Butters wonders if the ACC did not make a decision based too heavily on that sport.

"I have great respect for what Florida State is in football, but that doesn't necessarily last forever," Butters said. "You only have to go back 15 years to the pre-Bowden days (when FSU won four games in the three seasons prior to Bowden's arrival). That leads to a question for reasonable men and women to ponder: What happens post-Bowden?"

Until that moment, if not after, the ACC possesses one of the great football programs of our day. And Florida State finally owns, as one player put it, a certain mystique.

"It was a good deal for both of us," said FSU senior tight end Dave Roberts. "What they're gaining is one of the top football powers in the country, a school whose basketball program is on the rise and who has stable programs in all its sports. The main thing we're gaining is future financial stability and the ACC mystique. When you say an Ivy League school or an ACC school, that has a connotation about it that sheds a good light. It's going to be nice to be able to say, 'I'm going to an ACC school: Florida State.' "