- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

The ACC’s big expansion project sure has gotten off to a flying start. Kinda like an opening kickoff that rolls out of bounds at the 27-yard line.

As you’ve no doubt heard, the football programs at Miami and Virginia Tech — the two jewels of the conference’s Big East heist — are in the midst of Major Public Relations Disasters. The Hurricanes are trying to explain how they could have missed the fact that their top recruit, linebacker Willie Williams, has been arrested 11 times in his 19 years, most recently, according to police, for some wild-and-crazy behavior during a recruiting visit to Florida. (If running backs slipped through the cracks on Williams as easily as his criminal record slipped through the cracks on Miami, he wouldn’t be able to get a job as a mascot in Division III, never mind a full boat to South Beach.)

As for Virginia Tech, the horrors there involve — among others — quarterback Marcus Vick, brother of Michael, who has been charged with four counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Police contend Vick and two teammates served alcohol to three underage girls, including a 14- and 15-year-old, at Vick’s Blacksburg apartment. Two of the girls say Vick had sex with the 15-year-old.

And how was your day, John Swofford?

It could be worse, I suppose. The ACC could have added Colorado, where every third female on campus, it seems, is claiming she was raped at a football party. Still, the situations at Miami and VaTech are pretty bad. Before the Hurricanes and Hokies have brought any gridiron glory to their new conference, they’ve inflicted it with two black eyes. And before it’s all over, the bruises are probably going to turn purple and yellow and maybe even green.

The worst thing about the cases is that they bring back all the awful memories of what the Miami and Tech programs used to be. Back in the 1990s, the ‘Canes and Hokies were the Pirates of Penzance — or at least, that was the perception. What was Michael Irvin’s famous line about the Miami team? Oh, yeah: “No.1 AP, No.1 UPI, No.1 FBI.” Virginia Tech had similar adventures in lawlessness. The two programs were so out of control, they should have worn a warning label that said, “Do not invite to the Sugar Bowl. It’s too close to Bourbon Street.”

There’s a reason Miami and Tech, national powers both, were playing in the cobbled-together Big East. No big-time football league (e.g. the ACC) would have them in those days. (ADs in other conferences envisioned scandalous encounters between players and faculty wives in the produce sections of supermarkets — with the players brandishing cucumbers like Otter in “Animal House.”)

But the Hurricanes and Hokies cleaned up their acts. They didn’t become Williams and Amherst, but at least they stopped being Sodom and Gomorrah. Their highlight films no longer looked like episodes of “Cops.”

Tech instituted a policy for dealing with criminal matters, the Comprehensive Action Plan (or CAP), that took disciplinary decisions out of the hands of the coaches and left them up to the athletic director. Things have quieted down considerably on campus since then — or at least, they had until the night of Jan.29, when Vick’s escapades are said to have taken place. Miami, meanwhile, enhanced its image by hiring as its president Donna Shalala, the former Health and Human Services secretary and ex-chancellor of the University of Wisconsin. Shalala might have come across as Machiavellian during the school’s move to the ACC, but she really does have a conscience … and lofty goals for her school.

Still, reading about Vick and Williams in the newspaper, it’s hard not to think: There goes the neighborhood. The ACC has hardly been trouble-free in recent years, but yikes! Did any of its other members ever bring discredit upon the conference before they even teed up the football? That’s like being arrested for DWI en route to the office on your first day of work. (And then, when you finally do arrive at your desk, following arraignment, having surveillance cameras catch you stealing the coffee money.)

Williams’ boosters are saying the kid deserves a 12th chance. He hasn’t stolen anything, they argue, in 18 whole months, when he ripped off $3,800 worth of stereo equipment. The university is mulling its options and, if it’s smart, counting the silverware. Vick’s attorneys, meanwhile, undoubtedly plan to offer the Freddy Adu Defense. (I have no idea what that means, it just sounded funny.)

If I were the president of Boston College, the other invitee to the ACC, I’d be a tad nervous about now. Bad things — like conference expansion — often happen in threes.

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