June 30 - The conscience of the Clinton administration came through as expected Monday afternoon. She didn’t show up.
DONNA SHALALA, FORMER SECRETARY of Health and Human Services under Bill Clinton and present president of the University of Miami, announced Monday that the Hurricanes would abandon their partners in the Big East and jump to the Atlantic Coast Conference starting with the 2004-05 season. This came after she previously had promised she would not do so unless her friends at Boston College and Syracuse were also invited.
This is the same Shalala who supposedly scolded Clinton when he finally admitted to his Cabinet members that underneath it, all he did understand what the meaning of the word “is” is, and what it meant at the moment was “We is all in trouble here now.” Perhaps she did scold him in private after learning he did have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, but Shalala wasn’t willing to give up the limo ride to work to scold him in public.
In other words, she sold herself out then, and she sold herself out again Monday. That’s no longer a coincidence or a matter of circumstance. It’s a trend.
The assurances she gave B.C. and Syracuse, which were made on several occasions when this greedy process all began, went up in smoke when the ACC did a dixie on both schools after visiting them and pronouncing each as acceptable. What was apparently not acceptable to a lot of the members of the ACC was the cost of traveling there when they could go more easily to Blacksburg, Va., or Miami and encounter better weather along the way, not to mention better teams.
Miami, B.C. and Syracuse were originally in cahoots to destroy the Big East for the same reason, by the way: big money. The difference is, B.C. and Syracuse never gave any indication remotely hinting that honor was involved. They simply said they were going wherever Miami was because wherever Miami was going was close to a bank.
It was only Shalala who took this publicly to a different level when she promised not to jump without her Northeast partners. Obviously, when Shalala first made that statement, she was under the mistaken belief that the ACC was going to add the other two schools as promised. That would allow the conference to have enough teams to stage a championship game that could be sold for huge money to TV, thus guaranteeing everyone in the ACC an additional big payoff.
Conversely, what B.C. and Syracuse realized is what they still know: Without Miami, the Big East conference is on life support. Now it is even worse off without Virginia Tech because the teams that have won nine of the past 10 Big East football titles are abandoning ship.
Once upon a time (say, about a week ago) Virginia Tech was adamantly opposed to dismantling the Big East. In fact, it joined in a lawsuit contending it and the remaining Big East schools had spent millions on their football programs on the presumption that its partners, particularly Miami, would not abandon them. The Hokies held adamantly to that position until the very moment the ACC decided to stab B.C. and Syracuse in the back and admit Virginia Tech along with Miami, meaning the only two national football powerhouses in the Big East would both be gone.
Virginia Tech immediately withdrew from the lawsuit that meant so much to them and accepted the ACC’s offer even before Shalala could grab the money for Miami and run to the ACC herself. Why? Because Shalala understood politics.
She understood a weekend of public handwringing would accomplish one of two aims. It would either net Miami an even bigger ransom offer from the Big East to stay than the five-year, $45 million guarantee already on the table, or it would at least give her the appearance of laboring over the difficulties of going on without her friends to the North.
Shalala even went so far as to accept the move to the ACC on Monday in halfhearted fashion, saying, “We are reluctantly accepting” admittance.
Reluctantly? If you’re so reluctant, don’t go. Or if you believe what you said a week ago about not going without B.C. and Syracuse, then tell the ACC you made clear what your university’s position was and you’re going to do a very unpolitically correct thing these days. You’re going to keep your word.
Don’t say you’re “deeply disappointed” that Syracuse and B.C. were left behind. You could have made sure they weren’t left behind simply by
sticking with them like you said you would.
Or, failing that, just say from the start what most people assumed all along. Just say, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” and leave honor and deep disappointment and reluctance and your partners all in the rear-view mirror, where they ended up any way.
“It’s been a bizarre, strange and goofy process,” Shalala said after announcing her school’s shift, “but it has allowed us the opportunity to have the distance to decide who we are, where we are and where we want to go.”
They decided they are people who cannot keep their word. They decided they are people who are capable of “reluctantly” screwing their partners over a few million dollars despite already making millions with their football program. They decided they are people who were already challenging for the national championship every season. They decided they are people who said without being asked that they wouldn’t leave without B.C. and Syracuse, then ignored their own words and went where they wanted to go — the direction of the largest pile of money.
Last Friday, Shalala said she was “torn” over the decision she had to ponder over the weekend. Torn over what decision? If you are a person whose word means anything, there was nothing to be torn about. You say, “Thanks, but no thanks. We said all along we’d only go if Syracuse and B.C. came with us. You said that was okay with you. Now we end up with Virginia Tech? Wrong! You end up with Virginia Tech. We end up with the Big East covering our travel expenses and guaranteeing us $45 million over five years. Nice talking to you.”
The reason that didn’t happen is the same reason this entire underhanded deal went down the way it did in the first place. It was always about the money for everyone from the start. The ACC. B.C. Syracuse. Virginia Tech. Most of all Miami. Always.
It was never about loyalty. It was never about partnerships. It was never about honesty. It was never about honor. It was always about the politics of expediency.
Most of all, it was about Miami becoming part of a huge TV contract and an even bigger conference championship game. Of course, that will require that the ACC steal one more team from some other soon-to-become hapless conference or whine until the NCAA changes its rules to allow 11-team conferences to hold title games.
Shalala has wedded her university to that future raiding by turning her back on the people she said she’d never leave without. It’s the direction she wants to take the University of Miami.
Of course, when that raid occurs, Donna Shalala will only be participating reluctantly.
Ron Borges writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the NFL and boxing for the Boston Globe.
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