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Oregon Ducks’ Football Empire on Verge of Collapse

The Oregon Ducks are coming off a trip to the BCS title game and are a favorite to win the 2011 national title. But with the football program’s involvement with Houston recruiting scout Willie Lyles in question, could paradise soon be lost?  – Jim Weber

In order to truly understand the angst in Eugene right now, you must first understand just how far Oregon’s football program has come in the last two decades.

After joining the Pac-10 Since joining the conference in 1968, Oregon was a constant punching bag for Pac-10 powers: USC, UCLA and Washington.

Even when armed with college football greats like Bobby Moore (now Ahmad Rashad) and Dan Fouts, the Ducks still were no better than a .500 team that couldn’t reach a bowl game.

But that all changed in 1994, when Oregon went on a miraculous run to the Rose Bowl with Rich Brooks’ “Gang Green” – the program’s first Rose Bowl since 1958 and a season that gave Oregon fans their first taste of big-time success.

But after a lopsided loss to Penn State in Pasadena and another blowout defeat the following year in the Cotton Bowl, it was clear Oregon couldn’t yet compete with the big boys.

A couple days after the ‘96 Cotton Bowl loss, a concerned booster approached then-head coach Mike Bellotti and asked how the Ducks could take the next step. The answer? An indoor practice facility.

That booster just-so-happened to be Nike founder and Oregon alum Phil Knight, who had the $1 million facility completed within two years.

You know what’s happened since then. Oregon has become “Nike U,” switching their uniforms practically each game to impress recruits, giving Autzen Stadium an $80 million renovation nearly a decade ago and turning into a school that recruits nationally and regularly hauls in top talent from recruiting hot beds California and Texas.

It all culminated last season with a trip to the BCS National Championship Game and a chance to play for the program’s first national title. While the Ducks fell short, there’s no reason to believe Oregon can’t win the national title this year with plenty of key components back from last year’s squad, most specifically Heisman candidate running back LaMichael James.

Not only is this the apex of a long journey for the football program, it’s also an apex for the whole university. Oregon was once only known as a hippie school in the Northwest. Now? It’s a national brand like Michigan, Texas and USC.

According to The Register-Guard, Oregon received over 22,000 undergraduate applications this spring – a 22% increase over last year. Hmmm, now what could have happened between last year and this year that could have caused that?

The Register-Guard also reported that, since 2000, undergraduate applications have risen 273% - during which time the Ducks have become one of the best programs in the nation.

Enter Willie Lyles, the man who could eventually lead to the fall of the Oregon Empire.

The football program was already under a cloud of suspicion and a preliminary NCAA investigation for a $25,000 payment to Lyles in March of 2010 just weeks after uber-recruit running back Lache Seastrunk  - for whom Lyles was a mentor – shocked the recruiting world when he committed to play for the Ducks, claiming he was led there by God.

The bomb officially dropped on Oregon last Monday when a public records request by The Oregonian led to Lyles’ laughable “2010 National High School Evaluation Booklet” that profiles many players who were already in college, uses outdated information and generally looks like a booklet not worth the paper it was printed on.

Just as comical, the domain name for Lyles’ website for CompleteScouting.com was registered three weeks after Lyles invoiced Oregon. Once suspicion arose over Lyles’ legitimacy in March, a price tag of $25,000 suddenly popped up next to his national high-school package.

At best, Lyles is another shady character who looms over college sports like William Wesley – a.k.a. “Worldwide Wes” – and Carmelo Anthony’s manager, Bay Frazier, hanging around rising child athletes in hopes they will cash in on those relationships once the phenoms become professional athletes.

At worst, Lyles is another street agent like Ed Martin, the infamous Michigan booster who steered recruits to Ann Arbor during the 1990s, paid Wolverine basketball players hundreds of thousands and helped assemble the Fab Five.

Considering Lyles was accused of shopping former LSU star Patrick Peterson to Texas A&M for $80,000 when the cornerback was a star recruit in high school, Lyles looks like the latter.

Now it not only looks like Oregon paid Lyles to lead Seastrunk to Oregon, people are wondering if LaMichael James – another Texas native who has a friendship with Lyles – was also steered to Eugene by Lyles. Oh, and you can bet the media will be digging for a similar shady relationship with Oregon star quarterback Darron Thomas, who hails from outside Houston.

As if there isn’t enough dirt there, there’s also concerns about the program’s relationship with Baron Flenory, a former defensive back at New Hampshire while Kelly was an assistant there who now runs 7-on-7 football camps that have been likened to the shady AAU circuit for basketball. Flenory, who has been paid by Oregon in the past, has had his close relationship with Dallas linebacker recruit and incoming Oregon freshman Anthony Wallace questioned.

Oregon has just two techniques to save Kelly from going down in flames:

#1: Play dumb and say it is equally appalled with the bogus nature of Lyles’ recruiting booklet and that Oregon was had by a deceiving con man.

#2: Have someone in the football office fall on his or her sword by taking full responsibility for ordering the booklet and claiming Kelly had nothing to do with it.

Needless to say, both of those are about as flimsy as Jim Tressel’s excuse that he didn’t tell anyone about his player’s NCAA violations because he was worried about their safety.

Like Tressel, the media has now circled Oregon like sharks with blood in the water. They will file Freedom of Information Acts and dig up dirt wherever they can find it in an attempt to directly implicate Kelly in all of this like the anonymous tip to Yahoo! Sports that tipped them off to the fact Tressel knew about his players selling their own memorabilia for cash and tattoos and lied about it.

In other words, Chip Kelly is now one damning archived e-mail or anonymous tip away from losing his job and leading to large NCAA sanctions that will take a wrecking ball to Oregon’s remarkable rise to college football royalty, setting the program back years, from which Oregon may never regain its current success.

So forgive Oregon fans if they bury their heads in the sand until the season opener vs. LSU on Sept. 3 in Cowboys Stadium, clinging to hope that when they lift their heads, they’ll still see Kelly roaming the sidelines.

Jim Weber is the president and founder of LostLettermen.com. His column appears each Monday. He can be reached at jweber@lostlettermen.com.

 
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