It has been a bad summer for championship-caliber football programs. Southern Cal, the 2004 BCS winner, has been stripped of its title. Ohio State, the 2002 BCS winner, has seen its coach resign under duress. And one of the schools that played for the 2010 BCS title has been rocked with allegations that indicate its presence in Glendale, Ariz., might not have been the feel-good story of the winter.
And no, that school is not Auburn.
The Oregon Ducks lost the BCS title to Auburn on a field goal. In the run-up to the game, the scrutiny fell on Cam Newton, the Auburn quarterback from Atlanta. In the months since, no evidence has come to light to indicate that Auburn broke any rules in its recruitment of Newton. (Yes, Mississippi State sources have said Cecil Newton wanted money for his son to play – for Mississippi State.)
As for Oregon … whoa, Nellie.
Eyebrows were raised when Duck cornerback Cliff Harris was cited last month for driving 118 mph in a car rented by a university employee. (Harris has been suspended.) But the hammer dropped Friday, when Willie Lyles of Houston told Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports that the $25,000 fee he’d been by paid by Oregon wasn’t so much for “scouting services” as for his influence with Texas recruits.
(Then again, it’s possible he was offering only geographic counsel. As we know, locating Oregon isn’t always easy. The day before his team was to play Florida in the Elite Eight of the 2007 NCAA tournament, Ducks guard Tajuan Porter, who was from Detroit, conceded: “I didn’t even know Oregon was a state.”)
The Yahoo! report is extensive and damning. Said Lyles: “I look back at it now and they paid for what they saw as my access and influence with recruits. The service I provided went beyond what a scouting service should.”
Lyles told Yahoo! that, in the attempt to make the $25,000 payment look legit, Oregon demanded written ex post facto scouting reports. “They said they just needed anything. They asked for last-minute [stuff]. So I gave them last-minute [stuff] … I gave them, like, old stuff that I still had on my computer because I never thought that stuff would see the light of day.”
Lyles also provided his cell-phone records, which indicated he’d connected with Oregon coaches or officials 44 times in a 10-day period in January 2010. Seven of those calls — three incoming, four outgoing — were made to head coach Chip Kelly’s cell phone.
But wait. In March, Kelly told John Canzano, a columnist for the Portland Oregonian, he didn’t know who Willie Lyles was. Following the Yahoo! report, Canzano asked Kelly why he’d lied. The coach said he’d gotten confused, that “around here, we call him ‘Will.’ ”
(A guy named “Willie” sometimes goes by “Will” — who’d have thunk it?)
It will come as no shock that NCAA investigators are on the case, and it’s not as if the Ducks will be able to hide once the new season commences. They figure to be ranked in the preseason Top 10, and their first game — on Sept. 3, the same night Georgia plays Boise State — will come against LSU in Jerry Jones’ stadium in Arlington, Texas. And it’s not as if Oregon is a low-profile school: Its chief benefactor is alum Phil Knight, who’s the chairman of Nike, which rules the world.
Oregon’s rise to football eminence hasn’t been the smoothest. Running back LeGarrette Blount’s punching of a Boise State player after the 2009 opener became a national flashpoint. (Kelly originally suspended Blount for the remainder of the season but reinstated him for the final four games, the Rose Bowl included.) Starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was kicked off the team in 2010 after multiple arrests. (He wound up transferring to Ole Miss.)
As rocky as its path to the BCS title was — you’ll recall that Cam Newton was ruled ineligible for a day by Auburn, only to be reinstated by the NCAA the next day — Tiger backers have insisted all along their school committed no violations. The offseason has seen HBO interview former Tigers who claimed to have been paid for their services, but still nothing has surfaced to put that championship in immediate peril. And the longer it goes, the more we wonder:
Is it possible Auburn was the only team that wasn’t cheating in 2010?
By Mark Bradley