Senior Writer

Ducks conduct business as usual despite latest controversy


EUGENE, Ore. -- The curtains were drawn in Chip Kelly's office Tuesday afternoon but not out of any sense of mourning. In sometimes-dreary Eugene, it was actually sunny on the first day of summer. You would never know it from reading the headlines.

The day after a public-records request turned up a slew of embarrassing documents, Chip was ... well, Chip. Bouncing around the office, ebullient, talking as fast as his Scoregon offense scores. The Ducks' coach was oblivious, it seemed, to increasing NCAA interest in the Will Lyles matter.

"We have given the NCAA everything, we will continue to give the NCAA everything," Kelly said. "It's in their hands."

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If there were such a thing, Lyles' mug would be slapped on a Most Wanted poster for an NCAA seeking to stamp out third-party influence in college football. The Houston-based trainer has been described as a talent scout, friend and perhaps villain. A few weeks after tailback sensation Lache Seastrunk signed, Oregon paid Lyles $25,000 for a national recruiting package that lacked national scope and timely information.

Lyles, described as Seastrunk's mentor, has denied any wrongdoing.

"Will's a great guy. I know Will as a person. I don't know Will as a recruiter or business guy," tailback LaMichael James said. "The simple fact is when I was down or something happened to me or I got in trouble, Will was there for me."

James, a fellow Texan, said Lyles helped him get seen by schools during the recruiting process when he wasn't a big-time recruit. He added that Lyles never pushed Oregon to him over other schools.

The school released more documents Tuesday night that raise more questions than they answer. Emails from Lyles to the football office containing spreadsheets full of prospects are from February and March of this year. That's approximately a year after Oregon already paid Lyles the $25,000.

It's clear, though, that Oregon officials are confident at this point. The School That Nike Built has a lot to lose, which would be an upset. The program isn't used to losing much since Kelly replaced Mike Bellotti in 2009. The Ducks are 22-4 with back-to-back BCS appearances since then. If the walls are closing in around Oregon football, they only got as close as those curtains that shut out the world in the finely appointed Casanova Center.

"Praise and blame are all the same," Kelly said. "It doesn't change how you go to work."

And with that, Kelly was off. Off the record that is, in regards to the NCAA investigation that is still in the initial stages. Despite the rosy outlook, it has the potential to be one of the low points in the school's athletic history. Consider that Oregon has been penalized for major infractions only twice in the 60-year history of the NCAA enforcement process (1981, 2004). Both cases involved football, although one in 1981 also included men's basketball.

"I have full confidence we are absolutely doing it the right way," athletic director Rob Mullens said.

The former deputy AD at Kentucky has been on the job for 10 months. The man knows, shall we say, the "competitive" nature of the SEC. Mullens says, in general, it is still possible to win big without cheating. The alternative can be a program killer. Mullens arrived at Kentucky at a time when the football program had lost 19 scholarships over three seasons under Hal Mumme.

"All you have to do is see what that does ... ," Mullens said. "We were [reduced to being] a I-AA team in Year 2 [of the scholarship cuts]."

Oregon isn't headed in that direction -- yet. The program's compliance department seems robustly staffed, with four full-timers and an intern, according to Mullens. But as we've seen in the Ohio State case, vigilance against wrongdoing varies from school to school.

James is not unlike thousands of his peers. He told on Tuesday college players should be paid because "coaches make millions of dollars a year." James added that he "totally" understood why the Buckeye Five sold their gear for benefits and money.

"It's not something I would do," James said. "I wouldn't want to jeopardize my team, my career. But if a person chooses to sell something that is his, I don't understand [why he can't]. If he sells some gloves, they're just gloves."

For better or worse, Mullens finds a small comparison between Kelly and his old basketball coach at Kentucky, John Calipari.

"They have a tremendous work ethic and are outstanding leaders," Mullens said. "Cal thrives on, 'All eyes on him.' Chip's a ball coach who ... would prefer to stick to the trade of coaching and strategizing."

Mullens oversees a football program that has had its share of bad publicity since Kelly took over as head coach. Former quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was eventually kicked off the team after a series of legal problems. Former tailback LeGarrette Blount was suspended after punching a Boise State player in the 2009 opener.

James, a 2010 Heisman finalist, missed last season's opener because of a suspension. Star defensive back Cliff Harris is suspended indefinitely after recently being caught going 118 mph on the nearby I-5.

Will Harris end up like Masoli or Blount/James, who both thrived after returning from their suspensions?

"That's the big question," Kelly said. "I told Cliff, 'How this thing ends up, depends on your name. You get to write the finish.'"

For much of its history, Oregon football has been written off. It wasn't until an 8-4 season under Rich Brooks in 1989 that the program began to dig out from years of mediocrity. Mike Bellotti replaced Brooks and achieved Oregon's first double-digit win season in 2000. The next season, the Ducks won the Fiesta Bowl. Kelly, Bellotti's hand-picked guy, has taken the Ducks to a new level.

With the Pac-12 ready to debut this fall, Oregon is starting to look a lot like Southern California used to in the league.

Dominant. Unstoppable. A program that does everything right. At least on the field.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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