Oregon Ducks' 27-month NCAA saga ends with wrist-slap sanctions
If Wednesday's NCAA sanctions announcement against Oregon were a scene from a movie, it would be the one where Ferris Bueller turns to the camera after convincing his parents he's too sick to go to school and proudly proclaims: "They bought it!"
Twenty-seven months after Oregon football got busted for cutting a $25,000 check to Will Lyles -- mentor to former Ducks star LaMichael James and five-star 2010 signee Lache Seastrunk, the latter of whom has since transferred to Baylor -- for what turned out to be non-existent recruiting service material, the NCAA's Committee on Infractions rendered its sentence. Calling the sanctions a slap on the wrist might actually be too severe of a description. How will Oregon ever recover from losing one scholarship in each of the next two years? How will the Ducks possibly build a recruiting class if they're only allowed 37 official prospect visits instead of the 41 they averaged the previous four years?
The committee did dole out one seemingly substantive punishment, an 18-month show-cause penalty to former Oregon coach Chip Kelly for his failure to monitor the program. A show-cause is the normally dreaded designation that effectively banned recent offenders Jim Tressel and Bruce Pearl from receiving other college jobs. Kelly, however, left Oregon this January to coach the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, where he'll have $32.5 million reasons not to sweat his NCAA exile.
Fans of rival schools, most notably sanction-crippled USC, will surely howl that Oregon just got away with NCAA bylaw robbery. That might be overstating it a tad, but Wednesday's announcement certainly feels like an anticlimactic result following a 27-month investigation. Silly us in the media for considering this case a window into the NCAA's purported crackdown on third-party influencers in recruiting. Instead, the committee's 30-page report reads like a gentle admonishment against the Oregon program for administrative errors.
For that, "The Cleaner" Michael Glazier, the choice attorney for numerous universities (Ohio State, UCF, et. al.) facing the NCAA enforcement process, earned every bit of his billable hours by working this case for Oregon.
The report repeatedly refers to Lyles as a "recruiting service provider," as opposed to a middleman, street agent or any number of other less flattering titles commonly slapped on him during this process. Both the enforcement staff and the committee accept as fact that Lyles was, at least at some point, a legitimate provider of recruiting material who in turn either dropped the ball, crossed the line or both when he started getting paid for anything other than recruiting material.
The following exchange, cited in the report, between a committee member and Kelly during Oregon's April 20 hearing is pretty telling:
Committee member: OK. Then in February , you have [Seastrunk] sign a Letter of Intent with the university, and then you have shortly thereafter a $25,000 invoice to the university that is paid (to the recruiting service provider) as part of the contractual relationship for services that ultimately were never provided. Is that a fair assessment? I am just trying to get to the essence of this.
Former head coach: Yes, I understand. The services weren't totally provided in terms of what we should have got.
With that largely implausible statement, any notion that Oregon paid Lyles to deliver a recruit is rendered moot and the entire case takes on a less serious tone. Apparently, Lyles merely overstepped his bounds as a "recruiting service provider" by chauffeuring Kelly during evaluation visits and making calls and contacts to prospects on Oregon's behalf. Some staff members made impermissible phone calls. A former assistant director of football operations (Josh Gibson) took too active a role in recruiting. The football staff failed to properly educate itself about rules pertaining to recruiting services.
Kelly, as the head coach when his staff engaged in these impermissible activities, was found guilty of a failure to monitor his program, and was thus handed the show-cause penalty. And with that, new Oregon coach Mark Helfrich will be free to conduct business as usual. The Ducks, who should once again contend for the Pac-12 and national titles, are free to participate in the postseason.
Carry on, college football followers.
Committee on Infractions decisions are often wildly inconsistent from one case to the next, partly because of varying circumstances, partly because there are no firm sentencing guidelines and partly because the committee roster varies from case to case. USC got decimated because of extra benefits bestowed on one player (Reggie Bush) by figures with no ties to the program. Angry Trojans fans will surely point out that Oregon in turn got a free pass for extra benefits bestowed on one player (Seastrunk) by a person who had a working relationship with Ducks coaches. Ducks fans might counter that the estimated $400 value of services Lyles provided to Seastrunk was a fraction of the six-figure benefits Bush enjoyed. Left unsaid: The committee praised Oregon both in its report and in a media teleconference Wednesday for the university's cooperation throughout the process, which may have helped minimize penalties; USC and then-AD Mike Garrett notoriously fought the NCAA every step of the way.
Furthermore, one might reasonably praise the committee for a rare instance in which its punishment actually impacted the responsible parties. In the USC case, Matt Barkley and the rest of the 2010-11 Trojans paid the price for violations committed by a player in 2004-05. Here, Kelly and Gibson (who received a one-year show-cause) were punished (even if Kelly's show-cause is effectively unenforceable); Marcus Mariota and De'Anthony Thomas were not.
However a given fan feels, the end result is that Oregon's case will go down as an afterthought in NCAA infractions history. Boise State got stiffer penalties for letting incoming players sleep on current players' couches. As NCAA compliance expert John Infante wrote Wednesday, the entire system is just more than a month away from a complete overhaul (a larger committee, stiffer penalties), with only this and the much-chronicled Miami case remaining on the lame-duck committee's docket. It almost seemed as though the committee simply wanted to push the Oregon case off the deck.
Maybe that's why the committee accepted at face value the absurd notion that Lyles was a "recruiting service provider." If NCAA penalties are supposed to deter others from committing the same crimes, Wednesday's announcement will do nothing to scare off other coaching staffs from paying middlemen to attain access to potential recruits. Perhaps a current college head coach will look at Kelly's show-cause penalty and start paying closer attention to his staff's activities. Or perhaps that coach will call his agent to begin securing an NFL parachute.