Tuesday February 23rd, 2010

Just a few months ago, Oregon coach Chip Kelly was being lauded for an improbable debut season, resurrecting a team that suffered an opening-week meltdown at Boise State and leading the Ducks to their first Rose Bowl in 15 years. Now, he and his program are back to being lightning-rods for national scorn amid a string of embarrassing headlines involving his players.

It began in late January when a fraternity member accused star quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and teammate Garrett Embry of stealing laptops and other expensive items from a house. No charges have been filed and neither player has commented. The case remains under investigation. But what seemed like a bombshell at the time has long since given way to a litany of other alleged transgressions by Ducks players. Four have been arrested, most notably star running back LaMichael James, who's been charged with domestic violence for allegedly grabbing his girlfriend's neck and shoving her to the ground (last week James pleaded not guilty to five misdemeanor charges and awaits a March 25 pretrial hearing). Oregon players have been involved in two campus brawls, one of which left kicker Rob Beard (later cited for misdemeanor assault, to which he has pleaded not guilty) in intensive care for two days.

The latest chapter in this soap opera unfolded last weekend, when, at 2:19 a.m. Saturday, less than 24 hours after Kelly held a press conference addressing his players' spat of misbehavior, police cited linebacker Kiko Alonso for driving under the influence of intoxicants after noticing him driving erratically. Receiver Jamere Holland, under the mistaken impression that Alonso had been kicked off the team, called Kelly out on Facebook using colorful language, including "that s--- is weak, weak, ass ----, quote me." Kelly dismissed Holland on Sunday.

The weekend's events, on top of all those incidents before them, prompted a slew of predictable, alarmist columns, most of which shared a common sentiment: That Kelly has lost control of his team.

I seriously doubt that.

College athletes get into trouble. It's unfortunate, but true. Oregon has experienced an unusually high amount of incidents in a short amount of time, but it's hardly unique.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Florida has seen a staggering 27 arrests during Urban Meyer's five years in Gainesville. Meyer has received some criticism here and there, but for the most part, he's still revered as a two-time national champion coach. No one would suggest he's lost control of his program.

Alabama's Nick Saban, the last guy anyone would ever accuse of running a loose ship, saw 10 of his players arrested during his first 18 months on the job. One player allegedly robbed two students at gunpoint; another was charged for allegedly dealing cocaine. (Both were dismissed from the team.) There was much hand-wringing at the time. Then the Crimson Tide started 12-0 the following fall, and we haven't heard much about their disciplinary problems again.

Ohio State's Jim Tressel endured 14 player arrests in his first three-plus years on the job, yet it didn't seem to mar his reputation as a fatherly statesman who wins Big Ten titles. Penn State's program was the subject of an eviscerating Outside the Lines report in July 2008 that detailed 46 player arrests over a six-year period. Joe Paterno's team proceeded to win 11 games in each of the next two seasons, and everyone seems perfectly Happy in the Valley.

My guess is that Kelly is facing more scrutiny than some of his peers simply because he's still fairly new to the job. Despite a triumphant first season that earned him national coach of the year nominations, his leadership came into question from the moment LeGarrette Blount coldcocked Boise State's Byron Hout following Oregon's season-opening loss on national television. Few questioned Kelly's judgment when, after initially suspending Blount for the season, he wound up reinstating him after eight games for purportedly meeting certain conditions. But now, in the wake of these latest incidents, some are questioning whether his handling of Blount gave his players free reign to act like hooligans.

Rrrright. You mean to tell me that when James allegedly confronted his girlfriend, he was thinking to himself, "Hey, if I get in trouble, at least Coach will reinstate me?"

There are no shortage of things for which you can blame the coach -- from a bad loss to poor recruiting to picking the wrong starting quarterback to burning his last timeout -- but I've long been skittish about these unfounded assumptions that a coach's leadership is somehow to blame when his linebacker stupidly gets behind the wheel after a night of drinking. There's no coach in the country who doesn't give his team the requisite lectures on responsibility and accountability, yet guys still inevitably find trouble. Is that the fault of the coach, or an unfortunate reality of the college environment?

There are two legitimate criticisms one might direct toward a coach when it comes to player misbehavior. One is whether a coach is recruiting "bad seeds," whether, in the zeal to win games, he is overlooking character flaws when bringing in potential stars. It's a fair point, but in most cases there are only a handful of people who know a particular 19-year-old well enough to say whether he's a good guy who made one bad decision or an all-together bad dude. Generally speaking, those people don't write blogs or newspaper columns.

Secondly, there are always questions surrounding a coach's response to misdeeds. It's no secret that many apply double standards based on the stature of the player.

On Monday, Kelly suspended Alonso -- a two-year backup -- for the 2010 season, presumably to send a "message" that he's laying down the law. That's a far harsher sentence than the typical DUI case. As you may recall, Meyer suspended star defensive end Carlos Dunlap for the SEC Championship Game following his DUI arrest; he was reinstated for the Sugar Bowl. Tressel held out starting defensive tackle Doug Worthington for one quarter of last year's season opener following his summer DUI arrest, citing Worthington's "whole body of work -- the total time that a young man has been here."

Critics invariably wring their hands over these stories, too. While I would never, ever condone someone driving while impaired -- or committing any other similarly dangerous crime -- I can't bring myself to get indignant when a coach gives an offending player the star treatment. Why? Because whatever outrage fans or media may feign about a player bringing shame to his university, they still care far more that their coaches win, or else.

Take the case of LSU's Les Miles, who received no shortage of criticism two years ago for giving second chance after second chance to troubled quarterback Ryan Perrilloux. It soon became clear why he did. Miles eventually cut him loose, and LSU's quarterback play has been its biggest weakness ever since. The Tigers have gone a modest 17-9 the past two seasons, and now the former national championship coach is feeling far more heat than he ever did over Perrilloux.

Meanwhile, Miami -- the original "Thug U" -- has cleaned itself up to the point where it's had just one player arrest in three years under coach Randy Shannon, and the school tied for the second-highest graduation rate among teams in last year's final AP poll. But you still hear far more people questioning Shannon's coaching acumen (he's 21-17 in his first three seasons) than lauding him for his players' exemplary standing.

Clearly, this hasn't been the most pleasant few weeks for Kelly. His star running back spent two nights in jail last week and his eligibility may be in limbo since he currently isn't allowed on campus. Kelly's reputation is being besmirched in the media. His boss, university president Richard Lariviere, issued a statement over the weekend calling the recent spat of incidents "unacceptable." That can't sit well.

But the question of whether Kelly has "lost control of his program," or whether this was simply an unfortunate cluster of episodes, won't likely be answered until the fall. I wouldn't go drawing conclusions from one troubled malcontent's Facebook page. (Holland, a USC transfer, had well-documented academic and attitude issues during his short time in Eugene.)

The Ducks, expected to return 17 starters from last year's 10-3 team (one of them being James, whose status is obviously up in the air), sit on the short list of potential BCS contenders. Should they fulfill those expectations, these headlines of the past few weeks will become a distant memory. Should they tank, Kelly will feel the brunt of it, and many may rightly wonder whether recent events paved the way for Oregon's downturn.

The type of headlines coming out of Eugene these days are unfortunate, yet sadly a reality of big-time college football today. We read them all the time, involving players all around the country; we're just not used to reading them about Oregon, a relatively new player on the national scene.

There's no evidence to suggest Kelly's program is any more "out of control" than Florida, Alabama, Ohio State or Penn State. The only difference is Oregon's coach doesn't hold a national title ring.

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