Oregon coach Chip Kelley faces tough questions on Pac-12 football media day.
LOS ANGELES — Here at the first Pac-12 football media day, the luncheon fare was build-your-own-sandwich — turkey, roast beef, tuna — and healthy slices of paradox. And would you like that with or without mayo?
On one hand, we had Colorado, feeling as though it’s finally in the conference it should have been in all along, ready to assume the twin tasks of rebuilding a program and getting to know its new lodge brothers.
On the other, here was USC, chastened by the NCAA all the way through an appeals process, facing not only another bowl season on the sidelines but about to begin a three-year recruiting siege in which it can sign only 45 prospects while its competitors are signing 75.
“It is what it is,” sighed Lane Kiffin, the USC coach, referring to the appeal. “At least we know what it is now.”
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Over here, we had Utah, a school which, if you listen to coach Kyle Whittingham, supporters were talking about membership in this league way back in Pacific-8 days, which means at least 1978. If asked, the Utes would have done bear crawls from Salt Lake City all the way to league headquarters in Walnut Creek, Calif., to sign up.
“It’s all positive,” said Whittingham. “There’s no looking back in any way, shape or form. At least, I’m not.”
But then you also had Oregon, whose coach, Chip Kelly, was made to squirm by some hard questioning from columnists in his state. There had been speculation that finally, this would be the platform on which Kelly would have to address the mess surrounding the Ducks’ payment of $25,000 to Texas scout/flesh peddler Willie Lyles, but those people probably also think Chone Figgins is going to hit for the cycle any day now for the Mariners.
What Kelly did was say he couldn’t say anything, while a news release from athletic director Rob Mullens was distributed by Oregon, essentially saying the Ducks stand for transparency with the NCAA.
And thus the incongruity of the day. The exuberance over expansion, first in 33 years in the league, was cloaked by the reality that all this stuff about the Pac-12 being the conference of champions and being, you know, a cut above on most fronts, doesn’t play so well when its bell-cow programs are under the gun.
And they were under the gun, understand, when one interrogator of Kelly dropped the word “garbage” in describing what the Ducks had gotten in printed scouting material from Lyles.
Of course, this doesn’t make the conference any better or worse than anybody else, other than maybe the Ivy League. The past year has been college football’s all-time seediest, from the Cam Newton saga at Auburn to Ohio State’s trinkets-for-tats misadventures that brought about Jim Tressel’s resignation.
“It obviously takes away from all the good stories you want to talk about, and the good in college sports,” said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, between bites of an outdoor lunch. “It creates kind of a dominant narrative around everything that’s bad.”
But he isn’t in shoot-the-messenger mode, either.
“I do think we’re at a crossroads,” he said. “I see it as a paradox, between college sports never having been more popular than it is right now, as evidenced by the kind of media contracts happening, attendance, ratings. And at the same time, it seems like the system is under more pressure than it’s ever been. I don’t know if the status quo is sustainable.”
Scott did sound a note of optimism — solidarity, anyway — for Oregon faithful fearing the worst when I asked him if he was uncomfortable with what’s being alleged with the Ducks and Lyles. He reminded that the Pac-12’s enforcement arm is “side-by-side” with the NCAA in knowledge of the affair.
“You wouldn’t have a pulse if you weren’t uncomfortable,” he said. But he protested “some of the media portrayal of it, which, in my opinion, has gotten way out ahead of the facts. What I’m pleased with is the way the school is dealing with it, from the president, through the athletic director, through Chip Kelly.”
What’s next for the Ducks, picked to win the first Pac-12 race? Maybe an ominous NCAA letter of inquiry, maybe complete exoneration, for sure another season of tanker-fire offense spreading faster than anybody is equipped to stop it.
You know, college football.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org