February 20, 2010
Oregon is the defending Pac-10 champion, and is likely to be overwhelmingly favored to repeat this fall, when the Ducks return 18 starters from last year's Rose Bowl team and enter the season as a serious national title contender for the first time in school history. ESPN.com's college football home page has led for two days with Oregon's ascendency on the West Coast, replacing USC's nearly decade-long dominion on a tidal wave of Nike money and the sudden crack-up of Pete Carroll's dominant regime in L.A. By all appearances, the Pac-10 is Oregon's oyster.
This week also brought the flip side of that rising tide, when fresh assault charges against two players left the Ducks wide open to the obligatory "program out of control?" meme that always seems to find a welcoming new home this time of year. It isn't the sort of label that typically gets tossed around about regional up-and-comers, and with star running back LaMichael James' arrest on domestic assault charges early Wednesday morning -- making him the fourth Duck charged with some variety of assault in a little less than three weeks, on top of very public accusations by witnesses that all-conference quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and another player robbed a frat house last month, all underpinned by the stain of last year's LeGarrette Blount Affair -- makes the Ducks a particularly fat target. (UPDATE, 6:35 p.m. ET: Add another name to the list: Redshirt freshman linebacker Kiko Alonso, who was charged with driving drunk early this morning.)
It doesn't help, either, that the team's most visible player, Masoli, served some time as a teenager for a juvenile armed robbery conviction and was faced swirling rumors throughout the week that the most recent accusations against him were headed to a grand jury and had finally resulted in an arrest. (As of this morning, they haven't.)
Coach Chip Kelly was forced to talk to reporters Friday to defend the "state of the program," which he did by pointing out that he'd already booted three of the recent offenders (linebacker Matt Simms, kicker Mike Bowlin and alleged Masoli accomplice Garrett Embry, all obscure backups and scout-teamers) and set a stern example in his handling of the Blount situation in the fall: "I had a running back last fall I suspended for eight games. The NCAA rule is one, so I don't think that our players think that they're going to get away with anything."
If he avoids jail time, James (who is not facing any discipline from Kelly at this point) is likely to get the same second chance extended to Blount. In line with Kelly's emphasis on "improving behavior," James has apparently moved in with a resident "life skills director" tasked with keeping track of and presumably reforming the guttersnipe to some extent. (I imagine him stuffing marbles in James' mouth, Henry Higgins style, and having the running back practice his aitches with an open flame.) The situation could seriously deteriorate if charges come back against Masoli -- even if both he and James remain eligible and out of Kelly's doghouse this fall, there's not a lot of pride in fielding an all-convict backfield -- but that remains purely hypothetical.
Above all, though, the P.R. fallout from a string of arrests is a phase every major program (literally every major program, without exception) has to go through at one point or another, often cyclically. If the magnifying glass proves anything in Oregon's case, it's only that people care what might happen to the Ducks' star players -- and acknowledge that the Ducks actually have star players worth keeping tabs on -- which is really just another way of confirming that they've entered a new circle in the national hierarchy. Of course, if things don't settle down, there's no guarantee they're going to stay there.