- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Oregon and the NCAA enforcement staff at one point agreed on the parameters of Le Affair de Willie Lyles. Otherwise, the collaborative efforts to reach a summary disposition would not have begun. For example, a summary disposition was never on the table for USC.
Then something changed, and the NCAA committee on infractions (COI) now wants its hearing. That means this dark cloud, which first drifted into Eugene in March 2011, will endure past the two-year mark.
Yes, it is quite reasonable for Oregon fans to be worried.
The simple reason for that was Oregon was going to be able to escape severe penalties mostly based on a technicality: The Ducks -- and the rest of college football -- were operating under vague rules about the use of recruiting services. If you have a lawyer write up a disposition about how and why Oregon paid a shyster $25,000 for nothing -- other than his "mentorships" with top recruits -- you can bury what it actually looks like in verbiage that can split a single hair 1,000 times.
In a hearing, however, you answer questions. You talk spontaneously. When people talk spontaneously, stupid things get said. Stupid things that might make Oregon's position look weaker.
It's possible that the COI just wants to talk. It wants to probe. It wants to hear Oregon's position from a variety of folks, including coach Chip Kelly. That doesn't necessarily mean it wants to bring a hammer. It just wants to understand a relatively new issue that the organization has been trying to wrap its hands around for a few years.
Since a summary disposition is a two-way negotiation, it's also possible that Oregon drew a line for the types of charges it was willing to accept. When the NCAA wouldn't meet Oregon at the line, the school's representatives decided they could handle a hearing and refused to yield any more ground.
Oregon does have counters to put before the COI, starting with the fact that Lyles provided his magical touch to more than a few programs. While Lyles was eager to talk to reporters about the school and coach that he feels betrayed him -- Oregon and Kelly -- he also talked to NCAA enforcement staff about his other, er, relationships.
Oregon, aware of some of this, will be able to compare what it did with what other schools did, and it won't look as bad. Part of the NCAA's problem here is fairness and consistency, never an organizational strong suit. Hitting Oregon with severe sanctions will invite backward- and forward-looking comparisons that will make the NCAA again look bad.
While the Pac-12 office likely is taking a dim view of the NCAA seemingly obsessing over the conference's present top power again, as it did with USC -- despite the rest of college football operating like the Wild West (Miami! Ohio State! North Carolina! The SEC!) -- the other 11 Pac-12 teams probably are cackling at Oregon's expense.
The NCAA's glacial investigative pace has left long-term clouds hanging over Eugene, and that hurts the program. The news this week turned those clouds a darker shade of gray. For one, schools competing with the Ducks for recruits can raise a more substantive specter of sanctions.
Further, the news this week allows competing schools to hit Oregon with another body blow: With the NCAA investigation now definitely enduring past the New Year, it's far more likely that Kelly will turn his attentions to forthcoming NFL offers (see Exhibit A: Pete Carroll bolting USC for the NFL ahead of NCAA sanctions).
If the parties had reached a summary disposition, those arguments would have been muted. Recruits would know where the program stands. They would know there were no additional motivations for Kelly to bolt for the NFL, even if some see that as an inevitability.
At some point, perhaps right now, the NCAA process needs to be part of this discussion, just as guilt, innocence and degrees of guilt are.
There is no justification for Le Affair de Willie Lyles to remain unresolved for two years. What happened to the peculiar alacrity applied to the Cam Newton case with Auburn? Or the Ohio State case where the NCAA seemed to say, "Hey, it's 4:55 p.m., time to go home, even if Sports Illustrated provided us an outline of what was going on in Columbus. Can't work until 5:10 or anything."
Oregon fans, you probably should be concerned. But you also should be angry.