Friday, August 26, 2011
Amid the hullabaloo, Oregon keeps winning
By Ted Miller
Chip Kelly and the Oregon Ducks remain focused on taking care of business on the field.
Wise folks have said and written many things about dealing with the hills and valleys of life. Most of us are well aware that it's a mistake to get too high when things are good or too low when they aren't. We know it's better to focus on things we can control and to avoid allowing our emotions to overcome constructive decision-making and ensuing action.
And if any of that were easy, wise folks would spend more time talking and writing about other things.
So we have Oregon. No college football program in the country has combined stunning successes and swirling controversies over the past two-plus seasons as much as Oregon has under coach Chip Kelly. Perhaps even more amazing than the frenetic tempo and creativity of the Ducks' offense is their ability to make news in positive and negative ways, yet remained focused.
Year 1 started with a humiliating loss at Boise State and a punch from then-Ducks RB LeGarrette Blount and ended with a Pac-10 championship and a Rose Bowl berth. Year 2 started with quarterback Jeremiah Masoli -- a Heisman Trophy candidate -- getting booted from the team and ended with another Pac-10 championship and a berth in the national title game.
Year 3? It's started with an NCAA inquiry into the recruitment of redshirt freshman running back Lache Seastrunk, who decided to transfer last weekend, and a $25,000 payment to his mentor, Willie Lyles, who is a recruiting scout and alleged "street agent."
Where will Year 3 end? Will this be the year that the Ducks do get distracted and upended by off-field issues?
"I think the media around here is the smartest people I've ever been around my entire life," Kelly said with what sources said may have been some sarcastic shadings.
"If they voted us No. 1 in the conference and No. 3 in the country, they must not think it is a distraction. So we shouldn't let it be a distraction, because I don't think anyone would vote us No. 3 in the country if you guys thought it was a distraction."
Zing! The capacious "Book of Quotable Chip" adds another entry.
Kelly then referred to one of his handful of mantras: "We have the same mentality all the time. We have a vision for what this football program is supposed to be about and we prepare against that vision. We compete against that vision every Saturday and that's how we measure ourselves. ... We are not concerned with any outside influences, whether it be praise or blame."
Kelly's ability to impose that philosophy -- all part of his "Win the day" credo -- has been remarkable, the fuel for the Ducks' rapid rise in the college football pecking order. When you talk to his players, they either parrot what he says verbatim or provide their own little twist.
Said redshirt junior running back LaMichael James: "I focus on my team and that's it. I don't really care what outsiders have to say."
Still, there's just a little bit of double-speak. Don't believe for a moment the Ducks are unaware of -- and not following -- both the intrigue (Lyles & the NCAA!) and hype (national title contender!) that surrounds them. Kelly claims he doesn't pay attention to what reporters write, but he is curiously apt to tweak them for their stories -- Hey, Chip! -- most notably when they are wrong.
And the players, though totally bought into the Temple of Chip, are the same way. They claim they never discuss the day's headlines. Balderdash.
"Everybody wants to say all this about Oregon," redshirt junior quarterback Darron Thomas said. "We don't like that. We've just been working hard, getting ready for the season, ready to shut everybody up, ready to come out and play ball and forget about all these other allegations that are eventually going to come out."
No one knows when things are "going to come out." The NCAA hasn't even gotten around to sending Oregon an official letter of inquiry, which would spell out how the organization plans to apply vague rules about the use of scouting services. Those who say they know the endgame are lying. Nonetheless, there's been lots of guessing that Oregon and Kelly are in big trouble, with a couple of columns suggesting Kelly will be fired.
"I hope whoever wrote that, and I didn't read it, isn't our athletic director or our president," Kelly said. "I'm very confident in everything that will happen."
It's sometimes hard to believe that Kelly has been a coach in FBS football for just four seasons. Recall that in 2006, he was the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, a guy only a handful of offensive aficionados knew of. His two-plus years of leading Oregon have been more eventful than entire careers for many head coaches.
When asked if Kelly has shown any stress or strain during his tumultuous tenure, James almost seems amused. "He always seems the same to me," James said. "He maybe seems a little more relaxed."
James also called Kelly "a phenomenal coach." While Rich Brooks made Oregon respectable, and Mike Bellotti created a consistent winner, it's fair to say that Kelly's dynamic leadership has pushed the program to heights that no Ducks fans imagined it could reach, even mega-booster Phil Knight. And for that, James said, Kelly deserves predominant credit.
"Coach Kelly changed the whole identity of the program," said James, who redshirted in 2008, Bellotti's final season as head coach. "Everything is 100 percent different from when I was a true freshman."
What did Kelly change? "I literally mean every single thing," James said.
Of course, Brooks and Bellotti were able to avoid any major NCAA issues, too.
What's next for the Ducks? A win over LSU, a third consecutive conference title and another run at a national championship? NCAA sanctions?
Said Kelly, "I don't know what is going to happen next. No one knows what happens in the future."
One thing is likely: With Kelly and the Ducks, it at least figures to be interesting.