- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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In Eugene, Mark Helfrich, Oregon's new football coach, probably threw his arms into the air on Wednesday morning, relieved that he didn't inherit the same kind of program sanctions Ohio State's Urban Meyer did.
In Philadelphia, former Ducks coach Chip Kelly probably shrugged his shoulders, checked his investment accounts and then went back to drawing up X's and O's for the Philadelphia Eagles.
But in Indianapolis, a number of NCAA employees had to drop their heads into their hands, wondering whether college sports' governing body will ever again get anything right.
After a 27-month investigation into alleged recruiting rules violations committed during Kelly's successful tenure at Oregon, the NCAA infractions committee did nothing more than slap the Ducks on the wrist, placing them on three years' probation and taking away a total of three scholarships.
So much for NCAA president Mark Emmert's promise that college sport's governing body would get tougher with rule breakers.
It's clear the NCAA's enforcement division is now working with both arms tied behind its back. At a time when the NCAA's investigative tactics have been questioned because of its unscrupulous methods in the Miami case, and as some of its most seasoned and effective investigators have jumped ship, the NCAA failed to deliver a message to rule breakers Wednesday.
For the past few years, NCAA officials have promised to clean up the recruiting world and eliminate the influence of shady third parties like Willie Lyles, a middleman from Texas who helped steer former star running back LaMichael James and current Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk to Oregon. Presented with the chance to do it Wednesday, the NCAA balked.
Kelly, who guided the Ducks to four consecutive BCS bowl games before fleeing for the NFL, was hit with an 18-month show-cause penalty, in which a school would have to appear before the infractions committee if it wants to hire him.
The NCAA ruled that Kelly wasn't aware members of his staff sought Lyles' help in landing recruits, but the infractions committee's report said the "genesis" of Lyles' relationship with Oregon's football program occurred on or about Dec. 20, 2007, when Lyles called Kelly, who was then working as the Ducks' offensive coordinator. According to the report, Lyles asked Kelly what kind of players Oregon was interested in recruiting. Kelly told him "skill position" players with "speed."
Lyles sent Kelly a video of recruits shortly thereafter, and then Oregon subscribed to Lyles' recruiting service in May 2008. A year later, Lyles accompanied Kelly on recruiting visits to high schools.
Kelly's show-cause penalty expires on Christmas Day, 2014. Kelly received his gift from the NCAA on Wednesday. If Kelly's fast-paced offense flops after two seasons in the NFL, he'll have a chance to return to college football at the end of the 2014 season, when schools might be looking for new coaches. Kelly received a five-year, $32.5 million contract from the Eagles. Do you really think he's concerned that he's unemployable in college football for the next 18 months?
Even SEC associate commissioner Greg Sankey, a member of the infractions committee, admitted that the NCAA is largely powerless to punish coaches who leave their colleges for the pros.
"I think that's a fair observation and one that's certainly understandable to be made," Sankey said.
Kelly isn't the first college football coach to leave town before the you-know-what hit the fan. Former USC coach Pete Carroll bolted for the Seattle Seahawks before the Trojans were hit with some of the most severe penalties in NCAA history for violations committed during his tenure. In June 2010, the NCAA placed USC on three years' probation, banned it from playing in a bowl game for two years and stripped its program of 30 scholarships.
Like Carroll, Kelly apologized for the mess he created.
" I want to apologize to the University of Oregon, all of its current and former players and their fans," Kelly said in a statement released by the Eagles on Wednesday. "I accept my share of responsibility for the actions that led to the penalties. As I have I stated before, the NCAA investigation and subsequent ruling had no impact on my decision to leave Oregon for Philadelphia."
Sure it didn't.
And the NCAA could only let him walk, too.
The NCAA set a dangerous precedent Wednesday, telling coaches that the risk of rolling the dice and cheating might now be worth it, especially if the punishment is only going to be a slap on the wrist.