Here we go again. Another month, another story about the illegal exploits of a college football program.
This time, it’s the Oregon Ducks, who apparently used a recruiter named Will Lyles to funnel top prospects to Eugene in exchange for $25,000.
And while it’s not particularly shocking to find out that a top program may have been bending the rules in order to win football games—Ohio State, Auburn and USC come to mind—the recent allegations levied against Oregon could be a disaster for a program that appears to be on the cusp of national prominence for the next decade or more.
For the last 10 years, the Ducks have been steadily climbing up the national rankings thanks to some good coaching, great recruiting and the deep pockets of Nike’s Phil Knight, an Oregon alumnus. The Ducks got just one Pac-10 title between 1957 and 1999, but they have captured four conference championships since 2000 and made their way to three BCS bowls in that time, including last year’s national championship game.
But now the Ducks have to deal with the fact that their rise to success may have been augmented by some illegitimate recruiting, and Oregon fans should be considering just how damaging the consequences might be if they get slapped with several years of probation and scholarship restrictions from the NCAA.
When big football schools like USC, Ohio State, Oklahoma or Alabama are penalized for their wrongdoing, everybody in the college sports world knows that the program will be right back at the top when the restrictions are lifted because, well, they’re USC (or Ohio State or Oklahoma or Alabama). These big programs always succeed not only because they can always lure in top recruits with a 100,000-seat stadium and a trophy room filled with Heisman statuettes and national titles, but also because they can count on their boosters to support them through thick and thin.
But Oregon doesn’t have that same legacy of success to support it, and that means that the punishment that may be awaiting the Ducks could be much more problematic than it would be for a more established program.
Sure, the Ducks will still have their swimming pool full of gold coins courtesy of Phil Knight to help them continue to upgrade their already-ridiculous facilities and attract top-tier recruits, but that doesn’t mean that Oregon won’t suddenly become old news after a couple of years out of the spotlight. Consider the example of new Pac-12 member Colorado. The Buffaloes were a perennial contender for the Big-12 title during the 90s and early 2000s, but the Buffaloes have had just one winning season since a major recruiting scandal surfaced in 2004.
Another factor that could negatively affect the Ducks is that the top program in the Pac-12, USC, will be coming off probation at the same time. Because the Ducks have been on their steady uptick for the last few years, they now compete for a lot of recruits against the Trojans, but if Oregon is facing serious penalties from the NCAA while USC is unfettered, the Trojans could quickly regain their dominant position in the Pac-12.
Although it’s probably too early to speculate about the conference’s future power structure considering that Oregon hasn’t even been punished for its recruiting malfeasances, a world where USC is perched firmly atop the Pac-12 is just the picture that the Ducks (and everyone else in the conference, for that matter) have been trying to overcome for years. But thanks to USC’s national prominence and on-field success over the past decade, it’s well equipped to rebound and fill any void that the Ducks would leave atop the Pac-12—the hallmark of a powerhouse program.
So while Oregon has worked hard and recruited well (maybe a little too well) to reach this point, the potential ramifications of its actions could leave the Ducks where they started over a decade ago—looking up the standings in the Pac-12—but with a new set of questions to answer. Instead of asking themselves what it would take to get to the top, head coach Chip Kelly and the Ducks might be wondering what could have been—and that could be the most bitter pill to swallow.
Jack Blanchat has been recruiting readers “a little too well.” Help him gain a following at blanchat “at” stanford.edu.