Questions aplenty, but few answers coming from Oregon's Kelly so far
Oregon's ongoing NCAA investigation overshadowed all at Pac-12 media day
Chip Kelly handled it well, remaining pleasant while issuing "no comments"
Kelly might not be able to answer the biggest question of all -- is his job safe?
LOS ANGELES -- The barrage of interviews was almost finished. Chip Kelly was holding court with the local Fox Sports radio affiliate -- which meant he was answering questions from a guy wearing a white fur cap (think winter gear issued by the Russian Army) and comically large white sunglasses. He completed the ensemble with flowing hair, serious mutton chops and an incredibly bushy mustache. Oh, and a robe right out of the Summer of Love.
Right about then the radio held by one of the Pac-12 employees crackled: "We need all coaches, now. Please start going to the bus across from 'The Simpsons' soundstage."
Yeah, cartoonish. And somehow fitting.
They held Pac-12 media day at Fox Studios, and the head coach of the league's two-time defending champion was in demand, as you'd expect. The hottest topic, though, wasn't Oregon's looming season opener with LSU, which will determine whether the Ducks are worthy of a Top 5 preseason ranking and ready for another run at a BCS title. Those things were discussed, of course. And there were the goofy moments -- hello, radio guy -- we've come to expect at these events.
But overshadowing it all for Oregon was the NCAA's ongoing investigation, which lent an air of unreality to the day. Talk of football might be nice, but uncertainty hangs heavy. Like Auburn's Gene Chizik and LSU's Les Miles last week at SEC media days, Kelly couldn't avoid questions about the NCAA, but he didn't answer them, either. He handled it well enough, remaining pleasant while issuing variations on "no comment." Here's a sampling:
"I'd love to answer all the questions," Kelly said. "And we will at the appropriate time. ... I'd like to talk about the whole situation and clear up a lot of misconceptions."
Until someone does some clearing, the whole Will Lyles situation remains largely unresolved -- including the question Kelly probably couldn't answer, even if he wanted to.
Is his job in jeopardy?
Given the events of the past few months -- Bruce Pearl, anyone? Jim Tressel? -- no one should shrug off the possibility. And it comes up because of another key question: Did Oregon -- and its head coach -- engage in a cover-up?
It's no secret to anyone who's been following during a turbulent offseason that the NCAA is very interested in Oregon's $25,000 payment in March 2010 to Lyles, a Texas-based man who had very close ties to running back Lache Seastrunk, who had signed with the Ducks a few weeks before the check was cut. Lyles billed Oregon for a 2011 national scouting package. The invoice promised video on recruits from 22 states. But in response to open-records requests, Oregon has not released any video, and the bulk of the information Lyles apparently delivered was outdated and useless. Lyles told Yahoo! Sports last month he didn't steer players to Oregon, but said he believes Oregon paid for "access and influence with recruits."
It's hard to know what the NCAA investigators will determine from that. But it seems probable they'll tag Lyles as a "representative of athletics interest" (booster) because of his financial relationship with Oregon, thus making his relationship with Seastrunk, at least, out of bounds. The enforcement staff isn't likely to view kindly, for example, Lyles' role in petitioning to have Seastrunk's grandmother sign his national letter of intent, cutting his mother out of the process. Some sort of sanctions will probably be levied, though it's hard to know how severe; NCAA justice is never predictable.
But potentially worse for Oregon, and for Kelly, are Lyles' allegations -- backed by documentation including e-mails and phone records -- that he wasn't asked to produce any documentation for the scouting package until last February and March, as news organizations were sniffing around, asking questions about Lyles and the $25,000 check. Lyles told The Register-Guard of Eugene, Ore., he scrambled at Kelly's request, copying and pasting old files to produce the now infamous recruiting pamphlet filled with profiles of players from the high school graduating class of 2009.
"To be honest with you, I never thought that would see the light of day," Lyles told newspaper last month. "They asked me for stuff at the last minute."
Was there an attempt at a cover-up? The answer might determine Kelly's future.
Oregon is backing Kelly. In an e-mail last Friday to university trustees and key donors, athletic director Rob Mullens said the school was collaborating with the NCAA and Pac-12 in "an extensive review of the circumstances surrounding the use of outside recruiting services" and that it wanted to commit to using "best practices." The statement was printed Tuesday and set out on a table alongside preseason predictions, media guides and other assorted informational releases. Kelly referred to it during his opening statement, when he also said "as head coach of this football program, we're held accountable for everything we do."
Kelly also referred several times to Oregon's decision to retain attorney Mike Glazier and the firm Bond, Schoeneck & King, which specializes in representing schools in NCAA investigations.
The key word there is "schools." And here's a tip for the coach: Don't be too confident in Glazier's work. Have you seen the stories out of Tennessee in the past few days? As the documents related to the NCAA's investigation into the Vols' basketball program have been released, we've learned it was Glazier's question that tripped up Pearl and eventually led to the coach's ouster. Was a photograph of Pearl with recruits taken at the coach's home, in violation of NCAA rules?
And as it turns out, Glazier already knew where the photograph was taken when he asked the question during the joint interview with NCAA enforcement staff.
The lesson is this: Glazier works for the school. Not for the coach. Oregon is backing Kelly now, but if Glazier's investigation -- or the NCAA's concurrent probe -- reveals evidence that implicates the coach?
Follow the logic. Oregon cuts Lyles a check for $25,000 in March 2010 for a "2011 National Package." Then, there's a scramble 11 months later to get documents from Lyles to show for the payment. When the story breaks March 3, the NCAA requests all of that information and more, and later interviews Lyles, Kelly and others. What documentation did Oregon give to the NCAA at that point? What did Kelly and others tell the investigators then?
Perhaps there's more to the story. And Glazier might well come up with a nuanced, alternative explanation. But if the Ducks tried to pass off the hastily produced recruiting pamphlet as legitimate material from the scouting package, and if the NCAA determines Kelly was involved in making it happen, all bets are off.
When he finished that last interview, Kelly shook hands, all smiles. How could he not, given the guy's eccentric costume? Then he and the other coaches walked away and boarded the bus, which took them to the airport for a flight to New York, the next stop on the Pac-12's preseason publicity tour. Kelly is certain to be asked again about Lyles and the NCAA. And then again.
He'll politely decline comment, but the controversy will continue to overshadow a season that otherwise seems filled with potential. Still, it's hard to blame the coach for not talking. He probably couldn't answer the biggest question, anyway.