There is much that has been said and written about the off-field issues surrounding the Oregon Ducks football program the past two months and as a long-time (20+ years) Ducks fan and supporter as well as professional marketer and brand expert I have my own perspective.
These are very unchartered waters for the Ducks (and fans). Under previous head coach Mike Bellotti, there were isolated incidents over the years but nothing that generated headlines that could be seen as embarrassing for the team or university. Serious transgressions seemed reserved for other programs such as UW, Oregon State and USC. The Ducks had built a reputation as a team that somewhat overachieved to be consistently competitive and move into a level where top 10 finishes were not shocking. And it had done so with players who avoided off-field transgressions (and headlines).
Within a year of Bellotti stepping down and handing the keys to talented Offensive Coordinator Chip Kelly, the wheels have seemed to come flying off the program. Of course it all began with the well-documented Lagarrette Blount incident at Boise State in the season opening loss. Kelly seemed to have righted the ship quickly when he handed down stern discipline to Blount and the Ducks started winning – reeling off 6 straight wins (clobbering conference favorites Cal and USC in the process) before losing a high-scoring shootout at Stanford in a game that opened the country’s eyes to Stanford Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gearhart.
In the process, Kelly announced that Blount was eligible for reinstatement to the team, saying that he had reconsidered the punishment and felt that Blount deserved a second chance. And Blount was reinstated prior to the Stanford loss (he didn’t play). While there were isolated pockets of protest, the general opinion of the sporting public (including Ducks fans) was that Kelly played the situation right. The initial season-long suspension was probably too harsh and Blount had earned the opportunity to play for the Ducks again. He played a key role in Oregon’s Civil War win against Oregon State and was effective in the Rose Bowl.
While Ducks fans were disappointed in the Rose Bowl loss, there was still a feel-good aura around the team given how it exceeded expectations and showed strong character bouncing back from the season-opening disappointment to become Pac-10 champions.
But that good feeling has evaporated in the wake of several high profile arrests and other incidents – especially those involving starting QB Jeremiah Masoli and RB LaMichael James. Masoli was charged (with another Ducks football player) in the theft of two laptops and a guitar from a UO fraternity while James faced domestic battery charges. Those incidents have been well documented by now so I won’t rehash them here.
Friday served as official judgement day for both players as they each entered guilty pleas in Lane County Court in separate appearances. Neither will face jail time but what everyone was wondering before the day is how Ducks Coach Chip Kelly would handle discipline after the court hearings. James was suspended for one game – the Ducks season-opener against New Mexico. However, Masoli was suspended for the season. Kelly noted that he has a redshirt year available and could use it for the upcoming season – and if he remained in good standing and followed a series of steps – he would be eligible to return to the team for the 2011 season.
As a Ducks fan, I’m OK with the James suspension as it seems appropriate given how he has managed the situation (he has publicly apologized and showed genuine remorse) and also given what is known about the incident (clearly he handled it wrong but its somewhat understandable to see how the events transpired).
I’m still struggling with the Masoli decision though. While I’m glad he won’t be allowed to play for the Ducks next season, frankly I’m surprised he is still on the team. Other players have been dismissed for seemingly less serious charges and incidents. There are so many levels of stupidity associated with this incident I don’t know where to begin. Why a star QB for a prominent football team – and a player listed as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate – would even put himself in this position – is beyond me. For simply being that stupid I’d like to see him lose the privilege of playing for the Ducks (and receiving a free college education in the process).
It will be interesting to see if Masoli sticks around Eugene, sits out next season and comes back in 2011. His options include transferring to a lower division school (and yes, there are lots of teams/programs that would accept him in a heartbeat) or even entering the NFL supplemental draft (some see him as a potential RB). If I had to place a bet today, I’ll say that he will stick it out and return for the Ducks in 2011. It certainly is his best opportunity to make amends of sorts to the university, his teammates and Ducks fans. But he may decide it’s too much work and he needs a fresh start.
Regardless, coach Kelly has his work cut out to regain discipline on his team and prove to outsiders that he is firmly in control. While it’s always unfair to totally blame coaches when players make mistakes, the sheer number of transgression by Ducks football players in such a short period of time clearly is not a coincidence. It’s time the university carefully reviews – and updates – its athletic code of conduct and make it clear that unacceptable behavior will not be tolerated.
I know that there are thousands of fans like me who would much rather see a slightly-less competitive Ducks football team that stays out of the headlines (and courtrooms) than a BCS-championship contending team that features players who embarrass the program by stupid and immature behavior.