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Mysterious NCAA infractions team gives the Ducks a pass

SEATTLE – After 27 months of dire speculation regarding improprieties around the Oregon football program, after public-records dumps and hand-wringing by Ducks fans and hooraying by their rivals, the NCAA finally weighed in Wednesday with the verdict:


No big deal, said the NCAA committee on infractions. Oh sure, the Ducks were guilty of several major violations. Somehow, the punishment went like this: Your teenager screws up, and you ground him from 8 to 8:20 Saturday night.

The Ducks skated on the two biggest possible sanctions: There’s no bowl ban, and they get docked a scholarship a year in two recruiting classes. Who gets penalized a scholarship a year?

There’s no doubt Oregon’s cooperation in the affair – centered on the relationship of Texas-based “scout” Willie Lyles – helped its cause. And it was important that not only are two key figures in the probe, coach Chip Kelly and assistant director of operations Josh Gibson, gone to the NFL, but that a presidential change has taken place at the UO.

But “laughable” is too charitable a word to describe the show-cause penalty the NCAA hung on Kelly, now off to the Philadelphia Eagles’ head-coaching job. He’s making $32.5 million over five years there, so only if you believe the Eagles might fire him after one season – leaving about $26 million on the table – is there the potential of the 18-month show-cause having any teeth. And even then, only if Kelly were to decide he wants to collect a college paycheck immediately rather than take up residence on some white-sand beach.

For three years, Swoosh State has to cap official visits by recruits at 37, as opposed to the NCAA limit of 56. But Oregon has averaged only 41 the past four years. Those were four years in which it went to BCS bowl games, so by now, the Ducks’ momentum is immense, nothing to be slowed by this speed bump.

The penalty that might sting the most may be the most pedantic one on the little smorgasbord of petits fours the NCAA dished out. During their three-year probation, the Ducks have to inform recruits that they’re on it. Somehow, that could introduce a speck of doubt in a prospect’s mind.

We can probably figure those conversations won’t last all that long.

Let’s be clear: This wasn’t SMU buying players cars, as it did back in the 1980s, nor was it Nevin Shapiro, a booster gone wild at Miami.

But here’s what we know from the committee’s report:

• The $25,000 Oregon paid Lyles was more than double what it compensated any other recruiting service.

• It was a full year after Lyles was paid that the UO realized it wasn’t receiving quarterly reports from Lyles’ service, mandated by a January 2010 NCAA rules change.

• Among Oregon’s uses of Lyles was to “have him encourage prospects to take official visits to the institution’s campus.”

• From 2007-2011, three non-coaching staff members placed or received 730 impermissible recruiting phone calls.

• Oregon was considered a “repeat violator” under NCAA rules, because of a 2003 falsification involving a letter of intent by running back J.J. Arrington, who ended up at California.

Among others, Lyles was tight with LaMichael James, who was already enrolled at Oregon when the Ducks paid Lyles. James became Oregon’s leading career rusher.

For this, the Ducks get a parking ticket?

Wednesday on a teleconference, I asked infractions committee spokesman Greg Sankey if his panel believed Lyles was pivotal in prospects choosing Oregon.

“Part of the reason those rules are there is to protect undue influence,” he said. “The report speaks clearly that there were advantages gained as an outcome.”

The NCAA judicial process has become wildly erratic. Three years ago were the thunderous penalties against USC. Last year, NCAA president Mark Emmert swooped into the Penn State mess, levied a $60 million fine and a four-year bowl ban and waved off any suggestion of the need for process.

And now the Ducks. There’s a mention in the report of a handwritten note in the name of Kelly, from Gibson to Lyles, which says, “Thanks for orchestrating everything (regarding a visit by some players) and all your help with these guys … Go Ducks!”

The NCAA couldn’t have said it more loudly. Go Ducks.