- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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It began with a billboard.
And not just any billboard, but an audacious, first-of-its-kind, quarter-million dollar piece of advertising placed in the middle of Times Square. It was an image-changer, a Hail Mary pass that the Oregon football program completed for a publicity touchdown. Suddenly, everyone knew about the Ducks.
Now, 10 years after the 100-foot-high Joey "Heisman" Harrington billboard made its debut in faraway NYC, Oregon football has everything it craved: a national brand, the patronage of Nike chairman and UO alum Phil Knight, state of the art facilities and rosters capable of national title runs.
It also has something it never wanted.
An NCAA investigation.
Perhaps it is a coincidence that the two teams that played for the BCS championship seven months ago -- Oregon and Auburn -- have been submerged chin strap-deep in allegations of NCAA wrongdoing. Just like it's a coincidence that Ohio State, which played for the BCS championship in 2006 and 2007 (and against Oregon in the 2009 Rose Bowl), forgot how to read and enforce the NCAA rules book.
I don't believe in football coincidences. Not anymore. Not after Coach Sweater Vest, Jim Tressel, with his American flag lapel pin and his laughable book on "life promises," lied through his molars about his starring role in a clumsy cover-up.
Not after Cecil Newton went underground when his pay-for-play scheme involving his son Cam was exposed.
Not after the murky, something-doesn't-feel-right-here circumstances involving Oregon coach Chip Kelly and scouting service owner Will Lyles.
Be careful what you wish for, right?
Tennessee wanted a Red Bull coach full of recruiting energy, so it hired Lane Kiffin. He stayed for exactly one forgettable season, just long enough for he and his staff to commit enough alleged violations to attract NCAA investigators. He's part of the reason Mike Hamilton lost, deservedly so, his job as UT's athletic director.
North Carolina didn't want to be known as just a basketball school anymore, so it handed the football keys to Butch Davis. Davis hired John Blake, who, according to the NCAA's Notice of Allegations, was a full-service associate head coach. He recruited, he coached the Carolina defensive line and, claims the NCAA, he funneled Tar Heels players to an agent, who then greased their palms with NCAA no-nos.
It is getting harder and harder to stay in love with college football. That's because more corners are being cut, more lines in the sand are being moved -- all in the name of becoming a brand, of aspiring to something maybe beyond most programs' reach.
Meanwhile, the ill-equipped NCAA can only skim off the top layer of the cheating oil spills. Its net isn't big enough or sophisticated enough to clean up all the messes.
It scooped up Ohio State, but only because the FBI and the media did most of the leg work. The Buckeyes' free-fall is stunning not because of the NCAA crimes committed, but because of the myth that was Tressel The Father Figure.
The Auburn situation is more complicated and nuanced. Auburn would never admit it, but it always wanted to be Alabama when it grew up. Or if not be Bama, at least beat Bama. It got its wish -- and a national title -- last season, but did so with a one-and-done player whose reasons for leaving the University of Florida were never fully disclosed and whose actual knowledge of his father's pay-for-play attempt remains a mystery today.
And then there is Oregon, the little Duck that could. Ten years ago, it was an emerging program in the Pac-10, a fix-me-upper with potential. Now it's the nicest house on the conference's block.
But how much of its soul did it have to sell to get there? A billboard publicity stunt is one thing, but the questions raised by the relationship between Lyles and Kelly's program makes you wonder if Oregon has outkicked its coverage.
It isn't just that the school took nearly four months to respond to an open records request by Oregon media. Or that there was a strong connection between Lyles and Lache Seastrunk, a Texas high school running back who signed with Oregon in 2010 -- less than two months before a $25,000 check was cut to Lyles' scouting service.
Instead, this is the allegation that gives you the most pause: Lyles, in an interview with Yahoo! Sports, says Oregon asked him to send retroactive player scouting reports so it would have paperwork to match that $25,000 check.
The NCAA, which reportedly has already conducted extensive interviews with Lyles, will have to decide if Oregon violated the rules or simply mocked them. Did it commit an actual violation or cut one of those corners to its closest edge?
Lyles might have his own skeletons to account for, but Oregon also has a few scattered bones that require an explanation. One guy has gone public, the other guy -- Oregon -- has hired a lawyer. Doesn't mean the Ducks are guilty, but it does mean Lyles' story is plausible.
Whatever happens, Oregon is no longer that feel-good success story of seasons past. It is like everyone else now, only with louder uniforms.
Oregon got what it wanted. But was what they wanted worth it?
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
That perfect regular season at Oregon? Fabulous ... unless the Ducks didn't play by the rules. The long list of programs in dutch with the NCAA right now makes it tough to love college football.