Ducks looking for answers
Troubled offseason has Oregon searching for answers on the field, redemption off it
EUGENE, Ore. -- Chip Kelly walks into a meeting room full of chattering Oregon players and says "Listen up." One beat, then quiet. These may be the so-called rogue Ducks of a lawless program who have tuned out the authority of a second-year head coach, but they've got the "hush when he enters the room" thing down pat.
James Harris, Oregon's life skills coordinator, steps to the lectern. He talks about how the program has resources to help players find housing outside of high-crime areas that they should -- and need to -- take advantage of. He then mentions a gay and lesbian event on campus.
Kelly tells them to be quiet. They do. Harris' message is to be respectful and not say anything controversial to reporters who might cover the event. Later, Kelly delivers an enlightened speech about tolerance that isn't the sort of thing football coaches are typically known for.
The Ducks' team meeting April 8 is not unlike their practice the next morning: The tempo is fast and efficient. There are moments of intensity. And levity. Crisp. Organized. Those words would also apply.
Kelly posts on a projector screen a series of quotes about spring practices from other coaches across the country. A different player reads each quote, but the sentiments expressed are remarkably similar: Our team isn't practicing well.
"We haven't had a bad practice," Kelly tells his team in conclusion. "We practice better than everybody in the country. I'm going to start charging admission because some people would pay big money to watch."
When a team's star quarterback gets convicted of stealing stuff from a fraternity house and a star running back gets mixed up in a domestic dispute and four other players end up on the police blotter and each transgression comes in a short period of time after a Rose Bowl berth, that team is bound to experience some negative publicity.
And deservedly so.
Amid the snarky tweaks from media and opposing fans about a program run amok, there also will be valid speculation about a lack of discipline and accountability within the program.
Conduct during team meetings and practices won't reveal ultimate answers there. Only good behavior going forward will.
But at the moment, these rogues from a lawless program and their too-lenient coach sure seem to be humming along as a finely tuned and united whole. It's as if they still expect to win the Pac-10. Again.
"I think they've handled it really well, but I also think they are embarrassed because they are members of this football team, and obviously we had some kids make mistakes," Kelly said. "They understand, though, that's not them. I don't think our football team has been affected the way people think they've been affected."
Oh, but there have been a lot of effects.
Nate Costa has been affected. The once-touted heir apparent to quarterback Dennis Dixon, he expected his career to end quietly this fall with one start and three knee operations. Instead, the senior is battling sophomore Darron Thomas to replace suspended quarterback Jeremiah Masoli.
I'm not tired of answering the questions. If there is someone who should answer the questions, it should probably be me. The public has a right to know what we are thinking and our thoughts on this whole process. So I'm happy to answer those questions.
--Oregon QB Nate Costa
Costa breaks in when a reporter apologizes for what he suspects are redundant questions about the off-field problems.
"I'm not tired of answering the questions," he said. "If there is someone who should answer the questions, it should probably be me. The public has a right to know what we are thinking and our thoughts on this whole process. So I'm happy to answer those questions."
OK. His coach has been criticized for how things have been handled. What are his thoughts on the matter?
"He's almost like our father on this team," Costa said. "Any time your kids are messing up, you're going to take some heat for it. I'm sure he lost some sleep over it. You could kind of tell he had that stressed look to him. But when everyone wanted to blame him, I didn't really understand why. We're 18 to 22 years old. If you make mistakes, that's on you. It has nothing to do with his disciplinary policy or the way he coaches or teaches us. It's on each individual. They are the ones making the mistakes."
As for how Costa feels: Frustrated, shocked, embarrassed and ready to move forward and prove critics wrong about sums it up.
Kelly said there have not been any significant changes to team policies or procedures in response to the run of off-field incidents. When asked if he had any second thoughts about how he handled things, or whether there were lessons to be learned, he seemed resolute in the belief that he handled a difficult situation about as best he could.
"There's always a rush to judgment," he said. "I think you have to find out all the facts first before you make any decisions on what you want to do. You also have to not worry about what other people think you are supposed to do."
In Masoli's case, that meant Kelly opted to believe his quarterback was telling the truth about not being involved in the fraternity burglary, until it became clear he was not.
Kelly won't reveal what the two talked about before the truth cut Masoli off at the knees, or what they talked about afterward, but it's not ridiculous to suspect those conversation were fairly intense.
"Yeah, it hurts. When they disappoint you, it hurts," Kelly said. "There's no one to blame when you make a wrong decision. That's something you have to own up to."
Kelly said he expects Masoli will stick around, serve his suspension as a scout team player and try to come back in 2011. He said Masoli has never mentioned transferring.
Kelly also believes he made the right decision when he opted not to kick Masoli off the team. He said there are specific behavioral, academic, team and social requirements for Masoli to complete in order for him to return to the Ducks in good standing.
"I think he made a big mistake, but that can't be something he's punished the rest of this life for," Kelly said. We'll give him an opportunity to prove he should be allowed to come back. He still has to prove it. It's not a done deal by any stretch of the imagination."
As for the present, it's business as usual. The Ducks are 20-6 over the past two seasons and finished ranked 10th and 11th. While losing a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback is a big blow, Masoli is now one of only six starters from 2009 who must be replaced.
Kelly said his team "is going to be good." How good depends on how things work out at quarterback with Costa or Thomas.
Oh, and whether the Ducks can prove their new national image as a rogue program is based on a bad but anomalous run of off-field issues that won't repeat itself.
Said Thomas, "Most people think we're going to be down, but we aren't going to let that happen."
Ted Miller covers Pac-10 football for ESPN.com.
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