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Oregon’s Woes Loom Over Pac-12’s Media Debut

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LOS ANGELES (AP) – Chip Kelly had several months to prepare for the questions he finally faced at Pac-12 media day. The Oregon coach claimed he’s eager to explain every aspect of the Ducks’ dealings with a Texas-based recruiting service.

Kelly told the Pac-12 media he would love to talk, but he’s not allowed to clear up a problem that’s threatening to tarnish the Ducks’ run to the national title game last season.

Kelly refused to discuss the Ducks’ relationship with Willie Lyles on Tuesday, moments after Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens confirmed the program is under review by the NCAA and the school. Although Kelly spoke at his usual mile-a-minute pace during his interview session at the Fox studio lot in Century City, his first public comments about the investigation contained little new information.

“I would love to talk about it, and when we have a chance after the report comes out, I will be able to clear up any questions that anyone has about the whole situation,” said Kelly, whose Ducks went 12-1 and dominated the Pac-10 last year.

The troubles of the conference’s marquee program overshadowed the introduction of Utah and Colorado to the reconfigured Pac-12, which will have two six-team divisions and a conference title game in December at the top team’s stadium.

Most media members expect that game to be at Autzen Stadium. Oregon was picked to win the title game in the poll announced Tuesday, getting 28 of 42 votes.

Even with just 11 returning seniors, the Ducks are favored to win the North Division with 29 first-place votes. Southern California, which isn’t eligible for the title game under NCAA sanctions, is narrowly favored over Arizona State in the South Division.

“Our goal is to win the South,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose former BCS-busting Utes were picked third in their division. “I’m sure the other five teams in the South are thinking the same thing.”

Every other team in the Pac-12 also is wondering whether the Ducks’ problems will derail a burgeoning dynasty.

In a statement sent out to Oregon supporters by email last Friday, Mullens said the Ducks have retained a law firm to assess the program’s payment of $25,000 to Lyles, a Houston-based recruiting service owner, for an apparently outdated scouting report last year. Kelly said Oregon publicly will announce the results of its evaluation when it ends.

The NCAA is investigating whether Lyles steered star running back Lache Seastrunk to Oregon, which would be a violation of NCAA rules. Lyles has said his services went beyond the normal scope of a scouting service, acknowledging he “made a mistake.”

The Ducks rolled to their second straight league title last season, going undefeated in the regular season before losing to Auburn in the BCS title game. Seastrunk will compete for playing time during preseason camp as a backup tailback behind LaMichael James, the returning Heisman Trophy finalist.

The Ducks paid Lyles for information about players in the 2010 recruiting class, but Lyles’ scouting report mostly covered players who had already signed letters of intent in 2009 — largely useless information.

“As head coach of this football program, we’re held accountable for everything we do,” Kelly said. “I’d love to talk about it. There are a lot of answers I’d love to make sure we can get out there.”

Oregon’s off-field troubles didn’t put off poll voters, particularly with James and quarterback Darron Thomas returning to lead the Ducks’ hyper-aggressive offense. They’re also not doing much to affect the Nike-backed school’s recruiting, according to Kelly.

“I haven’t had to address it with the recruits right now,” Kelly said of the Ducks’ recruiting-service woes. “We’re coming off back-to-back Pac-10 championships as we move into a brand-new league with a brand-new television contract. It’s a bright future for us. We had a berth in the Rose Bowl (in the 2009 season). We had a berth in the national championship game, and I understand from the kids we’ve talked to, our recruiting is going very, very well.”

California coach Jeff Tedford is among many coaches who also used Lyles’ services, but Tedford said he got something useful for his money.

“I’m not concerned one bit,” said Tedford, the Pac-12’s longest-serving coach entering his 10th season in Berkeley. “We deal with probably four to five recruiting services per year. I
wouldn’t know Will Lyles if he was in this room right now. … The reason we use those services is to make sure that we can be efficient with our time and our resources. I have no concern whatsoever about it. We have the videos, we have the prospect list, and so I have absolutely no concern about it.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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