Eagles lure Chip Kelly away from Nike chief Phil Knight

Posted: January 17, 2013

Chip Kelly is used to dealing with a hands-on owner.

If anything, Kelly may find Jeffrey Lurie hands-off. There is no doubt that University of Oregon football had an owner. Phil Knight isn't just the CEO of Nike. He may as well have that title for Oregon athletics. He reportedly has spent at least $300 million on sports at the school.

Michael Rosenberg reported in a 2011 Sports Illustrated story how Knight can put on a headset in his luxury suite during Oregon home football games and listen live as the Ducks coaches call plays.

"Then he can go over to the whiteboard in his suite and diagram the play for his guests - before the Ducks run it," Rosenberg wrote, making it clear that Knight knew how to diagram the plays.

There was plenty of speculation that Knight was behind the decision to kick former coach Mike Bellotti upstairs in 2008 and replace him with offensive mastermind Kelly so the Ducks didn't lose Kelly. Just as there was speculation when Kelly turned the Eagles down that Knight had outbid Lurie.

If there was a specific reason for Kelly to leave Oregon, it obviously wasn't Knight, who donated the funds to build a football complex to rival the Eagles' NovaCare digs.

The big issue in Oregon is whether the Ducks are going to be hit with NCAA sanctions and how hard. Since Kelly initially turned down the Eagles, it appeared that this issue wasn't going to run him out of Eugene. Unless he has learned something in the last 10 days that he didn't know before.

That's not likely, said John Infante, a former compliance director at Colorado State who writes the BylawBlog, dedicated to NCAA regulations. He doubts Oregon would have received any additional information in recent days.

"Maybe the uncertainty pushed him one way or another," Infante said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

The issues were on the table when Kelly first talked to the Eagles. Late last year, the NCAA did not accept Oregon's investigative findings and the school's suggestion for possible sanctions. So the process moves toward a hearing, likely in the spring.

"I think one of the scary things for Oregon has been the range of sanctions in this case is pretty wide," Infante said.

The issue is $25,000 paid toward a Texas man "for scouting services" in 2011. Yahoo Sports reported the payment to the man, Will Lyles, and that Lyles said Kelly "personally approved" the fee.

Yahoo reported that Lyles "insisted" that Oregon did not make a direct request or payment to steer recruits to the program, but that the payment wasn't just for scouting services, but to use his influence with recruits during the recruiting process.

The NCAA has a new bylaw dealing with these kinds of issues, "a highly technical bylaw," Infante said, that basically comes down to the definition of a legitimate recruiting service.

"The question is whether the NCAA is going to jump to the result and say, 'You paid for this athlete,' " Infante said.

Oregon had tried to suggest a penalty involving losing scholarships and other lesser sanctions, "nothing that would cripple them," Infante said.

A severe penalty could be a postseason ban and more scholarships lost, even a multiple-year ban, although Infante did not expect more than a year even in a worse-case scenario.

Infante also made the point that the time line suggests Oregon wouldn't be hit with any sanctions for next season, that if the school had followed normal appeals processes, Kelly could have continued to coach and still left for the NFL after 2013 - "if he'd wanted to load up for one last run," Infante said.

"Is this investigation a factor in Kelly's departure? I doubt it, as he could have left for the NFL last year but didn't even though the investigation was ongoing at that time," University of Oregon biology professor Nathan Tublitz said in an e-mail. Tublitz is former cochairman of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletes, an association of faculty senates that works to integrate athletics into university missions.

Asked about Knight, Tublitz made the point that Knight had donated $100 million each to Stanford University and the Oregon Health Sciences University for their academic programs.

"It is clear that Mr. Knight has chosen to give to programs he felt would benefit the most from his generosity," Tublitz said in the e-mail. "There is no doubt however that Oregon would be a significantly stronger academic institution if Mr. Knight had chosen to donate as much to academics as he has donated to athletics."

Tublitz said of Kelly: "An outstanding football coach in all respects save the current investigation into recruiting violations."

The Eagles obviously didn't need to do much of any fact-finding on the recruiting issue. Not their problem. If anything, it helped them get their man, as long as they weren't outbid by the man from Nike. Phil Knight doesn't lose too often.

Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @jensenoffcampus.

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