What's Going On At Oregon?

Hubris, according to Webster’s, is “exaggerated pride or self-confidence.” Which, at the risk of playing amateur psychologist, would seem to be a problem at the University of Oregon. Let’s review the past couple weeks:

— Oregon fired its basketball coach without asking, “Can we get anybody better?”

— The school fired its athletic director and then turned the proceedings into a public-relations nightmare, proving that it’s not a good idea to have a public employee work without a contract. Nor is it a good idea to greet a mini-scandal with secrecy and silence.

— The university president obliquely chastised the athletic department’s business practices, and then allowed the man responsible for the situation — former AD Pat Kilkenny — to fly around the country in search of the school’s next basketball coach. If he finds one, better get it in writing this time.

It hasn’t been a smooth couple of months for University of Oregon athletics, and that’s not including the football team’s familiarity with the criminal justice system. And the weird thing is, each of those situations would seem to fit the definition of hubris. Or arrogance or avarice or conceit. Choose your own description. This is a school, after all, that saw fit to allow a booster — Kilkenny — to buy out the previous AD’s contract and then take his job.

Now, your typical fan doesn’t care about any of this, other than the hiring of a new basketball coach. But as the Oregon athletic department drifts further and further away from the educational mission of the university, acting like a rogue battalion with merely a passing acquaintance to the rest of the school, the situation threatens to overshadow the success on the field.

Take the search for a basketball coach. Initially, fans threw out names such as Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan. Why would coaches who have won national championships consider Oregon? Well, because it’s Oregon. It’s big, bad, wealthy Oregon, where no cost is too great and the ties to Nike give the program national cache. Or so they think.

I don’t know whether Oregon attempted to contact Pitino or Donovan, but the mere idea that it could lure a coach of that stature smacked of hubris. Maybe the job just isn’t as attractive as the Ducks thought. And now that Mark Few, Brad Stevens, Steve Alford, Jamie Dixon and Mark Turgeon have turned down Oregon or signed contract extensions, any hire likely will be viewed as a disappointment. At this point, even P.J. Carlesimo looks good. Just kidding about that.

The problem, it would seem, is an inflated ego. And that’s a Catch-22 for the Ducks. Oregon’s ascension in college athletics has been remarkable, largely funded and fueled by the money and vision of Phil Knight, who apparently has turned the athletic department into his private little fiefdom.

Oregon got where it is by thinking big. It dared to believe it could be a national contender in football, something that most observers would have scoffed at 15 years ago. But it went out and did it. The Ducks have resurrected a baseball program, building a gorgeous new stadium. They have a $200 million basketball arena under construction. They have a fancy new academic center for athletes.

None of these things would be possible without so much hubris that you need a wheelbarrow to carry it. And if athletic success is that important to Oregon fans, then more power to them.

But I can’t help thinking I would be a little embarrassed if I were an Oregon grad. I can’t help thinking that being an athletic factory, with the inevitable-but-unfair implication that it diminishes a school’s academic credentials, would be worrisome. Knight has donated many, many millions to academic causes at the university, and vilifying him for his athletic donations is misguided; it’s his money, he can spend it how he wishes.

But the evidence suggests that the athletic department is out of control. Promoting excellence on the field is one thing, but allowing the department to act as a private entity at a public institution is unacceptable. The fact that the athletic director was working without a contract and then required a $2.3 million payout in order to be fired is an embarrassment. The fact that Kilkenny is in charge of the search for a basketball coach — and will have the court at Knight Arena named for him — is inexplicable.

You might be an Oregon fan. You might root for the Ducks and donate your hard-earned money to them. You might refer to the teams as “we.” But they aren’t your teams. They aren’t the university’s. The aren’t even the state of Oregon’s, regardless of the school’s status as a public institution. They are Phil Knight’s, and they reflect all the hubris that comes along with that.

Scroll to top