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Oregon Coach Chip Kelly makes the tough (but correct) decision on suspending star quarterback Masoli for 2010 season

March 12, 2010 |  5:13 pm

It will go down as freaky Friday in Oregon's football annals -- arguably the strangest few hours in program history.

Only weeks after the Ducks celebrated winning the Pac-10 championship and earning the school's first trip to the Rose Bowl since the 1994 season, Coach Chip Kelly watched his squad's co-MVPs plead guilty to misdemeanor charges, in two separate cases, at Lane County Circuit Court in Eugene, Ore.

Then, at a brief afternoon news conference, Kelly put the hammer down, suspending star quarterback Jeremiah Masoli for the 2010 season and tailback LaMichael James for the season opener.

These were truly extraordinary football events -- and sure to be controversial. Kelly's decision will ripple into the weeks that come and will have an impact on next season's  Pac-10 and national title races. The Ducks, 10-3 last season, figured to enter the season as the Pac-10 favorites with Masoli and James as potential Heisman Trophy candidates.

At first glance, it appears that Kelly went hard on Masoli and soft on James. But this was as much about lying and loyalty as with the charges at hand. Masoli reportedly maintained that he had nothing to do with a late-January burglary involving computers and a guitar at a campus-area fraternity house.

But then Masoli pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was placed on one year's probation and ordered to pay restitution as well as to perform community service. Neither Masoli nor James are expected to serve jail time because of overcrowding.

Kelly, though, had little wiggle room with Masoli because the coach had built "trust" as a cornerstone to his program. Masoli clearly violated that trust and paid a severe price.

Masoli was the catalyst to Oregon's championship run, a ball-handling magician in Kelly's spread offense. He passed for 2,147 yards with 15 touchdowns and rushed for 668 yards and 13 touchdowns.

"Jeremiah will not be eligible to play," Kelly said during a live broadcast on GoDucks.com. "He does have a redshirt year available to him if he chooses to do that. He will also have a plan put in place for himself. If he can follow -- and strictly follow -- that plan, then he'll be able to come back and be eligible to play in the 2011 season. But he will not be eligible to play in 2010. I want to apologize to the fans of the University of Oregon, I want to apologize to the faculty of the University of Oregon. This is not what our football program is all about."

James was obviously a different story in Kelly's mind, even though the case involved alleged domestic violence against a former girlfriend. James pleaded guilty to a lesser harassment charge. He also has displayed considerable remorse and wrote a letter of apology.

Interestingly, James became a star, rushing for 1,546 yards, only after he replaced LaGarrette Blount in the starting lineup. Blount was suspended indefinitely after Oregon's season-opener last season for throwing a punch at a Boise State player. Kelly reinstated Blount after eight games, and the senior ended up playing key roles in Oregon's conference-clinching win over Oregon State and in the Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State.

It has been a startling fall from grace for a program that had seized control of the Pac-10 from USC, which had won seven straight league titles. Since the Rose Bowl, nine Oregon players have been involved in off-field issues.

A lot of big-time programs have off-season problems, but it's hard to remember a situation involving two stars on the same team in the same backfield -- with a national title possibly at stake.

The loss of Masoli could seriously damage Oregon's chances of repeating as Pac-10 champs, although the Ducks have a talented prospect waiting in Darron Thomas.  Masoli, remember, was fifth on the depth chart when he emerged from nowhere in the fall of 2008.

Oregon opens spring practice March 30.

-- Chris Dufresne

chris.dufresne@latimes.com
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