1. Portland Trail Blazers’ Implosion
It's truly amazing how quickly the Portland Trail Blazers disintegrated from perennial playoff team to one of the most calamitous sagas of professional sports gone wrong in state history. The 2011-2012 season was supposed to be the year the Blazers moved on from their hat-trick of first round playoff appearances, but exits the last three years and into the realm of teams winning playoffs series, and competing for championships. You got the dark feeling it was all going wrong from the eve of training camp, when Brandon Roy abruptly retired, and bad character players who had showed a considerable aptitude for selfishness and a lack of hard work were brought in, headlined by Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton. But we ignored that dark feeling, and for a time forgot about it as the Blazers rocketed to the top of the Western Conference in the first two weeks of the season. But then, the wheels came dramatically, and disgustingly, spinning off.
It was at its worst as so many points in 2012, the nonchalant, lazy effort in New York in a 40 point loss to the Knicks as the team’s eldest players and leaders, aside from LaMarcus Aldridge, resoundingly demonstrated they wouldn't play for Nate McMillan. It could have been the point in the year when McMillan was fired, and Marcus Camby and Felton traded, sending the Blazers, so suddenly, into full rebuilding mode again. It could have been when the team was kicking the ball around late in the year, in front of half-full Rose Garden crowds, with no head coach, no GM, no leaders, and a team that more closely represented the D-League All-Stars than the playoff team the Blazers were supposed to be. It was awful. Portland is on the road to recovery. But it could be a very long road. The 2011-2012 basketball season did a lot of damage, and it won't be fully repaired anytime soon.
2. Oregon Ducks Quack On
It's amazing to think, in the BCK (Before Chip Kelly) era, that a national football powerhouse, whose brand for the upcoming generation of college players far eclipses that of Notre Dame, Texas, USC, or Ohio State, would sit in little Eugene, Oregon. But it does. There is no denying the vast power of Oregon Ducks football.
Oregon had their best day of 2012 just two days into the year, that thrilling and memorable Rose Bowl triumph, 45-38 over the Wisconsin Badgers. Throughout the year, Oregon has kept up their success and brand with ease, introducing the new, and best yet set of space-age uniforms, and easily cutting through opponents, ending games before the conclusion of the first half. The pounding but elegant annihilation of USC in LA spoke volumes about how far Oregon has come, and while the season didn't end with a trip to the national championship game, or even another Pac-12 title, it did end with another trip to the BCS, the Fiesta Bowl this time. Oregon went 13-1 in 2012, and it scored many more success off the field, as kids from all across the country saw and fell in love with the Ducks week in and week out. The success Oregon is having right now is unprecedented, only Oregon has been to the BCS the last four years. That's a big story. That's as big as it gets.
3. The End Of Greg Oden
A quick glance at the Wikipedia page of one Mr. Greg Oden could possibly give you the almost cartoonish scope of the injuries that derailed the former #1 pick's NBA career, and eventually derailed the Portland Trail Blazers franchise.
Before his rookie season, Oden had microfracture surgery on his knee, and missed the entire 2007-2008 campaign. Oden returned for the 2008-09 season – for one quarter, before being injured and missing another solid 20 games. Oden played off and on in 08-09, injuring his knee and missing a month more towards the end of the year, but he was healthy for the start of the 2009-2010 season. Oden got through a few months before fracturing his left patella against Houston and missing the rest of the season. 11 months later, after surgery and grueling rehab, the Blazers announced Oden would have microfracture surgery on his left knee, and miss the 2010-2011 season. The Blazers cautiously resigned Oden for one year, hoping he would be ready for the start of the 2011-2012 season, but just before the start of that campaign, the team announced Oden suffered a setback, and the center went under the knife for arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, then two weeks later underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. During that procedure, another mess inside that fateful knee was discovered, and Oden had a third microfracture surgery, ending his 2011-2012 season before it started. On March 15, 2012, the day the Blazers fired Nate McMillan, traded Marcus Camby and Raymond Felton, and essentially started rebuilding the team threw this little item out with the trash. The Blazers released Greg Oden.
Who can you blame for a franchise cornerstone, once in a generation player being turned into a more unbelievable version of the Tin Man? Who can you blame for drafting this injury-riddled puzzle in the first place? Who can you blame for everything that went wrong concerning Greg Oden. So many people. And really, nobody. You could blame Kevin Pritchard for drafting Oden. When this all went down five and a half years ago, I said draft Durant. I was 8. I didn't understand the potential in Oden, the chance to have a game-changing big-man, and tower of force in the middle, anchoring a franchise. Besides Pritchard, 29 other GM's would have taken Oden. Guarantee.
You could blame the Blazers medical team, and common sense says you would be right to do so. With all the things wrong with Oden, why couldn't the medical staff have figured out that there would be injury problems and hired a plane with a giant red flag to land in the Blazers draft room in 2007? Why couldn't they have fixed Oden in one or two procedures, instead of seven or eight? It wouldn't be the first time the Blazers training staff would be accused of malpractice. It's a staff considered by most to be the worst in the NBA.
You could blame pretty much anyone for Oden's demise. You could even blame Oden. Naked pictures online? Hitting the town when he was supposed to be rehabbing? A hit-and-run interview on his way out the door saying Portland "isn't a great city to live in if you're a young, African American male with a lot of money"? I didn't love that stuff. But I do feel oh so very bad for Oden. He's a nice kid, I think. A good guy, who has been dealt a stinking pot of bad luck. He's missing the 2012-13 NBA season to rehab, and will try to make a comeback in 2013-2014. The Oden adventure led straight down a lightless tunnel and smack into the side of a mountain. It sucked for everyone involved.
4. Portland Timbers Implosion
The Portland Timbers’ season uncannily resembled the season of the Portland Trail Blazers last year. The city's two major sports franchises came into the season with unreasonably high expectations – both were expected to step up into the upper echelon of the league and the playoffs, then both were crushed on the field while their season crumbled in just months.
But the Blazers continually have fumbled off the court and we could have foreseen their demise, but the Timbers? On the field, the Timbers reeked of a team that lacked drive, creativity, know-how and will to win. Things fell apart off the field as well: Merritt Paulson berating fans on Twitter, Gavin Wilkinson turning himself into public enemy #1, and the Timbers Army completing an angry triangle with Paulson and Wilkinson that destroyed all moral and goodwill around the club. It was a shockingly bad season that never turned itself around, and while my faith in Paulson remains high, I've no idea how new head coach Caleb Porter will be inaugurated into the dangerous power tree in the club. It was beyond a sophomore slump for the Timbers, it was a sophomore swan-dive that exposed problematic holes in the organization. Like the Blazers, the Timbers have loads of work to do to make it back to their pre-2012 promise.
5. Gavin Wilkinson
Gavin Wilkinson is in a bit of a tangled, odd position. Mr. Wilkinson is hated, reviled, really, but his team's fan-base. He built a last place team, then coached them to new lows. His owner is supporting him with Twitter tirades, and while he's no longer the coach, he's still the general manager and still hated and reviled and yada yada yada by his team's fan-base. He's from New Zealand. He is the right-hand man of his owner and he's still, after everything, running the Portland Timbers.
What we tend to forget while outlining the atrocities Gavin Wilkinson has committed as Timbers owner is that Wilkinson is about to enter his 12th year with the club. Wilkinson played for Portland from 2001-2006, was a player-assistant coach for his last two years, and has been the Timbers GM for now five years. He's coached the Timbers in the USL for four years, and MLS for half a year. Wilkinson runs one of the city's top club teams, Eastside United, where his son plays (with my brother). Gavin Wilkinson is as tied to Portland Timbers soccer as any other human being, ever. You could say, as much as you may not like to say it, that Gavin Wilkinson is Portland Timbers soccer.
There is no doubt that Wilkinson has done a poor job with the Timbers’ MLS franchise. He built a team with mediocre players, mishandled the teams dealing with big players from the start, and once he got to coach the team he assembled, the team got worse. Wilkinson is still young, 39, and he has his whole career ahead of him. In fact, he appears to have gained job security as a result of the last year. It's more than weird, and perhaps unprecedented. But he's Gavin Wilkinson, folks, and we appear to be stuck with him.
6. Neil Olshey Hired
It tells you something very interesting about the Los Angeles Clippers that, as a revived franchise, finally a perennial playoff team, looking to make run into the upper-echelon of the NBA, they couldn't hang on to the GM who got them back to respectability and beyond. No, Neil Olshey chose to come to Portland, despite all the fresh scalps lying around the GM's office, over staying in Lob City. He chose Paul Allen over Donald Sterling. I'm sure that was a tough decision. And the Blazers are very lucky he came to Portland.
I don't think Neil Olshey is a basketball genius, and I don't think he should be treated as such. But I do think Olshey is polished, highly competent, and a commander-in-chief of basketball operations that the Blazers haven't had since Kevin Pritchard was disgustingly showed the door. Olshey has already installed the kind of professionalism and smarts the Blazers have missed under Rich Cho and Chad Buchannan, while Paul Allen and his Vulcans ran the show. Olshey has righted the ship with force of personality, his resume, and his early accomplishments in Portland. Olshey has been able to bring over the players the Blazers had stockpiled in Europe, drafted Damian Lillard, and evacuated the primadonnas and mediocre players that clogged up the Blazers last year. It's a promising start for Olshey, who's working in a potentially extremely toxic environment, as the last five guys who've had his job could testify. But so far, it's been so good. Olshey was a smart hire, and the right man for the GM job in Portland.
7. Oregon State Beavers’ Revival
The rise of the Oregon State Beavers football team was entirely unexpected. From 3-9 to 9-3 and gearing up for a matchup with Texas in the Alamo Bowl, the Beavers have come back from the dead and gone last year to stake out a place in the top-25 this year, beating Wisconsin, UCLA, Arizona, BYU and others, fully restoring confidence in Mike Riley, who did perhaps his finest coaching job.
Riley had to expel the losing apathy that set in in Corvallis, juggle quarterbacks and calling plays with his usual head coaching duties, and he did that all with the kindness, generosity, and humility fans down the road in Eugene may have forgot existed. It's what makes Riley great: You never think you're dealing with a big-time college football coach, even though he turns out big-time results. The Beavers were good in close games this year, and with Sean Mannion or Cody Vaz and an opportunistic defense, a much-improved offensive line, and a surprising fortitude for close games, the Beavers announced they were back in 2012. Why we ever doubted Riley, I don't know.
8. Damian Lillard
With all the turmoil in the circus that is One Center Court and the Portland Trail Blazers, there was one superb thing that came out of 2012: Damian Lillard. The showy, catalytic, charismatic point guard out of little Weber State is running suicides around the field in the Rookie of the Year race.
Lillard is averaging 19 points and six assists, playing his first months of NBA ball against drastically better competition than he saw in college in the Big Sky. Lillard has drawn comparisons to Derrick Rose, but Russell Westbrook may be more on the mark, Lillard is a fantastic jump-shooter, has chops for the big moments and shots, and can take over games and send electricity tearing through arenas when he's on. The question has to be asked… why didn't everyone else see this coming? Portland is lucky that top teams in the draft already had point guards – Washington, John Wall, Charlotte, Kemba Walker, Cleveland, Kyrie Irving, Sacramento, Tyreke Evans, but still … the Blazers were hot on the Lillard trail Not only has he been great on the court, he's been grounded, humble, and smart off the court.
He is the star that could turn the Blazers around, no doubt. That deserves some holiday cheer.
9. Caleb Porter Hired
It was clear after about 30 minutes of Gavin Wilkinson's first game in charge that he would have no shot at the full-time head coaching job, even if he wanted it. He has enough power within the Timbers organization as it is. So Wilkinson and Merritt Paulson picked a gem out of the college ranks for the team’s second, non-interim head coach, Caleb Porter out of Akron. The hiring of Caleb Porter makes sense on many different levels for Portland – the only two coaches whose records he hadn't completely smashed in college were Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid, the two best coaches in MLS history. Porter won a national championship at Akron with Darlington Nagbe as the focal point of the team and attack, something he is already in Portland. Porter is young and hungry, but also experienced on the top level, learning from his tenure as the US national team's U-23 head coach.
Porter's age will match him well with his players and team next season, which may resemble a college team in average age. Porter has already outlined a clear strategy for Portland going forward in 2013, widening the dimensions of Jeld-Wen Field, and aggressively acquiring tough, versatile, young players to turn over the Timbers squad. The Timbers are entering an exciting time with an exciting coach, who's already made a bright start to life in the Rose City.
10. John Spencer Sacked
It was in the middle of hot July when an ice cold Portland Timbers team lost their founding leader, a man who exemplified passion, pride, kicking, screaming, and in the end, not enough consistency. When John Spencer was fired after a year and a half in charge of the Timbers, Portland went back to the beginning of their MLS voyage, without the head coach who defined the club and the city who embraced the club with so much excitement. John Spencer may have been Scottish, but he defined one of out favorite stereotypes of Portland – his fiery demeanor, his unafraid, attacking mentality, the idea that it would be quite a bit of fun to hit the pub for a pint with him – made Spencer somewhat of a cult figure in Portland.
Spencer was a players coach, just years removed from playing himself, and Spencer is the man most responsible for creating the Portland Timbers' greatest MLS memories – Spencer's teams always played best against the best competition, in the biggest games, and when the lights showed themselves brightest, usually in the careening rain at Jeld-Wen Field, you could see Spencer screaming at the crowd and jumping about after a goal. It was great. A lot of the Timbers first year and a half in MLS was great. In fact, I still think Spencer's sacking was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction by an owner firing his first manager. Spencer was the glue every so thinly holding the Timbers together from complete collapse. Of course, he had his faults … quite a few: He couldn't find his best lineup, or even his best players. Poor fellows like Mike Chabala, Lovel Palmer, Jorge Perlaza, and others languished on the pitch far to long under Spencer. The Scotsman was outfoxed tactically consistently, but his team wasn't consistent enough, and his team wasn't improving – although a lot of that was Wilkinson's fault. But perhaps the biggest factor in Spencer's sacking was that he wasn't flexible enough behind closed doors, and with results going the wrong way, Paulson wanted someone a little less stubborn to work with.
In any case, Spencer will held high, and in a kind, almost romantic light by most when looking back down the history books of Portland soccer, and the Timbers are better off for his service.
11. Larry Miller Resigning
Even with a real head coach and a real general manager being hired to try and morph the Portland Trail Blazers into a real basketball team again, there was really no starting over without the removal of Larry Miller as President. With the general manager holding little to no clout during Miller's five years in Portland, the former, and now current Jordan Brand President was running the show. Miller had the ear of Paul Allen, and was always the shadowy figure behind the curtain, emerging only to explain why the Blazers did another unthinkable thing off the court. Miller had far too big a role in basketball operations, considering Miller has no background in basketball, rather in business, and Miller personified the kind of under-cutting, back-door environment of the last few years at One Center Court.
Miller has many parallels to Portland Timbers GM Gavin Wilkinson but eventually, Miller wore out his welcome and considerable power. When the Blazers finally decided, after a year, to get serious about hiring a GM, since life without one didn't go so well, Miller pushed for Indiana GM David Morway, but was all but ignored as Neil Olshey was pursued and then hired. With a new sheriff in town, and the realization that he was no longer the most trusted confidant of Paul Allen, Miller saw the writing on the wall and resigned. This isn't to say Miller did nothing well in Portland – he did good things in terms of sustainability at the Rose Garden, and ran successful marketing campaigns that saw the return of Rip City – but Miller grew too powerful for his own and certainly the team's good.
12. Portland Thorns FC
The United States of America's Women's National Team continues to amaze, with a galaxy of stars, and a litany of indelible moments from the last Olympic games in London. The US won the gold medal, avenging their heartbreaking loss to Japan in the 2011 Women's World Cup. On the way, they played one of the best women's soccer games even in the semifinal against Canada, forward gazelle Alex Morgan scoring the goal to send the US to the gold medal match in the 120th minute for a 4-3 win. The Americans, led again by Hope Solo, Christine Rampone and Abby Wambach were an inspiring comeback bunch from the beginning, coming back from a 2-0 deficit against France in the first match of the tournament to win 4-2. This team has even perhaps surpassed the groundbreaking 1999 team, led by the likes of Julie Foudy, Brianna Scurry, and Mia Hamm. And to think that just months earlier, the WPS league, folded.
While women's soccer has exploded in the US in the last 15 years, the women's soccer club scene in the US has been torrid. But with the star-power of the national team, it was only a matter of time before a new women's league sprung up, and sure enough, in late November, the latest league sprouted. The latest iteration is the National Women's Soccer League, with teams in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, New Jersey, Washington, New York, Seattle, and … Portland.
Portland Thorns FC is the team name and the club is managed by the Portland Timbers management group, headlined by Merritt Paulson. It's not yet known where Thorns FC will play, although Merlo Field is a guess. It has also been ventured by people in the know that west-coast based US national team stars – i.e. Wambach, Rapinoe – will want to play in Portland so they can stay close to home and with no team in California, Portland is also an option for players from the Golden State. Portland has wowed the USWNT will it's support and vigor for national team matches, and with Paulson at the helm, stars in the offing, and soccer's following in the city, state, and region, the Portland Thorns have a chance to become a city fixture for years to come.
13. Nate McMillan Fired
Nate McMillan was fired at the crescendo of a sickening Portland Trail Blazers season on March 15th, 2012. McMillan didn't do much wrong. Instead, Nate was a casualty of toxic circumstances that demanded a cleaning of house. There is doubt that the likes of Jamal Crawford, Marcus Camby, and Raymond Felton tanked to get McMillan fired. There's no doubt. McMillan's coaching style was too rigid, his tone to harsh, his manner to strict. The 2011-2012 Blazers could have made the playoffs, even with all the turmoil off the court. The Blazers made a searing start to last season that had them atop the Western Conference after the first two weeks. Then, the team tanked. Was it McMillan's fault? The Blazers played free and easy, running and shooting in those first two weeks. But it didn't last. Unprofessional players got the consummate professional coach canned. Pro sports at its worst.
In McMillan's seven and a half years in Rip City, Mr. Sonic was everything the Blazers needed and more. McMillan's no nonsense approach cleansed the Trail Blazers of the Jail Blazers era in just two years, and with the help of Kevin Pritchard's wheels and deals, put together a strong, fun young team, who's age and experience made McMillan the perfect coach. The Blazers reached their potential under McMillan. The 54-28 division title winning season in 2008-2009 was as good as it was going to get with the roster the Blazers had, and while people were frustrated that the team was stuck in neutral those next two years, first-round losses to Phoenix and Dallas, there wasn't a whole lot more Nate could do. He did have his flaws – he was inflexible and difficult at times – but he led the rebirth of Blazers basketball, and defined professionalism and stability in his time in Portland. He needed to go last season – the Blazers needed to start over – but it was still sad to see him go.
14. Terry Stotts Hired
Terry Stotts was an interesting hire by the Portland Trail Blazers, matching the Blazers new policy of hiring no one exciting or outside the box, just competent people who show up to work and do their job without much fuss. To be honest, there wasn't a whole lot of enthusiasm from NBA circles about the Blazers head coaching job, and giving Stotts a second chance – at a low cost – made perfect sense for the Blazers, who are already paying 393 general managers’ buyouts. Stotts’ last head coaching job was in Milwaukee, where he was fired in 2007, but he was key in Dallas' recent success and championship as Rick Carslile's lead assistant. Stotts likes to run and shoot, and exciting style that is a solid fit for the current young, leggy Blazers team.
Terry Stotts won't light the world on fire. But his ability to put in a good day's work will be an asset to the Blazers, hopefully for years to come.
15. Blazers’ Sell-Out Streak Saga
The gripes and reasons that the loyal fans of the Portland Trail Blazers fans have for not attending home games at quite so fantastic a clip are quite reasonable. What the Blazers fanbase were subjected to last year on the court was almost inhumane, but many fans got too fed up with the off-court sagas to keep spending money at the Rose Garden. One of the worst things the Blazers did last year was pretend that the Rose Garden was sold-out each game down the stretch of last year, when in fact only about 70% of the arena was full. The empty seats were obvious even on TV, but the Blazers kept announcing sell-outs, turning what was once a proud streak for fans into a joke epitomizing the way the Blazers have run their company. It took Larry Miller's removal as President, and the insertion of Chris McGowan to stop the sell-out nonsense, McGowan announced the end of the sell-out streak just a few games into the current season. Blazers fans want to go to games, spend their money, and love their team. Despite having a losing team, the Blazers rank 4th this year in NBA attendance and have sold, on average, 94% of their tickets for each game. Lillard and the new Blazers are exciting, and going in the right direction, leading me to believe a new sell-out streak could be started soon.
16. Continuation of Portland Timbers Sell-Out Streak
The Portland Timbers and Trail Blazers (did not) enjoy parallel seasons. Yet one team's sell-out streak is still alive, the other team's sell-out streak is dashed. Why? There are a few reasons: First and foremost, Timbers games are more fun to attend than Blazers games. No doubt. Even when the Rose Garden is rocking, basketball can't match the electricity, intensity, emotion, sheer force of culture that has sprung up around Jeld-Wen Field. The Timbers have cultivated a soccer following in this city and around the state that is a force to be reckoned with and its bred hardcore fans. While the stakes were so dramatically different from opening night at Jeld-Wen against Philadelphia, to one of the last games of the year I attended, against Colorado, a look at the crowd and you couldn't tell a difference. Timbers soccer is authentic, real, loud, proud, and fun. So even though the Timbers were one of the worst teams in MLS in 2012, the team has a 97% season-ticket renewal rate, and has had to expand the number of season-tickets available The atmosphere, the sport, the energy sells itself at Jeld-Wen Field. Just imagine what a tough ticket it will be when the Timbers are a playoff team…
17. Sarah Mensah Resigns
Not only have the Blazers revamped their basketball side of the franchise, the marketing side has also been change completely. Sarah Mensah, who was Chief Marketing Officer for the Portland Trail Blazers, resigned in late November. Mensah was with the organization for 19 years and was one of the highest-ranking women in professional sports. Her resignation was abrupt – the Blazers marketing campaigns have been successful over the last five or so years – and many think she was helped out the door. Mensah wanted, and was next in line, for the Blazers’ President job vacated by Larry Miller. She should have gotten the position, but was passed over as the team went in a completely different direction hiring Chris McGowan, shedding itself of its front office skin from the failed last era. Mensah, like Miller, saw the writing on the wall.
18. Stanford 17, Oregon 14
The biggest game of the year always has a story or ten within it. The Ducks controlled their own destiny, two games away from a trip back to the National Championship. But it came crumbling apart that Saturday night against the valiant Cardinal, thanks to a criminally bad kicking game, a missed block from an SI cover-boy, a questionable call from one of the most questionable bodies of officials in football, a surprise admirable Stanford team playing out of their battered white jerseys, and an offense that lost its way when time began to crunch. Not only did the game end Oregon's season within touching distance of that elusive crystal football, but it also exposed the Ducks’ jumpy underbelly in close games – Chip Kelly's team hasn't won a close one in the regular season since 2009.
It was a gut-twisting night for Ducks fans, and an elating and vindicating one for Stanford. The contest had everything you could want from a game – stakes, competitiveness, talking points, and natural human drama. Oregon continues to put the state on the national map each football season, and this game was the best the state had to offer in 2012.
19. The Chip-Flop
It was the night of January 22nd, 2012 that Chip Kelly was gone. Off to Tampa Bay, the National Football League and its riches, leaving Oregon after three hugely successful seasons. A shortlist was being drawn up of candidates to replace Chip, and a new dawn was about to hit Oregon football. Until a new dawn hit the next morning and Chip wasn't going anywhere. We're not exactly sure what happened the night of January 22, 2012 to change Kelly's mind. Maybe it was that his offensive coordinator, Mark Helfrich, wasn't assured of getting the top job. It's possible that Phil Knight laid the guilt trip on him, and offered Chip more money to stay. It could be that Kelly decided to sit on his hands and wait for a better offer from the NFL – Tampa Bay isn't exactly a dream job. But none of the reasons floated for why Kelly stayed had to do with him loving his job at the University of Oregon, and finding himself unable to go.
What Kelly's Chip-flop told us very clearly was that the NFL is a very real thing for Kelly, and something he very badly wants to explore. The result of Kelly staying was that Oregon had another stellar, top-5 year in college football, and Kelly has become the hottest coaching commodity in the NFL, rumored for jobs in Philadelphia, San Diego, Kansas City, Cleveland, Carolina and Dallas. There are reasons, as I detailed in in a column last week why Kelly should stay at Oregon – namely that his offense wouldn't work well in at the next level without considerable tweaking and he would have to revamp his coaching style to handle professionals. But there are reasons he would want to go … he doesn't like recruiting or schmoozing boosters, he doesn't like dealing with people as much as you have to in college, he may be getting bored or know about potential penalties from the Willie Lyles case, and most of all, the NFL is a grand opportunity for Kelly to test himself. Whatever the case, Kelly flip-flopped that night, giving Oregon another year, and giving his name more ink in NFL circles. But it may not be very long before his immaculately manicured house on the edge of Eugene, where he lives by himself, could be vacated by the night of January 22nd next year.
20. College Basketball’s Fall in the State of Oregon
A team from the state of Oregon has not made the NCAA Tournament since the Portland State Vikings in 2009. A team from the state has not won an NCAA Tournament game since the Oregon Ducks flew into the Elite Eight back in 2007. Aaron Brooks was the star of that team, Ernie Kent was the coach. Yes, college hoops fans in Oregon are going mad for the lack of March basketball.
Oregon is perhaps the most inconsequential college basketball state in the continental US. Try to find me a state that has been so irrelevant on the national stage for now over five years. As a result, college basketball in the state has suffered. Neither Oregon nor Oregon State sell-out home games or generate any fan momentum. When Oregon was on the cusp of the NCAA Tournament last year, they could barely squeak onto the front page of the Oregonian – teams from the state are never on national TV, and great tradition for the sport in this state is slipping away. Now I understand that may be a bit harsh. After all, Oregon did make the NIT last year and appears to be slowly turning itself around and both the Ducks with Dana Altman and the Beavers with President Obama's brother-in-law Craig Robinson are led capably and sterling at times, but it's not enough. Oregon has squandered the inordinate amount of potential momentum they had when they opened up Matthew Knight Arena in 2010, and the Pit Crew and Eugene's aura have shrunk considerably. While Oregon can attract top talent in almost every sport, and has built a lasting brand in almost every sport, they're having trouble with basketball. Oregon's top players the last few years have been Junior College transfers. Pat Kilkenny and company have botched Oregon's coaching search so badly when Kent was fired in 2010; Altman felt like the Ducks 12th choice, and that's the enthusiasm he was greeted with. Oregon has no excuse for not being relevant in college basketball; they should be making the tourney every year.
While Craig Robinson is a likable, stand-up guy who has made Oregon State competitive again, Robinson is now in his fifth season, and the Beavers appear nowhere closer to the NCAA Tournament discussion than they were when Robinson and his Beavers completed a shock season and won the CBI in the 2008-2009 season. Robinson, of course, shouldn't be fired, but it's hard not to feel like the Beavers are stuck in CBI neutral. Oregon has college basketball tradition, but for the time being, it's going to waste as the sport in the state is still in decline.
21. Portland Winterhawks Criminal Enterprise
Just as the local hockey team was gathering some momentum, tearing through their league and gaining mainstream recognition, we found something a bit disturbing. The Portland Winterhawks are the 1987 SMU Mustangs. In late November, the WHL handed down the most extensive, back-breaking penalties in league history, slamming the Winterhawks for committing 54 rules violations. The penalties? Forfeiture of the team's first five picks in the 2013 WHL Draft, and the loss of the team's first round pick until 2017. Add to that a $200,000 fine – massive for a minor league hockey team – and the suspension of team patriarch and head coach and general manager Mike Johnson for the remainder of a once promising 2012-13 season. That's a full plate for a team that was apparently giving improper pay and benefits to at least 14 players over the last five years.
Since the WHL is still an amateur league of amateur, often high school players, you cannot offer benefits for play. The Winterhawks are not contesting the penalties handed down to them, and do not dispute the allegations. Guilty as charged, they are. The Winterhawks are accused of giving flights to players' families, paying for summer training, and providing a cell phone for the team captain. Johnson is supposed to be behind all of this and the Winterhawks’ coach can be compared in many ways to Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints. For a city that has been mentioned, infrequently, but mentioned, for an NHL franchise, this shameless scandal for the minor league hockey team, coming off a Memorial Cup trip, hurts quite a bit.
22. Will Lyles & Potential Penalties For Oregon
The Will Lyles story has been hanging over the heads of Chip Kelly and his University of Oregon football program for over one and a half years now. We know that Willie Lyles is a professional sleaze-bag, warming up to highly-touted high-school football players and getting paid by schools to nudge those trusting kids towards one program or another. That's his job. Oregon played his game. That's how they got Lache Seastrunk, a five-star running back recruit out of Texas. Seastrunk is long gone, transferred to Baylor, but the impact of his reckless recruitment could last a long time.
The Lyles story tugs at you as an Oregon fan to decide morally whether it's worth cheating to win at college football. The investigation feels like a ticking time bomb that could explode and pop the Oregon bubble of success at any moment, when the panel who will hear the case comes down with their rulings. Or maybe not, maybe nothing much will come of this. We don't know. But we do know the Ducks deserve whatever's coming to them.
23. Emergence of College Baseball in Oregon
While college basketball has evaporated into a non-entity, for the moment at least in the state, Oregon has emerged as a power player on the college baseball scene. Both Oregon and Oregon State reached the 40 win mark in 2012, and made the NCAA Tournament with exciting, heart-stopping play. The Ducks, in just four years, have fixed themselves a home in the top-25 and last year was another step towards the goal of a national championship that the Ducks always felt they could achieve when they reintroduced baseball in 2009. Oregon went 46-19, and 4-2 in the NCAA Tournament, winning their regional group and coming a run short against Kent State for a trip to Omaha and the College World Series. In addition to the on-field success, legendary manager George Horton agreed to a five-year contract extension in November. The Ducks’ willingness to pour money into baseball is paying off, and will continue to pay off as the team is established as a power in the sport.
Oregon has been, in many ways, trying to emulate the lasting success of Oregon State in baseball, and the Beavers' back-to-back national championships were perhaps a factor in the Ducks deciding to bring back baseball just months after OSU's second title in 2007. The Beavers once again made the NCAA Tournament in 2012, under their own legend of the sport, Pat Casey. Oregon State has pulled off what the Portland Pilots have in women's soccer; the feat of becoming a powerhouse in a sport at a college in a location that defies logic. With two of the greatest managers in the sport in the state, and resources being devoted to the sport that aren't elsewhere, Oregon could become a surprise center for college baseball.
24. Olympic Trials at Hayward Field
Once again, the Olympic Trials in track and field were staged in Eugene, Oregon at venerable Hayward Field. The cathedral of the sport, Hayward Field played a fantastic host for the US Trials, selling out events even though it was (as usual) pouring down rain during the week. The broadcast of the event on the NBC Sports Network, and the now famous/infamous "tie" between Jeneba Tarmoh and Allison Felix for the last spot on the women's 100m team, provided much more exposure than usual to the trials and made the event an all-around success for track and field in Oregon.
25. Baseball Returns
Baseball is back in the Portland-metro area for the first time since the Portland Beavers were left out in the cold and shipped to California to heat up in 2010. The Beavers fiasco left a bitter, chalky taste in Merritt Paulson's mouth, and the mouths of many people in power in the city of Portland. For regular fans, the chance to spend a few bucks at the ballpark on a warm summer's night was wistfully missed in the last two years. With Portland being a top-40 city in the US, and no professional baseball to speak of, the sweepstakes to land a team – or multiple teams – was a fierce, long battle behind the scenes. In the end, despite an option in Vancouver and a valiant effort by Milwaukie, it was Hillsboro who secured baseball in 2013 and beyond. While the Hillsboro Hops are only a Single-A club, far from the Triple-A level the Beavers occupied, the fact that baseball is back, period, will bring a smile to many Oregonians’ faces.