Cliff Harris smoked it all, and burned all his bridges

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It’s a testament to the character and resilience of the Oregon team that in each of Chip Kelly’s first three years, they won a conference title with a key player suspended or dismissed for disciplinary reasons. The Ducks went 36-6 without running back LeGarrette Blount in 2009, returning starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli in 2010, and All-American returner and cornerback Cliff Harris in 2011.

In a different era, with a different coach or in a different part of the country, these three players would have been coddled through. Urban Meyer’s Florida teams had 31 arrests involving 25 players. Many of those players missed no more than a half against Central City Tech, and the Gators won two national championships.

So far, Kelly recruits character and disciplines failures of character, and the Ducks have won because of it, as a team. In each of the above cases, younger players stepped up and did tremendous jobs: redshirt freshman LaMichael James, inexperienced sophomore Darron Thomas, and redshirt freshmen/true freshman Terrance Mitchell, Troy Hill and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu all took on the role of replacing a star, and did so with courage and poise.

The results were tremendous: two Rose Bowls sandwiched around an appearance in the national championship game. Kelly has said that playing football at Oregon is a privilege and not a right, that in the Duck program there are standards, and if a player doesn’t want to live up to those standards, “we’ll miss you, but we’ll get along without you.”

The Ducks have, finishing in the top rungs of college football for three straight years.

In Cliff Harris’ case, the fall from grace has been painful to watch. Harris is mercurial,  clever, funny and superbly talented, a quote machine that fans loved. He set a school record for punt return tds, made consensus All-American, and led the conference in interceptions and pass breakups. He did amazing things, often in big games and on national television. Kash had three of his best games against Andrew Luck (picking him twice), Matt Barkley (a key third quarter interception) and Cam Newton (a interception and long return, a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter, and another interception, a phenomenal individual play, overturned by the officials).

He was electrifying to watch, but often maddening for coaches and teammates. Harris’ failures weren’t limited to traffic stops and weed. He practiced poorly, and freelanced on the field in ways that put teammates in bad situations. Some of his risks and gambles failed, creating big plays for opponents. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti spoke often of Cliff’s need to conform and mature. That never happened. Over the Thanksgiving holiday the suspend Oregon cornerback was arrested in Fresno for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, and now he’s dismissed from the program, with no further chance of reinstatement.

Harris will try his luck in the NFL. From here his life can become another cautionary tale or a story of redemption. The missteps and disciplinary issues cost him thousands of dollars–before his infamous summer traffic stop, the 118 mph “we smoked it all” incident that earned him his first suspension, he projected as a first or second round NFL draft pick. Now, after an abbreviated and ineffective junior season, plagued by character issues, the 5-11, 165 lb. defensive back faces a situation where a team will have to take a chance on him on talent alone. His NFL measurables won’t help him.  Slight of build and not elite on the stopwatch, barely strong enough to benchpress a taco, Harris won’t grade out that well at the combine in Indianapolis. He can be brilliant on the field, brain dead off it, and what he does well doesn’t translate to the clipboard, the stopwatch, or the scouting report.

Someone will take a chance on him, and the hope is that Cliff will fall under the guidance of someone wise and trustworthy and straighten out his life. This isn’t the place to debate the psychological and physical effects of marijuana, but one thing is clear: Harris’ desire to smoke it has impaired his life and judgment, to the point he can’t manage his business. And that is a damn shame.

But man, he was fun to watch, making a big play or giving the outlandish interview. His famous introduction to his teammates, telling the seniors and juniors at his first team meeting, “My name is Cliff Harris, and I am here to lock (stuff) down,” was a priceless moment of personal legend. Trouble was, Cliff couldn’t lock his own stuff down, and now he’s in a world of trouble.

Where will he land, and what will he make of himself?

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