There’s Nobody Good Enough for Oregon?

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The Oregonian’s John Canzano received an unexpected call recently.

It was from an upset college football fan — nothing unusual there. I can only imagine the number of irate messages John must receive on a daily basis. What made this one a little out of the ordinary was that the caller was none other than Oregon State Senate President, Peter Courtney.

“Are we to believe that there’s not one high school senior who plays football in this state good enough for Oregon?” Courtney asked Canzano, alarmed that not a single in-state player ended up in the Ducks’ fold come National Signing Day earlier this month.

The white-haired, 71-year-old Courtney, it should be noted, is not a native Oregonian. Born in Philadelphia, he grew up in New Jersey, West Virginia, Rhode Island, and Virginia. After graduating from Boston University’s law school he moved to Oregon in 1969, to become the clerk of William S. Fort of the Oregon Court of Appeals.

Courtney launched his political career in 1974, as a member of Salem City Council. He’s held numerous seats in both the Oregon House and Senate — today he’s the most tenured member of the Oregon legislature.

He loves animals. He’s a Democrat.

And, oh yes, he played high school football.

Lineman Alex Balducci, one of twenty two players on the University of Oregon football roster from Oregon

Lineman Alex Balducci, one of twenty-two players on the University of Oregon football roster from Oregon

I relate all this because context is important. Courtney’s concern obviously doesn’t flow from a family tree that dates back to Champoeg and Oregon’s first provisional government, in 1843. He wasn’t even around to sit with me and my buddies in the cheap seats (that’d be wooden bleachers) at Hayward Field watching Bob Berry toss the pigskin in the early ’60s. Like many present-day Oregonians (many of them Ducks fans), Courtney is from Away.

No, the Senate president’s concern seems to stem from a concern about money and, dare I say it, politics.

On the money side of the equation, Courtney notes the University of Oregon is a taxpayer-supported institution. Out of the university’s $75 million athletics budget, $1.8 million comes from the state supported general fund for athletes’ academic support. That, he seems to feel, should obligate the U of O to ensure plenty of kids from Coos Bay and Clackamas and Creswell receive football scholarships every year. Not sure if he extends that thought to tennis, lacrosse, and field hockey, too.

Of course this rather misses the point. Anyone, including politicians, who feels college athletics, especially football and basketball, have ballooned out of control and need to be reined in has a perfect right to make that case. But until the system itself is changed, university sports teams’ primary objective is to win. To make that happen requires the best possible infrastructure, coaches, and … wait for it … athletes.

So are the overburdened taxpayers of Oregon being hard done by here?

Last time I looked, the more the Oregon football program has won, the more money it has generated for the university.

Marcus Mariota, from Honolulu Hiawaii, bringing the Heisman and national recognition back to Eugene

Marcus Mariota, from Honolulu Hiawaii, bringing the Heisman and national recognition back to Eugene

According to an article in Forbes by Alicia Jessop (“The Economics of College Football: A Look At The Top-25 Teams’ Revenues and Expenses”), federal Department of Education data from 2011-2012 indicated total football-related expenses in Eugene came in at $20,240,213, while revenues topped out at $51,921,731. For comparison’s sake, Alabama’s numbers were $36,918,963/$81,993,762, Ohio State’s were $34,026,871/$58,112,270, and Pac-12 North rival Stanford’s pegged out at $18,738,731/$25,564,646.

So much for the ol’ “the taxpayers are being ripped off” argument.

Oh, and by the way — state support has slipped to a paltry seven percent of the University of Oregon’s overall budget.

Which brings us to politics.

Seems to me Courtney’s playing a palpably populist political card, conjuring the twin images of tax dollars slipping away to support undeserving kids from exotic places like Texas and Hawaii to come to Eugene to play football, while leaving poor-but-deserving youngsters from both sides of the Cascades standing outside Autzen Stadium holding tin plates while muttering, “May I have a little more, Sir?”

Facts often get in the way of fiction (or in this case, politics). The fact is the state of Oregon has never been a hotbed of high school football talent. While the trend is up, make no mistake, Oregon’s relatively modest population size alone ensures it will never produce the number of outstanding young high school football talents that come galloping out of Ohio, Alabama, and Florida every year.

Senator Peter Courtney talking about issues going on in the state of Oregon

Senator Peter Courtney talking about issues going on in the state of Oregon

Speaking of those three states, Courtney noted in his conversation with Canzano that Ohio State, the Ducks’ opponent in the inaugural National Football Championship game, signed 12 in-state players to their roster this year, compared with the University of Oregon’s zero.

He failed to mention that Ohio produced 148 high school kids who signed Letters of Intent with FBS schools on Signing Day. The Crimson Tide took in seven in-state players out of the 104 young Alabamans who signed LOIs. And what about Florida? Florida State, the team the Ducks crushed in the Rose Bowl, signed 12 student athletes out of the staggering 380 kids from the Sunshine State who signed LOIs.

By contrast, depending on the source, the state of Oregon produced just seven players who signed with FBS programs this year. (Rivals says it’s only five, go figure). Only one of them, Cameron Scarlett, had a Ducks offer.

And Scarlett spurned his in-state school, instead opting to become a Stanford Cardinal.

The general point here is that every football program in the land needs those three components to succeed. When it comes to Oregon, infrastructure? Check. Coaches? Check. (See Mark Helfrich’s new five-year contract extension.)  Players? Clearly, to be successful, an FBS program in a state that produces only a handful of kids capable of excelling at the top tier of college football has to recruit out of state to survive, let alone prosper. I mean, duh-uh.

Having said that, the in-state talent pool varies from year to year. This year the pond was relatively shallow. Next year might well be deeper.

The Ducks have already offerred Summit High (Bend) junior Cam McCormick, a 6’5″, 225 lb tight end/defensive end who’s run an 11.3 100 meters.

The University of Oregon and Ohio State meet for the National Championship Game in Arlington Texas

The University of Oregon and Ohio State meet for the National Championship Game in Arlington, Texas.

They’ve also offered Central Catholic’s LaMar Winston, Jr. a 6’3″ athlete, and safety Brady Breeze (a 6’1″ four-star player who’s already committed to the Ducks), as well as Tigard’s Conner Crist, a 6’3″, 305 lb lineman.

Coach Helfrich (who as Courtney pointed out in his chat with Canzano was born in Coos Bay, not Philly) and his staff are clearly trying to court in-state talent. But it’s still a relatively free country. Young lawyers are able to pull up stakes, move across the continent and start a job 2,500 miles from home with impunity, even though in Courtney’s case it might be argued he scooped a position with Judge Fort back in ’69 from some deserving but out-of-luck graduate of Salem’s Willamette University or … the University of Oregon … who’s education was invested in by the state’s taxpayers.

Just as there’s no guarantee that young men like McCormick, Winston, and Crist will ultimately choose the Ducks. They might end up at Penn State.

Heck, some of them may even head for Corvallis.

You can legislate a lot of things, but common sense and taste are not among them.

Top photo credit: From Video

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