Evanson Column: Oregon softball has gone from hero to zero
The University of Oregon softball program is burning to the ground, and someone, including the NCAA, needs to take a long look as to why.
This is what people wanted. They screamed from the rooftops when a high-profile coach left, and the poor players were left to play for a new coach they didn't choose in the beginning.
"It's not fair."
"Let them leave too."
"It's another case of the NCAA keeping the exploited players down," they said.
Well in response, the big, bad NCAA loosened the transfer rules, and this is what you've gotten.
Last summer, Oregon head coach Mike White left the program for both literally and figuratively greener pastures. The University of Texas offered him more than double his salary at Oregon, and the highly successful coach used it in an effort to get the same from the Ducks. Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens countered with something in between, allegedly; White scoffed at it, also allegedly; and in his wake, nine of the Ducks players from last year's team that earned the nation's No. 1 seed in the College Softball World Series have either left or entered the transfer portal with the intention of doing so, leaving a once-dominant program on the verge of extinction.
Oregon presently has 13 players on its roster, including just two pitchers. Six left prior to the fall term, allowing them to transfer without penalty for the upcoming season, and three more have left in the past week, less than two weeks shy of their season opener Tuesday, Feb. 5, versus Kansas. Four of those players joined their former coach at Texas and will certainly make immediate impacts for a Longhorns team likely now to make a push for a Big 12 title. A couple others have gone elsewhere, and a couple more have stayed put, choosing to finish their degrees in Eugene before figuring out where to finish their softball careers beyond this idle season.
In a recent Baseball America article, now-former player Maggie Balint said that much of her and others' motivation for leaving revolved around a growing distrust of the athletic department, along with the new coaching staff. She claimed the athletic department wasn't up-front with her and her teammates when Coach White left following last season, and since then, new head coach Melyssa Lombardi has been dishonest with her, specifically regarding the pending eligibility of incoming transfer catcher Terra McGowan from Arizona State. The university nor Lombardi are saying much beyond the canned responses you'd expect during times like these, but as a result, I — and interested parties like me — am left to ask one simple question: How could this happen?
Oregon softball was a thriving program. It has won five of the last six Pac 12 championships, has been to the College Softball World Series in five of the last seven seasons, and boasts what is considered by many to be one of the premiere college softball facilities in the nation, where the Ducks regularly play in front of more than 2,300 spectators. Now, seven months removed from its No. 1 ranking, the program sits on the verge of an idle season due to an inability to simply field a team.
Were the girls lied to? I don't know. They say so; the athletic department states otherwise.
Did they lose the coach who by all accounts they adored? Yes. He made a business decision, and the university did as well, refusing to match what they called an "outlier salary."
And did the NCAA's new rules regarding transfers in a case of a departing coach allow this happen? Without question. And in my opinion, that feels like a problem.
When these rules were announced last year, it sounded like a good idea. After all, when a student athlete chooses a school, he or she likely does so with the coach as a primary draw. But the rules are in place not just to protect the athletes. They must also be there to protect — at least to an extent — the universities investing tens and often hundreds of thousands of dollars into these athletes as well. After all, the University of Oregon didn't fire White; he simply chose to leave for more money. The school and athletic department isn't to blame for that, so why should they be left in ruins as a result?
It should be noted that the transferring players aren't breaking the rules — they're playing by them. Sure, they're turning their backs on the school, fans and teammates they've left behind, and all in their best interests. But while that in itself is a topic for another day, the NCAA rules that allowed it all to happen should again be addressed.
Otherwise, this is just the beginning of what could be a very messy situation for a lot of schools not named Oregon in the years to come — not just for the ones looking to leave, but for everyone and everything they're leaving behind.