When the Ducks kick off their football season Sept. 3 against the LSU Tigers under the lights in Cowboys Stadium in a game with national championship implications, they will do so without consensus All-American cornerback Cliff Harris in the secondary.
University junior-to-be Harris was indefinitely suspended from the program Wednesday by team officials after being cited for driving 118 mph with a suspended license early Sunday morning on Interstate 5 near Albany, Ore. Compliance officials are also investigating the conditions under which Harris received the car, as it was rented by an employee of the University.
“Cliff’s future clearly is in Cliff’s hands,” head coach Chip Kelly said in a statement released Wednesday. “Earning an opportunity to represent the University of Oregon and this football program certainly rests far beyond a player’s ability on the field of play.”
Kelly affirmed Harris will miss the Ducks’ opener and added his future eligibility would hinge on his adherence to the values of the football program.
“Our behavior out of the spotlight often is more important and will be held to a higher standard,” Kelly said. “Until Cliff is able to conform to the same standards all of us must comply with, his status will remain unchanged.”
Factoring into Kelly’s decision is the frequency of Harris’ off-the-field issues. On Dec. 11, 2009, Harris received a minor in possession of alcohol citation, and on Jan. 5, 2010, was caught speeding and cited for operating a vehicle without driving privileges and driving uninsured. As recently as last May, Harris was issued citations for both speeding and driving on a suspended license after being pulled over in a car registered to quarterback Darron Thomas. Compounding problems is Harris’ repeated failure to show up in court to resolve his citations, resulting in his fines being turned over to a collections agency.
Since 2008, Harris has 11 unpaid fines totaling $8,527.50, including five outstanding fines in his hometown of Fresno, Calif.
The University is also looking into the car Harris was driving, a 2011 Nissan Altima rented out to Mindy Schmidling, a payroll specialist in the University’s Office of Business Affairs, who says she was approached by Harris and a friend and offered payment for the car in exchange for letting the two borrow it. According to Schmidling, the car was paid for in two cash payments totaling $300, and she was assured that Harris — because of his suspended license — would not be behind the wheel.
University officials must now decide whether or not loaning the car to Harris and two other unidentified members of the football team violates the NCAA’s extra-benefits regulations, and it may determine whether further sanctions will be leveled against Harris from the NCAA, who define an extra benefit as “any special arrangement by an institutional employee or a representative of the institution’s athletics interests to provide a student-athlete or the student-athlete’s relative or friend a benefit that is not expressly authorized by NCAA legislation.”
“I simply let a licensed driver borrow my rental,” Schmidling said in an email exchange with The Register-Guard. “I did not give Cliff permission to drive nor did I pay for the rental … so I don’t see how that would affect my job or violate NCAA rules.”
If compliance officials see Harris’ payment for the car as proof that he received no monetary benefit from use of it, his status of eligibility would, at least in the eyes of the NCAA, remain safe.
With six interceptions, Harris played a vital role in Oregon’s march to the National Championship game last year, and his four punt return touchdowns both led the nation and broke school records.