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Ducking Away From Trouble

College football: Saladin McCullough is making the most of his fresh start at Oregon.

October 09, 1997|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's as though the cool, crisp air of autumn in Oregon has blown his troubles away. The cleansing Oregon rain has washed away his past. His baggage was checked at the California border.

The trials of USC and tumult of Pasadena City College, the travel to El Camino College in search of a way station are behind him now. Saladin McCullough is the statistical leader of the Oregon Ducks and a player who keeps coaches up nights trying to find ways to use him.

He's a running back, with 493 yards in 102 carries. He's a receiver, with eight catches for 85 yards. He's a kick returner, running the first kickoff of the season 93 yards for a touchdown against Arizona. He has completed the only pass he has thrown, for 32 yards.

Mainly, though, McCullough is at peace. It has been a long war.

"They've given me a fresh start here at Oregon," he says. "I've met new people in a different program. Things worked out like I thought they would."

Sort of.

He thought he would be a top-notch running back in the Pacific 10 Conference, but at USC, not Oregon. He had always wanted to be a Trojan, playing against UCLA and Notre Dame, the toast of Southern California.

Now he's a Duck, playing against UCLA on Saturday in Eugene and pondering a return home in two weeks to play USC at the Coliseum.

"He wants to prove that SC lost on the deal," says Michael Harrison, McCullough's uncle, guardian and former coach at Pasadena Muir High, where all the trouble began in 1993.

John Robinson had just come back to town at USC, promising a return to "Tailback U." McCullough was a tailback who had scored 36 touchdowns as a senior at Muir, and the fit was a natural. All he had to do was score high enough on the Scholastic Assessment Test, which he did easily, getting a 1,200.

Too easily, according to some Muir teachers, who offered the Educational Testing Service an opinion that an increase of more than 500 points from his score on the Preliminary SAT was a statistical impossibility.

The score was invalidated by the ETS, and an appeal to an arbitrator upheld the invalidation. McCullough refused to retake the test, and now will say only: "That's all behind me." He sat out a year, then went to nearby Pasadena City College, where he was suspended twice--once for fighting during a practice, another time for missing practice--but rushed for 725 yards and six touchdowns.

It was still Pasadena, still too close to Jackie Robinson Park, the old neighborhood with all its temptations and all of its gangs, all its trials.

The answer was El Camino, across town in Torrance, and he rushed for 1,090 yards and 12 touchdowns and had 1,829 all-purpose yards in 10 games.

"He'd made some mistakes when he was younger," El Camino Coach John Featherstone says. "We all do.

"We run a clean program here and we want to keep it that way, so I called his coach at Muir, Jim Brownfield, and I called two coaches at USC that I knew and I called his coach at Pasadena, Dennis Gossard. They all said that he was a good kid, that he was worth taking a chance on, and I found they were right. We never had any trouble with him here, and he's a very talented football player."

After receiving an associates degree from El Camino, which qualified him for a four-year college without needing to retake the SAT--but cost him two years' eligibility--McCullough believed he was ready to go to USC. But the school no longer wanted him.

"They were nice enough to call back here and say they were going in a different direction," Featherstone said. "They had running backs they were satisfied with."

USC was also embarrassed by the McCullough/SAT incident, as the school has been embarrassed since by similar incidents involving other players. McCullough would forever be a hiccup in Trojan history.

And then there was Oregon.

"When he was in high school, we knew we couldn't get him," says Don Pellum, the Ducks' linebacker coach and Southern California recruiter. "When he came out of JC, I thought he might end up at SC. He kept telling us, 'I don't have to go to SC,' and we didn't believe him."

But Oregon needed a running back, and Pellum traveled the phone-call trail. Brownfield again gave McCullough a thumbs-up, as did Gossard and Featherstone. McCullough visited Eugene and came away impressed.

Mainly, he wanted to play Division I football, and Oregon offered his last chance.

And his best chance.

"No one we talked to said he was a bad kid," Pellum says. "We'd heard he had problems, but no one could give specifics. I think it's been good for him here, to be able to draw back and just be himself."

Harrison could have told them.

"Sollie hasn't changed as a person, but he had gotten stereotyped," he says. "He's an introvert by nature, which some people have taken for aloofness, and he was confused. Down here [in Southern California] he lived with attacks, with unfair accusations, with straight-out lies and with twists of the truth.

"Up there, they have accepted him for what he is: a good person and a good football player."

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