‘Will Lyles Bowl’ plays out without namesake

When Will Lyles first heard some people had dubbed the marquee game of college football’s opening weekend the “Will Lyles Bowl,” all he could do was laugh.

“I think it’s hilarious because I never intended to make this stuff about me,” Lyles joked Wednesday night. “I never would’ve thought I’d have a bowl game named after me. I never thought people would know who I was up until six months ago.”

No. 3 Oregon and No. 4 LSU will meet Saturday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Officially, the game is called the “Cowboys Classic” but it’s each teams’ ties to the 32-year-old high school scout and trainer from Houston that makes it unique.

Both schools are currently under NCAA investigation for paying thousands of dollars to Lyles’ now-defunct “Complete Scouting Services,” which was supposed to provide scouting reports, video and other information on recruits.

[* Related: Listen to Wetzel and Lyles on the podcast]

The NCAA is trying to figure out whether the payments – $25,000 from Oregon, $6,000 from LSU – were more about securing what Lyles acknowledges was his “access and influence” with top players, some of whom wound up as Ducks and Tigers, than traditional scouting work.

After an offseason of relentless scandal it’s apropos this week’s big game has been unofficially named after the central figure in a major controversy.

Lyles originally thought he could make a living offering teams scouting and recruiting information while also serving one of his passions – mentoring high school players.

He worked seven years for other scouting services developing both an eye for hidden talent, contacts with coaches and the experience to help players and their families navigate the cutthroat recruiting process. In 2010 he started his own company.

[Related: Is Will Lyles a villain or victim?]

It was going fine until March 2011 when Yahoo! Sports broke news of Oregon’s payment, which due to his relationship with a number of Ducks players, was potentially problematic with the NCAA.

Later some comically thin and outdated written reports he sent Oregon in February became public. Lyles claims he provided most of his information verbally through phone calls with coaches. He cobbled together the written reports after Oregon hurriedly requested them because, Lyles asserts, the NCAA and media were snooping.

Oregon has denied it did anything wrong and says it is cooperating with the NCAA. LSU has said the same.

In an instant, the largely anonymous, easy-going and gregarious Lyles was in the center of a fan and media storm. Reporters badgered. Commentators characterized. Fans vented. His name zipped across the bottom of television screens and the internet spun about the controversy, which eventually spread to other schools.

He went from nobody to notorious in an instant.

“Everybody was throwing stones,” he said. “I wasn’t saying a word (he declined media requests for months) but I was being hit by stones on a regular basis. People were calling me a sleazebag and a street agent and everything under the sun.

Will Lyles attends the LSU-Florida game in 2009 with recruits Cassius Marsh (committed to UCLA), Trovon Reed (committed to Auburn) and Lache Seastrunk (committed to Oregon, transferred to Baylor).
(Courtesy photo)

“It was [a challenge] to have to be silent, knowing that there was a lot of wrong done. And the people who were doing the wrong were basically trying to roll me under the bus and make me the bad guy when they were trying to make me break their rules … those are their rules, not mine.”

It hardly mattered.

The NCAA rulebook has long been controversial. It’s designed mostly to allow the Association to claim its multibillion-dollar business is just amateur athletics, meaning it doesn’t have to pay the athletes or taxes. Many coaches and players don’t respect or obey the statutes. Corners are cut on a daily basis.

Lyles broke no laws, but the passion for college football made him a villain to some. When the old scouting reports became public – one prospect was deceased – he became a punchline too. Even he laughs at some of it.

His scouting service is out of business. His phone no longer buzzes with recruiters seeking information. Relationships with famous head coaches are on hold. He’s radioactive in college circles.

Will Lyles was a classic middleman and he wound up crushed from all sides.

Speaking in general terms about his experience in the middle of major college recruiting, Lyles said the business of football is a lot different than the product that gets broadcast at kickoff.

“I think most people would be surprised,” Lyles said. “Some people would be horrified. Behind the scenes is a lot different then what’s being portrayed in front. It’s a lot deeper than it what it’s shown as.”

Lyles spent most of the year working at Spec’s, a high-end grocery and liquor store in Houston. He’s considering a few non-football professional opportunities. He trained some high school prospects during the offseason and remains a mentor to many young players who continue to lean on him for everything from father-figure advice to help with drills that will improve foot speed.

He misses being a scout, but is mostly glad he’s moving beyond the controversy that enveloped him this year. That included speaking at length to Yahoo! Sports in July and sitting down with NCAA investigators twice, once in May and again Tuesday in Los Angeles, where he went over additional information.

“I fully cooperated with them and I feel they are armed with what they need to be armed with moving forward,” he said, declining to get into specifics.

As strange as it sounds, he says the entire experience has made him a better person. He admits he made mistakes. He says he’s owned up to them.

“For me, there’s a lot of positive things that came out of it,” he said. “To feel the way I feel now, to go through that experience was well worth it. I now understand the true meaning of patience.

“I got closer to God,” he continued. “Honestly. People always draw on the negative, ‘So something bad is going on so now you are getting close to God?’ But in the truest form of it, that’s what it was. And maybe that was the reason why I was going through what I went through. I don’t think people want me to say that, they’ll think the same BS about me as ever, but it’s a true and honest statement.”

Lyles debated whether he should attend Saturday’s game – he remains very close and in constant contact with a number of the Ducks and Tigers players. Instead he’s going to a high school contest in the Houston area.

“I’ll have to tape it,” he said.

So the “Will Lyles Bowl” will go off without Will Lyles in attendance. He still laughs at the absurdity of it all. Lyles made tens of thousands and was pushed out. The coaches and schools he was dealing continue on unabated, making millions.

Hey, at least he has the bowl game.

“It was funny when I first heard it, but people need to focus on what needs to be focused on and that’s the young men who are working hard and playing in it,” Lyles said.

And what’s Will Lyles’ prediction for the Will Lyles Bowl?

“Oregon 31-21,” he said with a laugh.

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Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Sep 1, 2011