Scout details relationship with Oregon, Kelly
HOUSTON – Embattled scouting service owner Will Lyles told Yahoo! Sports that University of Oregon coach Chip Kelly personally approved a controversial $25,000 fee that sparked an ongoing NCAA investigation and was in constant contact as Lyles provided the Ducks with recruiting assistance that may have violated NCAA rules.
In a wide-ranging, multi-day interview, Lyles said Kelly “scrambled” in late February and asked Lyles to submit retroactive player profiles to justify the $25,000 payment to his company, just days before the transaction was revealed in a March 3 Yahoo! Sports report. Lyles also provided details of his fledgling company – Complete Scouting Services (CSS) – as well as the extent of his relationship with numerous Texas high school stars and his role in Ducks’ recruitment of certain prospects.
Lyles insists Oregon did not make a direct request or payment to steer recruits to Eugene. However, he now says Oregon did not pay him for his work as a traditional scout, but for his influence with top recruits and their families and his ability to usher prospects through the signing and eligibility process. That dual role as mentor to prospects and paid contractor to Oregon is believed to be a focus of the NCAA probe.
“I look back at it now and they paid for what they saw as my access and influence with recruits,” Lyles said. “The service I provided went beyond what a scouting service should … I made a mistake and I’m big enough of a man to admit I was wrong.”
Calls and text messages to Chip Kelly’s two cell phones were not returned.
Oregon spokesman Dave Williford said the university maintains its stance that there was no wrongdoing, and that comment will be withheld until the NCAA’s investigation has been resolved.
“Our stance hasn’t changed from our original statement,” Williford said. “We believe we did nothing wrong.”
The NCAA will not comment on an active investigation.
Lyles said Oregon’s assistant director of football operations, Josh Gibson, had direct knowledge – and played an ancillary role – in Lyles helping Temple (Texas) High School star Lache Seastrunk petition to have his grandmother, rather than his mother, sign his national letter of intent with the Ducks in February 2010. Seastrunk’s mother, who expressed opposition to her son about attending Oregon, otherwise could have blocked the signing.
“Indirectly I played a pivotal role in [Seastrunk signing with Oregon],” Lyles said.
A call and text message to Gibson’s cell phone were not returned.
Lyles said Kelly and Oregon committed to becoming the first client for CSS prior to Lyles aiding Seastrunk with the letter-of-intent issue. Then, just after the guardianship switch, Lyles said Kelly instructed him to “find out what the best paying service is” and to bill Oregon that amount. When Lyles settled on the $25,000 figure, he said he called Kelly and Kelly personally approved it.
Eleven months passed – from March 2010 until February 2011 – before the Ducks requested a single written recruiting profile, Lyles said. And when that moment came, Lyles said the demand for the reports was sudden and emphatic, leading him to believe Oregon was “scrambling” to establish that he’d provided legitimate traditional scouting services because they were aware of a Yahoo! Sports investigation. Previously, Lyles said he had provided scouting reports verbally in frequent calls with Oregon coaches.
“They said they just needed anything,” Lyles said of the embarrassingly thin recruiting profiles that Oregon made public earlier this month. “They asked for last-minute [stuff]. So I gave them last-minute [stuff] … I gave them, like, old stuff that I still had on my computer because I never thought that stuff would see the light of day.”
A $25,000 fee apparently raised questions for the NCAA.
High-end scouting services such as XOS Digital offer national packages that range in the tens of thousands of dollars, but that price tag includes a multitude of materials. Some of the resources offered include large caches of cutups filmed and edited by crews of videographers, quarterly prospect reports numbering in the several hundreds, verbal consulting, biographical information and contact numbers.
Beyond the reports, Lyles said he played a role in the recruitment or eligibility of several key players recruited by the Ducks. Among those efforts:
• In addition to working on Seastrunk’s national letter of intent, Lyles said he secured a study course at Sylvan Learning Center in 2009 for the then high school junior in an effort to help him with schoolwork and standardized testing. Lyles said Jeff Wood, the father of then University of Texas quarterback recruit Connor Wood, paid the $4,000-plus bill. Connor and Seastrunk were teammates on a 7-on-7 squad coached by Lyles. Jeff Wood declined comment when reached by Yahoo! Sports. Lyles said he personally asked Wood to help and Wood did so “out of the goodness of his heart.” He said he doesn’t believe Wood was seeking to influence Seastrunk’s recruiting and said, to his knowledge, neither Oregon nor Texas knew of the tutoring.
• In 2007, Lyles counseled the family of current Ducks’ star LaMichael James on how to avoid a Texas standardized test required for high school graduation. James had yet to pass the math portion, putting his college eligibility in jeopardy. Lyles suggested James transfer for the final semester of his senior year to a high school in Arkansas where no standardized test is required. James did and later signed with Oregon. According to Lyles, Kelly, then the Ducks’ offensive coordinator, praised the transfer as a great idea.
James could not be reached for comment.
• Oregon was one of just four schools Lyles contacted when former League City (Texas) defensive back Marcus Davis decided he wanted to transfer from the University of Texas in 2010. Lyles said he enjoyed a close relationship with Davis and his parents and acknowledged he acted as a go-between for the family and college programs. The other three schools – Cal, UCLA and Louisville – couldn’t admit Davis due to academic or other concerns, according to Lyles. Davis transferred to Oregon but left the program in the spring of 2011 without playing a down.
• Lyles orchestrated recent visits for multiple recruits to Oregon, including Seastrunk, eventual Oregon signee Dontae Williams, eventual Auburn signee Trovon Reed and recruit Matt Sherrard. Lyles chose an Oct. 31, 2009 game against USC for a visit by Williams, Reed, Sherrard and himself, reviewing and arranging the players’ schedules to ensure he and the players could make the trip together.
Any of those actions could be red-flagged by the NCAA, which could classify Lyles as a representative of Oregon’s athletics interests, or determine that Lyles was giving recruits impermissible benefits. NCAA bylaw 13.02.14 defines a representative of athletic interests as someone “who is known [or who should have been known] by a member of the institution’s executive or athletics administration to be assisting or to have been requested [by the athletics department staff] to assist in the recruitment of prospective student-athletes.”
Lyles said many of his efforts were known by Kelly or other Oregon staffers before, during or after they took place. And while Lyles insists he never sold recruits to any school, he acknowledged his actions went well beyond the boundaries of a typical scouting service.
But Lyles said that his efforts were never questioned by the Ducks. Indeed, he said Oregon expressed appreciation in phone and face-to-face conversations when discussing his role with recruits the Ducks were pursuing. Lyles provided Yahoo! Sports with personal notes sent to him by multiple members of the coaching staff after he chaperoned the Oct. 31 recruiting visit to Eugene. The notes included one from Kelly, expressing gratitude for his work:
“Will, I really appreciate your help in getting Trovon, Dontae, and the whole crew here this past weekend. We’ll work on getting Lache out here soon too! Thanks for orchestrating everything and all your help with these guys. I hope you enjoyed the game … Go Ducks! – Chip Kelly”
Another card signed by assistant coach Tom Osborne reads: “Will, Chip has told us how much help you have been in recruiting. We really appreciate your help with Trovon and Dontae. We appreciate all that you (sic) for the Oregon Ducks!”
Lyles sat for more than five hours of on-the-record interviews with Yahoo! Sports, and made himself available for follow-up questions. He also provided access to phone records, emails and business documents to support his claims. He said he wanted to make his side of the story known and fill in gaps in the public perception of the case.
Lyles said he spoke with NCAA enforcement staffers for six hours in early May as part of their ongoing investigation. He said he didn’t reveal the stories concerning Kelly, James and Seastrunk to investigators because the specific topics never came up in questioning.
The picture he painted to Yahoo! Sports was one of a man serving dual roles as adviser and fixer in the complicated recruiting and eligibility process for local players, while also engaging in a nuanced professional relationship with the college coaches pursuing those same recruits.
The story, for neither Lyles nor Oregon, is as cut and dried as it has been presented. But it does shine a light on the often-murky world of recruiting.
Lyles said he first met Kelly in 2007, when he worked as a Texas-area scout for Muscle Sports, (MSL) a New York-based service. The father of an Oregon recruit mentioned to Lyles that the Ducks were looking for running backs. A year earlier Lyles had attended a state playoff game and was floored by a speedy junior running back from Texarkana (Texas) Liberty-Eylau named LaMichael James.
Lyles had met and grown close with James and his older sister, Tasha Galloway, who was active in James’ life. Even though Oregon was not a client of Muscle Sports, Lyles said he wanted what was best for James and thought the Ducks’ system would be perfect for him. He called Kelly, then the offensive coordinator, to tell him about James. Oregon began recruiting the player, and a relationship between the scout and the coach was born.
Soon Kelly and Lyles were speaking regularly, phone records show. Over the next few years, when Kelly came to Houston, Lyles said he would set up an itinerary for him to visit various high schools. He would even pick Kelly up at the Marriott hotel at Bush International Airport and drive him around.
Lyles’ ability to serve as more than a scout or tour guide became evident in December 2007 when he grew concerned about whether James would pass the math portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test (TAKS) – a requirement for graduation.
After a few days poring over documents from the Arkansas Department of Education, Lyles conceptualized a plan. He suggested to James and Tasha Galloway that James transfer for his final semester across the nearby state line to Texarkana (Ark.) Arkansas High School. The TAKS problem would thus be eliminated. Galloway handled the procedure. James transferred a few miles over the border and was eligible after signing with Oregon in February 2008.
“[Kelly] was basically like, ‘That was a great idea’ … you know, to make sure [James] got it done,” Lyles said.
Last season, James rushed for 1,731 yards, scored 24 touchdowns and finished third in voting for the Heisman Trophy. He was also named to the Pac-10 All-Academic team.
Lyles said his relationship with Seastrunk began in 2008, during the summer before the player’s junior year in high school. The two met at a 7-on-7 camp at Texas A&M. Seastrunk was a heralded, future five-star recruit from Temple, a small city in the central part of the state.
Lyles said Seastrunk was seeking the guidance of an adult figure. His father was not in his life and his mother, Evelyn, had court-documented legal trouble during his youth, forcing him to live for long stretches with his grandparents.
By the time Oregon began seriously recruiting Seastrunk during his junior year, Lyles said he had grown close to both Lache and Evelyn, even spending the night at the Seastrunk home on two occasions after Lache’s games.
Lyles said Oregon seized upon his ties with the Seastrunk family during the recruiting process. He said he became the primary conduit of Oregon’s recruitment, guiding the efforts of multiple coaches – including Kelly – along the process by providing personal details about Lache and advice on how to handle various family members.
In December 2009, with Seastrunk being pursued by numerous top programs including USC, Oregon, Auburn and LSU, Lyles told Kelly he was planning on starting his own recruiting service. He asked if Oregon would sign on for a national recruiting package (NCAA rules limit the number of scouting services a school can purchase). Lyles said Kelly said yes. The fee was not discussed.
At no point was Lyles’ influence more apparent than in the next few weeks when it came to Seastrunk signing the national letter of intent. The NLI requires a prospect under the age of 21 to have a parent or legal guardian co-sign the binding document. An NLI provision allows a recruit to petition for a non-legal guardian to assume signing power, generally in the case of death or incarceration.
Lyles said the issue became problematic when Seastrunk’s mother said she wanted him to attend LSU.
At the time, in early January 2010, Lyles thought Seastrunk would sign with USC. That changed when word leaked that Trojans coach Pete Carroll would take a job with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Within days, Lyles and Seastrunk reevaluated his choices, ranking each school based on predetermined categories such as coaching, academics and lifestyle. Seastrunk settled on Oregon and became a so-called “silent commit,” choosing the Ducks without making a public announcement, according to Lyles.
The final hurdle was Evelyn Seastrunk’s stated opposition to Oregon, Lyles said.
“Lache came to me and said his mother was threatening him, saying she wouldn’t sign his letter of intent unless he went to the school she told him to go to,” Lyles said. “He was worried about it because he wasn’t of age to sign the letter of intent himself. He wanted to find out how he could get his grandmother to sign the letter of intent instead of his mother, because his grandmother is the one that raised him in the first place.”
Attempts to reach Evelyn Seastrunk were unsuccessful.
Lyles said he called Gibson, the Ducks’ assistant director of football operations, made him aware of the potential problem and asked if there was a way to substitute in Seastrunk’s grandmother.
“When I spoke with Josh he was like, ‘Yeah, this is important,” Lyles said. “Because, if the mother didn’t sign the letter of intent, I mean, the kid couldn’t go to school there. I think it had high importance [to Oregon].”
Lyles granted Yahoo! Sports access to his email and phone records to help verify his account of events. The records contained a heavy string of communication from Jan. 7, 2010 to Jan. 17, 2010 between Lyles and members of the Oregon football program, including Kelly. It was this period where Lyles said he made the bulk of his efforts involving Seastrunk’s letter of intent. During that 11-day span:
• Phone records show Lyles connected with Kelly’s two cell phones seven times – three incoming calls and four outgoing – for a total of 40 minutes.
• Phone records show Lyles connected with Gibson’s cell phone 23 times – 11 incoming and 12 outgoing – for a total of 61 minutes.
• Phone records show Lyles connected with three other Oregon coaches or athletic department staffers eight times for 14 minutes.
• On Jan. 12, 6:52 p.m.: Gibson forwarded Lyles an email from Bill Clever, Oregon’s assistant athletic director for compliance with the subject line “Grandparent signing NLI with PSA” (Prospective Student Athlete). Attached was an email from Clever from 3:36 p.m. that detailed the NLI’s procedure for petitioning a change in guardianship and encouraged Gibson to keep Clever updated for further assistance. “The sooner this gets put together the better …” it read.
• Jan. 15: Lache Seastrunk and his grandmother, Annie Harris, sign and date a letter to the National Letter of Intent office, requesting that Harris be allowed to approve his LOI.
In three paragraphs, Seastrunk conveys several personal issues, mentions his mother’s legal issues and states his mother shouldn’t be allowed to sign his letter of intent because, in part, “she is only worried about herself and what she might be able to get from me going to school or playing in the pros.”
• Jan. 17: The letter Seastrunk and his grandmother wrote to the NLI office is forwarded via email by Temple High School administrator Deanna Carter to both Lyles and Gibson.
And with that, Lache Seastrunk was free to sign with Oregon.
Lyles’ intimate involvement with Seastrunk’s letter of intent came just weeks after Kelly and Oregon agreed to be Complete Scouting Service’s first client. It also was after Lyles filed the founding documents of his company. That places him under the jurisdiction of the NCAA as an active recruiting service provider. Regardless of his intentions, his relationship with both Oregon and Seastrunk could be a major violation of at least one – and possibly multiple – NCAA regulations.
Lyles’ engagement of both Oregon and Seastrunk in a manner that facilitated the Ducks securing the prep star’s letter of intent could classify Lyles as a representative of the school’s athletics interests.
Lyles’ advisement in Seastrunk’s letter of intent process – along with Gibson’s involvement with Lyles’ actions – could be a major point of interest for NCAA investigators.
Lyles said he spoke again to Kelly in late January to discuss Oregon purchasing Complete Scouting Service’s national package. When trying to determine a fee, Lyles said Kelly provided a suggestion.
“He told me to go out and find out what the best paying service is,” Lyles said. “And he said he was going to have Josh Gibson look into it. But Josh never really looked in to it; but I did.”
Lyles said he began calling around to other scouting services, posing as a coach from Texas Southern (where he had attended but not graduated) who was interested in purchasing a national service. The highest fee he found was from Illinois-based LRS Sports that would cost “about $25,000.”
Lyles said he spoke to both Gibson and Kelly about the $25,000 fee and both approved.
“It was no problem,” Lyles said.
On Feb. 3, 2010, Seastrunk’s national letter of intent, complete with his grandmother’s signature, came across the Ducks’ fax machine. Back in Temple, Evelyn Seastrunk, unaware that her son had petitioned to take her out of the process, was confused, according to Lyles.
“I don’t think she had enough knowledge to understand that he could sign without her,” Lyles said. “She basically just kind of never knew, and she felt that Oregon cheated some kind of way because they got him to sign the letter of intent and she didn’t sign it.”
Lyles defended his role in the process saying he was just helping a player with whom he had developed a “father-son” relationship.
“My motivation was because [Lache] wanted it done,” Lyles said. “He felt that he wasn’t in control of his own process and he felt kind of handcuffed. So, he wanted to free himself from that. So, for him to be able to do that, I needed to find out the information to help him with it.”
Lache Seastrunk could not be reached for comment.
He says he now has a greater appreciation for what that meant to Oregon.
“At the time, I felt it was important [to Oregon] but I didn’t realize how important it was,”; Lyles said. “I didn’t know how major it was as far as their motivation for wanting to get that kid was.
“I understand it a lot better now. … They got a top-tier recruit.”
Lyles’ new company would wind up with just three clients. In addition to Oregon’s $25,000, LSU paid $6,000 for junior college information in California and Kansas (although all they wanted to discuss was Texas high schools, according to Lyles) and Cal paid $5,000 for a Texas service.
For the next 12 months Lyles said he provided Oregon with frequent verbal reports on prospects and contributed to a joint spreadsheet to update information. While he doesn’t personally shoot film of prospects, he said he asks high school coaches for them and sent Oregon tape on approximately 50 players he thought could play for them.
He said Oregon specifically told him he need not provide written materials until the 2011-12 year.
That is a stark contrast from LSU, which Lyles said sent him a checklist to follow when submitting reports for the junior college package purchased by the Tigers. Their standards required written reports on two different dates and film on a continual basis over the length of the deal. Lyles said Cal requested nothing specific, so he sent the same spreadsheet databases to the Bears that he eventually provided to the Ducks.
In early February 2011, he said Kelly verbally agreed to re-up for another year with CSS at $25,000. He said Oregon asked for an invoice and then forwarded the bylaws requiring written information.
“They said for the next year I have to do this,” Lyles said.
The mood began to change on Feb. 17 when Lyles said Kelly and assistant coach Gibson called him and expressed concern about the lack of printed scouting material he had provided to the school. Lyles said they requested printed reports on Class of 2011 prep prospects, ones that had already signed letters of intent, as soon as possible. Lyles’ phone records show a 12-minute call from Kelly and an eight-minute call from Gibson that day.
“It was like, ‘Hey Will, we need to get some player evaluations and send it as soon as you can,’” Lyles said. “I didn’t really know why, but they were like, ‘Get everything you have and turn it in.’ They were on my ass about it.
“So I just threw it together.”
Lyles said he took old profiles off a computer, copied some information from elsewhere and tried to accumulate a last-minute recruiting package. He said he never bothered to consider the quality because he felt Oregon didn’t care, they just needed to show something, he assumed, to some bean counter in Eugene.
On Feb. 22 he sent in his “2010 National High School Evaluation Booklet” which featured 140 player profiles, 133 of them from Texas. Almost all the players were from the Class of 2009 and had already chosen colleges.
“One of the kids is dead,” Lyles said. “I didn’t know he was dead.”
Lyles believes Oregon was trying to retroactively comply with the rules. He says in mid-February the football staff became aware of a pending Yahoo! Sports investigation into its payment to Lyles and the Dallas-based scouting service New Level Athletics.
“They were covering their tracks,” Lyles said. “They were covering their asses. They were scrambling.”
Lyles spoke to Kelly on Feb. 28 for nine minutes, according to Lyles’ phone records. On March 3, Yahoo! Sports printed its original report about the school’s payments to scouting services. The two haven’t talked since, Lyles said.
Lyles has maintained contact with Gibson, including a 94-minute call on June 2, according to phone records. Lyles said he asked Gibson about receiving the $25,000 for the 2011-12 service that Kelly had promised. Gibson wouldn’t commit. He later called Clever, the compliance director, about the same issue. Lyles now doubts Oregon will pay.
“I spoke with Josh and I asked him about [the next payment], and he was saying that, ‘Well, you know, we can’t do anything right now,’” Lyles said. “Basically, they pushed me off. I would ask, like, you know, when am I going to get paid? I asked those questions and they just kind of just kept pushing me back, pushing me back, pushing me back.
“Until I called [Assistant Athletic Director of Compliance] Bill Clever on the phone and asked him. I said, ‘I sent the invoice to the football office.’ And he didn’t know what I was talking about.”
Without a client and his name now “mud,” Lyles considers Complete Scouting Services and his professional role in college football to be over.
“It’s a dead business,” he said.
Lyles said the past four months have provided clarity on the situation. While he said he never thought he was acting improperly, he understands lines may have been crossed. Whether any NCAA rules were broken that could affect Oregon hardly matters to him. Lyles has lost his business and reputation.
“But those aren’t my rules,” Lyles said. “Those are the NCAA’s rules. Those are Oregon’s rules.”
Lyles said his chief regret is not studying the NCAA bylaws to avoid mistakes that created this scandal. That and trusting that Oregon was chiefly interested in his role as a talent scout, not a recruiting facilitator.
“I’m very disappointed in the way the situation was handled,” Lyles said. “If people would just be honest about the things that are going on and what they’re doing – or what their intentions might be – it would have made a huge difference. It’;s tough to feel like you’ve been used and you’ve been thrown away.
“I felt like my throat was cut and I was left to bleed to death. I felt that there would be some sense of loyalty to me, because I felt I provided a great [recruiting] service.
“In retrospect, it might have never been about the service.”
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