July 01, 2011
Before today, Oregon's uneasy relationship with Houston-based scout/alleged street agent Willie Lyles may have been murky, suspicious and even borderline incriminating, but it never eclipsed the bounds of plausible deniability.
When reports surfaced in the spring that Oregon had paid well above market value — $25,000 — for a scouting report from Lyles' company, Complete Scouting Services, Duck fans could console themselves with the fact that lots of schools pay for scouting reports without running afoul of NCAA rules. When the materials in question turned out to be obsolete and clearly worthless, there was still the chance that Oregon had simply been ripped off by a con man who stuck the Ducks with a shoddy product. (There's no NCAA rule against being gullible.) When the extent of the communication between Lyles and Oregon coaches was made public last week, any assumptions about the nature of that contact were circumstantial at best.
Whatever you thought was going on between Lyles and Oregon, you couldn't prove nothing, see?
As of today, though, it will infinitely harder for the Ducks to play dumb now that Lyles has admitted to Yahoo! Sports that Oregon paid him strictly for better access to recruits he was close to, and couldn't care less about CSS' product as long as Lyles helped deliver the player:
In a wide-ranging, multi-day interview, Lyles said [head coach Chip] 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."
Specifically, Lyles told Yahoo's resident Angel of Death, Charles Robinson, that he played a significant role — with the direct knowledge of at least one Oregon staffer — in winning permission for five-star Temple, Texas, running back Lache Seastrunk's grandmother to sign off on Seastrunk's letter of intent to attend Oregon instead of his mother, who opposed his decision to sign with the Ducks and could have gummed up the paperwork. (Lache described his late move toward Oregon as a vision from God.)
Prior to that, Lyles said Kelly committed to becoming the first client of his new scouting service, personally instructed him to "find out what the best paying service is" and told him to send Oregon a bill for that amount; Lyles settled on $25,000, which was personally approved by Kelly. From that point, almost a year passed — from March 2010 to February 2011 — before Oregon made a "sudden and emphatic" request for scouting reports to justify the payment. "They asked for last-minute [stuff]. So I gave them last-minute [stuff]," Lyles said. "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."
Lyles insists that he runs a legitimate business and that he was unwittingly used for his access to players like Seastrunk (with whom he lived several days a week during Seastrunk's senior year of high school), LaMichael James (who he helped to pass NCAA eligibility requirements by orchestrating a well-timed transfer to another school across state lines) and other prospects he took care of in various ways — helping with academic requirements and red tape, arranging recruiting trips, contacting schools on the players' behalf, etc. Thanks to his relationship with Oregon, the Ducks were often the beneficiaries of his advice.
At this point, that much isn't exactly news: Lyles has been widely pegged as an opportunistic middle man almost from the moment his name slithered up from the gutter of the recruiting world earlier this year. What has changed, from the perspective of potential consequences, is that the NCAA appears to have what amounts to a cooperative state's witness who feels used, betrayed and unfairly demonized by his former friends. Whether to salvage his own good name or just to bring them down with him, he's willing to serve them up on a platter. That's the thing with partners in crime: It works a lot better when everyone feels like an actual partner.
I hope the Duck compliance department is well-rested, because it's going to be a busy season.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.