On a hot, hot summer day two Junes ago, the kind of day that rendered even central air conditioning moot, Will Lyles sat on a couch in his humble Houston condo, just down the street from Reliant Stadium, and laid out his side of a fast-growing controversy to Yahoo! Sports.
He fashioned himself as a high school football scout. He ran a service that a few schools, most notably Oregon, subscribed to. He also served as a mentor to young players in Texas, from low-level prospects to five-star recruits. He was a guy in the middle, serving two masters, the bridge between big-time college football (which was paying him) and the players (which allowed him to get paid).
He sounded like someone who had the best intent – both to run a great, full-service scouting company and a fixer who could help naïve players navigate the shark-infested recruiting and eligibility waters.
He was a nice guy, gregarious and smart – not the villainous joke the system was trying to paint him. And he was someone who, in the end realized, you just couldn’t play both sides of the street in college football.
“I look back at it now and [Oregon] paid for what they saw as my access and influence with recruits,” Lyles said that day in 2011. “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.”
How wrong he was for committing what mistake is anyone’s guess and can only be measured by each person’s opinion.
The opinion that will be revealed Wednesday is the NCAA’s, which all this time later will finally determine just how many rules, if any, Oregon violated by paying $25,000 to Willie Lyles.
After nearly five hours of interviews over a couple of days with Yahoo! Sports, there was no certainty that Oregon ever did anything wrong, even by the NCAA’s sometimes strict standards. The story was interesting. It was revealing. It was a telling look into the system. It just wasn’t necessarily scandalous.
In the regular world, Lyles was a pretty good person to have around, someone who undoubtedly helped kids.
Consider that as a high school senior at Texarkana (Texas) Texas High, LaMichael James was struggling to pass a standardized test required by the state to graduate from high school. That put his college scholarship at risk. So Lyles came up with the idea and researched the rules of getting the star tailback to transfer across town (and state lines) to Texarkana, (Ark.) Arkansas High, where no such test was needed to earn a diploma.
Problem solved; James became a Duck.
Then there was Lache Seastrunk, a five-star recruit from Temple (Texas) who wanted to attend Oregon, while his mother preferred a different school. Lyles was able to work with Seastrunk to petition the NCAA to have his grandmother, who would do as the kid wished, not his mother, sign his national letter of intent.
Problem solved; Seastrunk became a Duck.
This is how recruiting works and if Lyles was just a high school coach or a local minister or some other father/brother figure around town, he’d be hailed for helping kids get out of tough situations and off to potential NFL careers. If these were young kids going to college for academics or music or anything else, he’d be a kind-hearted hero. There is no problem.
It’s the competitive interests of football – and men’s basketball – that make it a “problem” to some. Everyone is fighting over recruits. There is a rulebook that claims how the fight can be waged.
The issue was the money Oregon, among others, were paying him to be a scout. Yet the service he was providing was far greater than just sending in a written report saying this linebacker can play and that one can’t. He was active in the recruiting process. He was a fixer, a simply invaluable commodity when dealing with the often dysfunctional families of top players. It was more than noteworthy that even with the controversy, Seastrunk, James and other players involved stood behind Lyles and swore by the man and his motives.
The NCAA’s rules weren’t specifically clear on whether this was wrong or right, anyway. You don’t have to believe in NCAA rules – as I don’t – to know this was a story though. Besides, Chip Kelly, then the Ducks coach, was paid millions to care about the rules. He was the one who knew what Will Lyles was doing and the man who personally approved the $25,000 payout.
Two years later, the situation isn’t any clearer though. Lyles' scouting service is defunct. Kelly headed to the NFL, where he is head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. James plays for the San Francisco 49ers. Seastrunk is a Heisman candidate at Baylor. The entire story seems eons old.
Preliminary documents in the case suggested Lyles would be categorized as a representative of Oregon athletics, which could mean significant penalties for the Ducks. A postseason ban for a team with national title aspirations would be devastating. Who knows for sure though how the committee on infraction will see it?
The NCAA rulebook is expansive and detailed, yet on this one it never seemed cut and dried. Nothing about the story did. Kelly never directly told Lyles what to do. Lyles never thought he was being paid to ship players to Oregon.
Maybe deep down they both understood the nature of the relationship, that keeping the other side happy required delivering something – money, recruits – but it remained unspoken and, perhaps, unintended.
Was this blatant cheating by Kelly or a smart detour through an unwritten loophole? Was this profiteering off high school stars by Lyles or just someone doing a valuable service where the kids always benefited in the end?
It depends on your viewpoint. Either way, it never quite fit into the box everyone wanted. Not then. Not now. And not even Wednesday, when the NCAA finally decides to have its say.
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