The NCAA is investigating what appears to be an inflated payment for services provided by so-called street agent Willie Lyles of Complete Scouting Services in Houston. At issue is whether Lyles helped steer a highly recruited player to Oregon.
Oregon’s silence will be difficult to maintain as the football season nears, as the Ducks garner increasing attention because of their appearance this past January in the BCS Championship Game.
Oregon went 12-1 last season, falling to Auburn in the title game. The Ducks were ranked No. 3 in the final AP Top 25. Heisman Trophy finalist LaMichael James led the nation in rushing with 1,731 yards.
How Oregon can build on that success will no doubt take a back seat to the school’s payment to Lyles when head coach Chip Kelly faces reporters on July 26 in Los Angeles at the preseason media day for the reconfigured Pac-12 Conference.
Kelly has never commented on the matter, which surfaced this spring.
The university’s last official word came on July 1, when it released a statement by Rob Mullens, the UO athletic director. The Ducks deferred to that statement when asked for comment on this story.
“The University of Oregon athletic department has and will continue to fully cooperate with the NCAA inquiry,” Mullens said.
“Our department is committed to helping the NCAA in any way possible and until their work is complete, we are unable to comment further. Oregon athletics remains committed to operating a program of integrity.”
Oregon recently confirmed that it retained the legal services of Bond, Schoeneck & King. Former NCAA enforcement staffer Michael Glazier leads the firm’s Collegiate Sports Practice Group, which has become known for representing schools facing NCAA infractions.
The university is also seeking to hire a “Professional Development Coordinator” in the athletics department. The job description includes “monitoring athlete-agent activity and perform regular surveillance on campus, in the community and in cyberspace for the purposes of NCAA compliance and state law.”
But it may be too late to save the Ducks from sanctions.
Rumors of possible recruiting violations first swirled in February. Yahoo! Sports and ESPN.com broke the initial story that Oregon had made $28,000 in payments to two recruiting services, which are commonly used and typically provide biographical information and video of high school and junior college players.
The amount the school paid to Lyles raised eyebrows, given his apparent mentoring relationship with Lache Seastrunk, a running back who was recruited to Oregon. Lyles also had ties to James and accompanied him to the Heisman ceremony in December.
Oregon’s $25,000 check was issued in March 2010, shortly after Seastrunk signed a letter of intent to play for the Ducks. Oregon paying Lyles to use his influence to steer a recruit to UO would be an NCAA violation.
Late last month, in response to requests by the media, Oregon released a series of documents including a “2010 National High School Evaluation Booklet” that Lyles provided the school. But nearly all of the athletes profiled were from the 2009 graduating class. One of the athletes had been killed in a car accident.
Lyles came out of hiding two weeks ago for an extensive interview with Yahoo! Sports and several other media outlets. He suggested that he threw the package together at Oregon’s behest just before the initial news reports surfaced this spring.
Although Oregon did not directly ask him or pay him to guide athletes to Oregon, Lyles maintains he was paid to help recruits achieve eligibility and make sure they followed through with their commitment to sign with the Ducks.
“I look back at it now and they paid for what they saw as my access and influence with recruits,” Lyles told Yahoo! Sports. “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.”
Lyles did not respond to e-mails or phone calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.
In recent days, reports have indicated that two other schools used Lyles’ services. The University of California paid him $5,000 for a 2010 national prep package, and LSU paid $6,000 for video of junior college prospects.
In March, ESPN.com quoted former Texas A&M cornerbacks coach Van Malone as saying Lyles told him the school would have to “beat” an $80,000 payment offered by other schools to get former LSU star cornerback Patrick Peterson to play for Texas A&M.
Peterson, who played for LSU from 2008 to 2010, has said Lyles had nothing to do with his recruitment or college choice.
If Oregon has been transparent about its documentation concerning Lyles, the case could ultimately depend on whom the NCAA investigators believe. Lyles has said in interviews that he has spoken to the NCAA, which will not comment on ongoing investigations. The Pac-12 said this week that conference commissioner Larry Scott would not comment on the matter.
The Ducks are the latest in a recent series of high-profile college football programs to face NCAA investigations.
The NCAA on Thursday put Georgia Tech on four years of probation, fined the school $100,000 and stripped its Atlantic Coast Conference title-game victory from the 2009 football season for violations surrounding the use of an ineligible player.
Ohio State has been dogged for months by a cash-for-memorabilia scandal that has prompted the Buckeyes to vacate the 2010 season, including the Sugar Bowl victory. The school also self-imposed a two-year NCAA probation, in addition to suspending six players for the first five games and accepting the resignation of longtime head coach Jim Tressel.
The NCAA continues to investigate the recruitment of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton of Auburn, whose father shopped him to Mississippi State in a pay-for-play scheme.
The recruiting scandal is by far the biggest controversy Oregon has faced in recent memory, although Kelly has proven adept at shielding his team from distractions.
At the start of the 2009 season, Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount drew unwanted attention to the program for punching an opponent in the aftermath of a season-opening loss to Boise State on national television. Blount was suspended for much of the season.
Then last year, several players, including James and starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, himself a Heisman hopeful, encountered legal trouble. Masoli was eventually dismissed from the team, and James was suspended for the season opener.
Kelly kept the team focused with his trademark “Win The Day” mantra, and the Ducks deflected much of the negative attention by winning back-to-back Pac-10 championships and playing in last season’s national title game.
While quick to address past crises, Kelly has not said a word about Lyles. “Win The Day” won’t likely suffice as a response when he faces reporters in Los Angeles.