As the Oregon Ducks begin fall camp, the biggest news surrounding the team should be their #3 preseason ranking in the USA Today’s coach’s poll that was released last week.
However, Oregon cannot escape the looming cloud of NCAA allegations in connection to Will Lyles and his recruiting service Oregon paid $25,000 for in 2010.
The NCAA began to have questions when they noticed the $25,000 tab, an amount far exceeding a typical fee for a recruiting service which typically costs less than $10,000. Then as journalists and NCAA officials began digging around a little, rumors began to flutter concerning the timing of the payment in relation to the commitment of Lache Seastrunk, at the time considered a top running back in the nation out of Temple High School (Temple, TX).
In an interview with Yahoo! Sports Lyles said “I look back at it now and they paid for what they saw as my access and influence with recruits…The service I provided went beyond what a scouting service should,”
Lyles established a friendship with Seastrunk that evolved into a mentorship while Seastrunk was in high school. According to Lyles he played a large role in advising Seastrunk on which college to attend from a mentor standpoint to give Seastrunk the best opportunity to continue his career.
When Seastrunk decided to attend Oregon his mother did not agree, wanting her son to attend LSU. She refused to sign his national letter of intent, which requires the signature of a parent or legal guardian of a prospect under the age of 21.
Seastrunk wanted his grandmother to sign his letter of intent because she was the one that had raised him in the first place due to his mother’s legal troubles during his childhood.
Lyles then worked with Oregon and the NLI (national letter of intent) office to help Seastrunk and his grandmother petition so she could legally sign his letter of intent to Oregon. The request was granted, and Seastrunk was free to be a Duck.
Lyles told Yahoo! Sports “my motivation was because (Lache) wanted it done. 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.”
Lyles showed Yahoo! Sports documentation that he had exchanged 38 phone calls with members of the Oregon program, including seven with Head Coach Chip Kelly. Lyles also showed several hand-written letters addressed to him from Oregon coaches, including Kelly.
Chip Kelly, true to his colors, has no comment. He can’t comment on ongoing NCAA investigations anyway, but considering Kelly’s favorite words for the media are “not going to talk about that,” the policy is likely just fine with him.
Skepticism grew when Oregon produced the reports that Lyles provided them for the fee. They were not even for that current year’s recruits, being from 2009. One of the recruits on the report had even passed away prior to when the report was given to Oregon.
Lyles claims that Oregon panicked when they had to provide documentation to justify the payment to Lyles and asked Lyles for “anything (he) had.” Lyles sent over old player profiles to give them something, not thinking it would be of any importance.
According to Lyles Oregon did not ask for any documentation prior to that, preferring to discuss players and recruit meetings over the phone.
There have also been questions raised about Seastrunk’s official visit to Eugene when the rumor surfaced claiming that he had been given customized Nike shoes. That speculation has been settled when photographs surfaced showing the shoes in a display case at the Oregon facilities where Seastrunk could see but clearly did not touch or take them.
Just in the past week an article written for “Ducks Sports Authority” by rivals.com had an in depth interview with Deanna Carter, the real mentor to Seastrunk during his high school years through her role as a student counselor at Temple High School. Carter downplayed Lyles’ involvement in Seastrunk’s decision to attend Oregon, and family members repeated those sentiments. They make it clear that Seastrunk chose Oregon on his own and it was the school he really wanted to attend.
Oregon fans may be worried about possible probation and the potential loss of scholarships, but since Seastrunk has yet to appear in a game for the Ducks no wins would be vacated.
But then LaMichael James comes into the picture.
James, Oregon’s All-American running back, won the Doak Walker Award last season as the nation’s top running back after he rushed for 1,840 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2010 while leading the Ducks to the BCS National Championship Game.
During his award circuit, James invited a few guests to join him at ceremonies and dinners; one of those guests one evening was Will Lyles.
James, also a Texas native, claims that Lyles is only a friend and his presence that evening was simply as a friend.
But in 2007 Lyles advised James to move from Texas to Arkansas to avoid mandatory standardized testing for graduation, a test James was worried about. Without passing that test James would not be eligible to receive a scholarship to play football.
James did as Lyles suggested and was, according to Lyles, praised by Kelly, who was Oregon’s offensive coordinator at the time.
This past season James made the Pac-10 All-Academic team. Unless Lyles is a very good tutor, James appears to have earned that honor all on his own.
Should the NCAA find any tampering with the recruitment of James to Oregon the Ducks are likely to be flightless birds for some time, possibly facing similar sanctions to what USC received in lieu of the Reggie Bush case.
The NCAA may have trouble punishing Oregon for the James case because the Ducks did not pay Lyles for that and did not advise James to make the move. Oregon can argue that they did not have anything to do with the plan, they only recognized it as a good idea. There is no denying that, unfair as it may be, it was a smart idea if James was not going to pass that test. He is not the first to have done that and he will not be the last. But if Oregon did not suggest it they did nothing wrong. What were they supposed to do? Shame him as a student looking for a loophole and withdraw a scholarship offer?
Oregon spokesman Dave Wilford firmly stands behind the statements of innocence on the part of the Ducks.
“Our stance hasn’t changed from our original statement,” Wilford said to Yahoo! Sports. “We believe we did nothing wrong.”
Oregon believes they were the victim in this scenario, having vastly overpaid for a bad scouting service.
The Ducks did not break an NCAA rule by paying Lyles $25,000 so the amount is not important. It was simply enough to catch the eye of NCAA officials which has led to all of the other information.
At this point there is no reason to think Oregon broke rules. If their coaches preferred to receive information on recruits over the phone rather than on paper that is not illegal. Then when the time came that they needed to present documentation they, to use Lyles’ word, “scrambled” to have proof there was some service provided.
Yes, Oregon should have gathered documentation on active recruits earlier. But Oregon appears to have preferred to hear about recruits because paper doesn’t tell you a whole lot about a player. That is not illegal.
But if Oregon wants to paint the picture of themselves as a victim by having to pay $25,000 for outdated player information, the NCAA won’t buy that the Ducks were that stupid.
As of right now the only evidence that points to Oregon having tampered with the recruitment of Seastrunk is the testimony of Lyles.
However, since this investigation has become public Lyles’ credibility as a scout has tanked because no other schools want to go near him for fear of NCAA investigations of their own. So Lyles has more than enough motive to paint Oregon as the bad guy since it is their investigation that has ruined his business.
It is not against the rules to write letters or talk on the phone with scouts about recruits. It is illegal to pay a scout to influence a player to pick a certain school.
So where does Oregon fall on that dividing line? That is what the NCAA needs to find out, but unless concrete evidence comes out proving the Ducks paid Lyles to convince Seastrunk to go to Eugene, innocent until proven guilty will leave the Ducks without major infractions.
Oregon is not out of the woods by any means and likely will face some kind of punishment of either the Lyles/Seastrunk case or the James case. But right now, rumors have made the Ducks look much worse than the evidence would suggest.
There promises to plenty of speculation as the NCAA continues to investigate the Lyles situation, but for now Oregon is glad to be focused on fall practices and looking forward to LSU on September 3rd.
Maybe by then Chip Kelly will have a comment about Will Lyles, but don’t get your hopes up.
About the Author
Written by Rob Parness
My name is Robbie Parness and I am a student at the University of Oregon. I'm a California native that loves to play, watch and talk about all kinds of sports. I would love to become a sports writer someday or work in sports in any capacity.