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The Gray Areas In Recruiting Grasped By Chip Kelly, Oregon and Will Lyles

Over the last couple of years, the NCAA has begun to take a heightened interest in the influence of outside parties - including agents of the traditional as well as 'street' variety, on recruits and student-athletes as well as the role of universities in policing their activities. Southern Cal, of course got hammered in part because of the relationship between a pair of wanna-be agents and Reggie Bush + Family, while North Carolina Football is under NCAA scrutiny due in part to allegations of improper contacts between an assistant coach, players and an agent; while Georgia Tech Football was just placed on probation due to a player accepting clothing from a former Tech player working as a 'runner' for a sports agent.

With these schools and several other high-profile programs under recent NCAA scrutiny, there is plenty of work for NCAA investigators to do for the next couple of years,and it looks like Chip Kelly and the Oregon Ducks are adding onto the workload, with the relationship between the coach, program and Texas-based Football figure Will Lyles. Yahoo Sports, among other media outlets have been on the story for the past few months, that in addition to other aspects of the relationship, while on retainer by Oregon Football for providing recruiting services, Lyles may have used his influence over some high school players to steer them toward Oregon. While at first glance, the conduct of these parties looks shady as all hell, there is a massive gray area at play in this case that may or may not be shadowing a violation of NCAA rules. While the payment to Lyles for supposed scouting services rendered to Oregon Football has received the most headlines and appears to be the clearest ethical issue, if not a violation of NCAA rules, the Yahoo interview as well as other sources have exposed other dubious interactions between Kelly and Lyles.

The first intersection of  Chip Kelly and Lyles came while Kelly was Oregon's offensive coordinator under then-coach Mike Belotti, with the recruitment and eventual enrollment of LaMichael James. Will Lyles had become close to James and his sister while working as a scout for an existing recruiting service. According to Yahoo's report and interview with Lyles, he was told by the family of an Oregon recruit that the Ducks were looking for running backs for the upcoming class. Lyles thought that James would be a great fit for Chip Kelly's offensive system and made contact with the then-offensive coordinator, leading to the schools recruitment of LaMichael. Later, when James was showing signs that he might not pass the Texas high school exit exam, Lyles came up with the idea of LaMichael transfering to a nearby high school in Arkansas for his final semester, where there was no exit exam. It is claimed that Kelly responded that it was a good idea as a way to make sure that he got his degree and would be able to eligibility secure.

While this early contact does not raise any NCAA flags - appearing to be a then-disinterested (in Oregon) party bringing a player and school together - and the dodge of Texas's educational standards, while seeming to raise some ethical questions, may be justified by having allowed LaMichael James to make it to college, where he seems to be thriving.  Meanwhile, the links between Lyles and the Oregon program, and their soon to be head coach would soon grow tighter.

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.

While the Kelly-Lyles-James connection does not seem to have engaged in any NCAA wrongdoing - aside from bringing a way around state educational standards to light, for better or for worse - the circumstances surrounding the commitment of Lache Seastrunk to the Ducks comprise a far more questionable part of the relationship. Starting with the basics, Seastrunk was one of the more highly recruited high school players from the class of 2010, with scholarship offers from most of the traditional football powers. He had displayed strong interest in Auburn and USC, before eventually committing to Oregon.

The details underlying his decision to go to Eugene were a bit more complicated than that. Last fall, the Portland Tribune talked to Lache and some of those around him about his decision to attend Oregon. The story put on display some of the figures and forces that shaped his upbringing and his commitment to the Ducks, while showing the dysfunction that was part and parcel of his life.

. . . . He says his father had been locked up before, "long before I was even thought of." He says his father got out when Seastrunk was in middle school and was back in just as he was about to enter high school.

Seastrunk also says his mother was in and out of his life.

"I had my mom for a brief time, but she left," he says. "And my dad left. And then my mom came back. And she was in my life for a long time. That’s when my dad came back, and I had my mom and my dad. But they were never together. They were always separated. And then my dad left again."

Seastrunk’s mother, Evelyn, vehemently denied Seastrunk’s story. An 11-minute interview turned sour when she was questioned about being in her son’s life.

"Reporters write their own stories," she said. "I don’t give a damn what he tells you. For 18 years, I’m the one who broke my back to make sure he got to where he is."

While not a part of this account of Lache's decision-making process, Lyles was a key player in this process as a 'mentoring' figure to Seastrunk having coached one of teams that Lache played on, as well as having helped arrange for and find funding for a Sylvan tutoring course. Keeping in mind that a relationship already existed with  with Kelly and Oregon from the LaMichael James recruitment, Lyles claims to have been a "primary conduit of Oregon’s recruitment" of Seastrunk, providing the Ducks coaching staff with personal details and advice on how to navigate his complicated family dynamics. While this may have been questionable enough, Lyles then took a more active role in the recruitment, while soldifying a business relationship with the Ducks.

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.

The fee that was eventually agreed upon was $25,000/year, matching the highest-charging national recruiting services, and 5 times the fee that Lyles charged Cal's athletic department for the same package. According to College Football Talk, the $25k greatly exceeded the sum of all of Oregon's outside recruiting services in the preceding two years. While Lyles was passing information on Lyles to Oregon, and getting ready to do business with the program, there was some question of to where, and how Lache would make his commitment, with a large helping of family drama involved by way of his mother wanting him to attend LSU, and not become a Duck. In this mess, Lyles interjected himself into the situation, with an assist from Oregon officials.

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 ... 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.

... "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."

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]."

As someone having been raised around a highly disfunctional family, I can sympathize with the argument that the reality of Lache's family situation made his grandmother the right person to ratify and approve of his college decision, morally if not under the laws of the NCAA. However, that is only one side of this story and we cannot be certain of what the dynamics of that family were. From an outsiders point of view, if Lyles were merely attempting to help Seastrunk to accomplish his personal desire to accept Oregon's scholarship offer over a (mostly absent) mother's desire for him to go elsewhere, he could have contacted the NCAA to ask if and how the .

In the best of circumstances, asking the favored university for legal advice with the goal of having the student-athlete to be institute legal proceedings in order to commit to that university appears to be opening the door to a massive conflict of interest. The only thing more shocking than the player's adviser or friend contacting a school would be the school answering back with advice on just how to do it, as Lyles claimed that Oregon did. With the unveiling of the personal and business linkages between the player's 'advisor' and that school's football program and head coach, this conflict of interest becomes all too fishy. The timing of the start of the business relationship between Lyles and Oregon Football, particularly given the lack of demonstrable work product under the contract during the course of that business relationship makes the 'innocent explanation' all the more difficult to defend. As Yahoo Sports explained the situation:

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.

There is a lot going on within the Lyles/Kelly/Oregon nexus to feed the inevitable NCAA investigation, and while there are mostly-innocent explanations for what has gone on between the parties, even those series of events - if accurate - paints all of the parties involved in a dark shade. Part of the goal of the NCAA in promulgating its bylaws is to take away as many of the shades of grey taken advantage of by its member schools as possible, whether acts of outright corruption of the recruiting process and/or the student-athlete/institutional relationship or actions that may (or may not) involve that sort of corruption - the lawyers here might think of it as avoiding the 'appearance of impropriety', even when nothing illegal or naturally unethical is to take place. The relationship that Chip Kelly and his associates in the Oregon athletic department cultivated with Will Lyles, whether comprising an innocent series of personal contacts leading to a (n NCAA-) legitimate business relationship, an attempt to sidestep any number of NCAA bylaws, or something else entirely has placed Oregon Football and the athletic department as a whole in a cloud of suspicion and doubt that it will be hard-pressed to emerge from unscathed.