Ex-Vols aide funded airfare payment for Seastrunk
An assistant coach during Lane Kiffin’s tenure at the University of Tennessee wired $1,500 to a talent scout in July 2009, funding the airfare for an unofficial recruiting trip by then five-star prospect Lache Seastrunk and his mother, Yahoo! Sports has learned.
In an apparent NCAA violation, then-Volunteers secondary coach Willie Mack Garza sent the money to one-time scout Will Lyles, who had paid for plane tickets for Seastrunk and his mother Evelyn. Garza, who joined Kiffin’s staff at USC in 2010, stepped down from his position with the Trojans in September citing “some personal issues unrelated to USC that I need to address.” His resignation came shortly after Lyles informed NCAA investigators in August of the transaction. Lyles said NCAA investigators were conducting a wide-ranging look into Tennessee recruiting practices.
Houston-based Lyles was a talent scout and mentor to several area players, including Seastrunk of Temple, Texas, in the central part of the state. Lyles said he told the NCAA he organized and paid for Seastrunk and his mother to travel to Knoxville June 20-21, 2009 for an unofficial visit. Lyles said he was reimbursed via MoneyGram by Garza on July 5. Lyles said he provided the NCAA receipts for the plane tickets and a hand-written MoneyGram receipt.
Yahoo! Sports, with Lyles’ cooperation, requested and received an independent receipt of the transaction directly from MoneyGram International. Under transaction history request, the receipt lists “Willie Garza” as the “sender” and “Will Lyles” as the “receiver” of $1,500. An additional $76 processing fee was charged to Garza.
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When reached by cell phone, Garza declined comment. USC sports information director Tim Tessalone declined to comment. The NCAA declined comment, citing its policy of not discussing potential cases.
“We are aware of the situation as is the conference office,” Tennessee associate athletic director for communications Jimmy Stanton said. “We’ve been verbally contacted by the NCAA enforcement staff regarding a recruiting issue in 2009 related to the former coaching staff and a student-athlete who never attended Tennessee.
“We believe, as does the conference office, that this matter is not subject to the repeat offender provision.”
Evelyn Seastrunk acknowledged she and her son made the trip to Knoxville but declined comment on who paid for the plane tickets or where they stayed during the trip.
“I’m so sick and tired of this ‘Willie Lyles said this and Willie Lyles said that,’” Evelyn Seastrunk said. “I don’t care what Willie Lyles says. I don’t care as long as my son is OK.
“Whatever undercover dirty stuff that they’re doing, I’m pretty sure that Willie Lyles is not the only person. He’s just the only one that’s been caught. This is something that they’ve been doing forever.”
While colleges are allowed to pay airfare for recruits during “official” visits, they are prohibited from doing so prior to the first day of a player’s senior academic year. Seastrunk, who had just completed his junior year at Temple (Texas) High School, was thus responsible for transportation costs for any “unofficial visit” as the June 2009 trip would be classified.
Seastrunk never took an official visit to Tennessee and signed with the University of Oregon in February 2010. After one season in Eugene he transferred to Baylor in August of 2011 where he is currently sitting out.
An NCAA finding of a major violation would be particularly troubling for Tennessee. The Volunteers athletic program was cited in August for “failure to monitor” when its men’s basketball program was placed on two years probation for a variety of major infractions under former coach Bruce Pearl.
Lyles spoke with the NCAA on Aug. 30 in Los Angeles. Two days later Garza, who had followed Kiffin in 2010 to the University of Southern California, resigned abruptly from the Trojans’ staff.
Lyles told Yahoo! Sports what he explained the NCAA: that Garza set up Seastrunk’s June 2009 unofficial visit through him, that Lyles paid $1,446.80 for the initial airline tickets for Lache and his mother to fly from Waco, Texas to Knoxville, Tenn., and that Garza later wired the money to Lyles.
Lyles said he only agreed to speak to NCAA investigators if they guaranteed Seastrunk immunity from any penalties associated with this incident. Lyles said immunity was granted on the condition that both he and Seastrunk were completely honest and forthcoming (Lyles said Seastrunk has already spoken to the NCAA). He said the NCAA was already investigating Tennessee’s recruiting practices.
“I wanted to make sure Lache would be fine, this isn’t about him,” said Lyles, who maintains a close relationship with the player. “It’s the NCAA’s rules and the schools not following them. During our meeting it became clear the NCAA already had knowledge of what was going on at Tennessee.”
Lyles, now 32, was employed at the time by Elite Scouting Services, based in Florida. Lyles had fashioned a career as both a scout who could inform college coaches about talent while also serving as a mentor and personal trainer to Texas high school players. He developed close relationships with a number of Lone Star State players, including Seastrunk and Oregon All-America running back LaMichael James, a native of Texarkana.
In January of 2009, he started his own company, Complete Scouting Service. He made headlines earlier this year when it was revealed he’d received a $25,000 payment from the University of Oregon for his national recruiting package. The NCAA is currently investigating both Oregon and LSU, another Lyles’ client, for their ties to the scout.
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Lyles said he had never met Garza until the spring of 2009 when the recruiter called about Seastrunk, then one of the most coveted running backs in the country.
“[Garza called] and he says ‘Hey, how are you doing. I’m Coach Garza. I recruit the state of Texas for Tennessee. We need to talk about Lache Seastrunk getting here on an unofficial visit,’” Lyles said. “And I said ‘OK.’ I told them that I would let Evelyn [Seastrunk] know. When I told her about it, she said ‘That’s cool.’”
Lyles said he worked with the Seastrunks and Garza to find an agreeable date. He bought the tickets through Expedia, charging $1,446.80 to his Visa debit card. He said the price was high because it was a last-minute fare, due to uncertainty over the travel availability of the Seastrunks. The tickets were purchased June 19 for a June 20 departure.
After the visit, Lyles said Garza called to discuss reimbursement.
“Coach Garza said, ‘How do you want me to give the money to you,’” Lyles said. “I said, ‘You can send it Western Union or MoneyGram.’ … I had already come out of my pocket for over $1,400 for plane tickets.”
On July 5, his money came in. The MoneyGram was sent from a location in Lancaster, Texas, a Dallas suburb. Lyles said he didn’t know why it came from Lancaster. Garza is a native Texan who played at the University of Texas from 1988-92 and as a coach has actively recruited the state for years.
Lyles acknowledged he kept the remaining $53.20.
Lyles said Tennessee reimbursing a third party for the cost of an unofficial recruiting visit is clearly against NCAA rules. But the scout said the practice isn’t uncommon in college football. Lyles said coaches often seek someone with the financial means to pay the initial cost of the trip. He declined to cite other schools that engaged in the practice or detail any of his other testimony to NCAA investigators.
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Contact Yahoo! Sports investigative reporter Charles Robinson at WindyCityScribe@yahoo.com