Scout Will Lyles: Villain or victim?
HOUSTON – The supposed Most Dangerous Man in College Football is standing in the predawn darkness of Hermann Park, putting a couple of local high school players through an agility and conditioning regime. Will Lyles is paid $50 per kid, per session and this, after a tumultuous few months, is all that’s left of his involvement in the sport.
His national scouting service, for which he charged the University of Oregon $25,000, is now radioactive, the center of an ongoing NCAA investigation into the Ducks’ football program.
Chip Kelly, the Oregon coach who Lyles claims approved the bill, used to have Lyles pick him up at his hotel during Texas recruiting trips and once praised Lyles’ role in helping getting Ducks star LaMichael James academically eligible, now won’t take his call.
Since Yahoo! Sports first reported Oregon’s payment to Lyles on March 3, he’s become the poster child for all that’s corrupt about college football; dubbed a street agent, a glorified runner and a disgrace by various news outlets.
Some say he shuttled Texas kids to Eugene for cash; others claim he somehow swindled poor Oregon out of that 25 large.
Will Lyles can only laugh because he says it’s too painful to do anything else. He ran a legit scouting service, he says, and the thin recruiting profiles he hastily threw together were not indicative of his business. Allegedly panicked Duck coaches requested them in an attempt to establish Lyles as above board when they became aware the media was chasing his connection with the program.
“They said they just needed anything, they asked for last-minute [stuff],” Lyles said of what he considers to be an attempted cover-up by Oregon. “So I gave them last-minute [stuff]. … I never thought anyone would see them.
“One of the kids was dead. I didn’t know the kid was dead.”
Mostly, he swears he never steered any player anywhere, let alone five-star Temple, Texas running back Lache Seastrunk to Oregon in 2010.
Which isn’t to say he doesn’t admit to making errors. He just doesn’t think he should apologize for looking out for mostly disadvantaged kids, even if his job as a paid scout should have, arguably, precluded such relationships.
Whether you believe he is a sympathetic figure or an opportunistic middleman, at this point he can do nothing but rebuild his life.
After the training session he’ll drive his 2000 Nissan Xterra to Spec’s Wine, Spirits and Finer Foods near downtown. He’ll pin on a name tag that reads: “Will Lyles: Deli Associate.” For eight bucks an hour he’ll stock shelves, inform customers about the intricacies of Italian cheeses and occasionally even bake bread – “Our multigrain is really good.”
Ever the optimist, he says he likes the job – “A lot of opportunity at Spec’s and that’s what I’m looking for.”
Will Lyles doesn’t seem dangerous anymore standing in a dark park at 5:45 in the morning, barking out orders. Soon it begins to pour, harder and harder. Lyles is 31, burly and with a shaved head. He hardly flinches. Through the heavy rain he tells the kids to start running up a small hill.
“I need to get in my Bentley to dry off,” he jokes, a shot at the allegations of payouts he supposedly received for dealing recruits.
With each passing moment, mud forms all around him.
Will Lyles doesn’t fit into the box that’s been constructed for him, just one part of what makes this controversy difficult to evaluate. He probably isn’t as guilty as his critics contend, and not as innocent as his supporters argue. Neither, perhaps, is Oregon. The truth lies somewhere in between. In essence, Lyles tried to straddle two worlds and got crushed in the middle.
Whether or not you believe him, this is the most extensive account from Will Lyles to date, hours of wide-ranging, detailed, on-the-record-interviews with Yahoo! Sports that stretched across much of last week in Houston.
Until now he’s been mostly silent, never before detailing his role in the recruitment of various Texas high school stars to Oregon, not even during a six-hour stint with NCAA investigators in May.
Lyles now realizes that what he once saw as a harmless role in the recruiting game was actually two conflicting jobs. Whether his actions broke NCAA statutes remains to be seen. The mere question has cost him his business.
“I’m a person that looks at myself in the mirror,” Lyles said, reclining on a couch in his two-bedroom condo in a blue-collar neighborhood near Reliant Stadium on the south side of the city. “I wish, looking back on it, I would have known the rules better myself so I wouldn’t have been in this situation, but, mistakes were made.
“And I partially made them because I had the ability to go look up the rules. … I can read like they can. That’s a mistake I’m willing to own.”
There is Will Lyles, mentor of young athletes and community volunteer. He’s gregarious, likeable and capable of moving across socioeconomic lines. As a kid growing up in Houston he was bused to a better school system and immediately understood the importance of a bridge to pull people out of poverty. He’s not some bum off the street – his father is a manager at NASA and he says he’s completed 90 credits at Texas Southern.
He has a passion for helping young people, and the list of lesser talents he’s aided in securing scholarships for at lower-level schools is lengthy and telling. It isn’t just about the big recruits. Kids lean on him for advice, football or otherwise. He tends to connect with young men lacking fathers. He’s generous with his time. He serves on the board of a local community organization that helps non-athletes.
So it was natural for him to combine that mindset with his passion for football. He often saw recruits from disadvantaged backgrounds and fatherless homes, in need of someone to help transition them to college.
Sometimes it was ensuring they were taking the proper core classes the NCAA mandates. Sometimes it was arranging for private tutoring. Sometimes it was suggesting a transfer across state lines to game the eligibility system. Sometimes it was delving into a difficult family situation. Sometimes it was just helping a player cut through empty recruiting rhetoric that some coaches throw out.
“It’s like an attorney talking to a five-year-old, it’s unfair,” Lyles said of a young athlete trying to navigate the recruiting process. “I can give a wealth of information because I’ve been through the experience.”
None of this is unique. For many star athletes only one good thing, but a multitude of bad things, can happen. Across America kids are helped by high school coaches or uncles or ministers or judges or cousins or really whomever. It takes a village. It’s been that way for generations.
As long as it’s being done for good will, not good money, no one has a problem with it.
“I felt like I was doing a great thing,” Lyles said, and it didn’t matter if it was future Doak Campbell winner LaMichael James, or the heavily recruited Seastrunk, or a kid such as Terrence Wright, who Lyles worked his contacts to get a full ride at Tennessee State.
“He looked out for me when he didn’t have to,” said Wright, who graduated from TSU in 2010. “It’s unfortunate to see him get railroaded. We need more people like Will. It’s a definite plus when you have a guy like Will Lyles in your corner.”
The problem comes with Lyles’ other side, the businessman who spent six years working for various scouting services, before breaking out on his own in 2010. He helped scores of major college programs through the years and counted Oregon, Cal and LSU as clients to his company, Complete Scouting Services.
When he started he was desperate to please these famous coaches. It was, no doubt, an ego boost to be in the middle of the action – star recruit looking for help on one line, star coach looking for help on the other. He even felt a touch of pressure to have his clients land recruits.
“I wanted to see them do well in recruiting and on the field,” he said.
He later came to see it differently.
“I was in awe at first, ‘wow.’ It was amazing to be around people you idolize,” he said. “Then it became, ‘huh, you need me more than I need you. You need players.’”
Lyles’ job was to scout young talent, gather game film (he had high school coaches send it to him to disseminate) and sell the information to colleges eager to tap into the fertile recruiting grounds of Texas.
As an added service, he compiled pertinent information that could help lure a prospect – cell phone numbers, emails, family names, personality breakdowns and anything else coveted by recruiters seeking an edge.
“Knowing the family background, who are the points of interest in the kid’s life, things like that,” Lyles said. “The kid might like Jordans or AirMaxs, that stuff can be important.”
Then came what Lyles now calls his “concierge service,” where he’d pick up a coach such as Chip Kelly at the Airport Marriott and drive him to schools for scouting or recruiting trips.
“I’d set up entire itineraries, we’d go high school to high school,” Lyles said.
As such, the same colleges that were recruiting players he was mentoring and guiding through the transition were paying him.
At some point, he admits, a line was probably crossed.
The first issue is that the players regularly turned to him for advice on picking a school. Lyles even had a scoring system with specific criteria to help a player choose.
“I had influence over kids, over their families. I did,” Lyles said. “But it’s about how do you use the influence? It wasn’t, ‘You go to this school there.’ It was to help them make an informed decision so they can choose where they want to go to school.
“There was no quid pro quo,” Lyles said, claiming no school, including Oregon, ever asked him to direct a player. “Never. It wouldn’t make sense for me to help one school. I was trying to get every school to buy my service. That was my business.”
To the college programs, Lyles was more than just a scout, more than just an information provider and more than just someone who had the players’ trust. He was also someone capable of getting important tasks done – eligibility, tutoring, national letter of intent issues, etc.
He was a problem solver, an invaluable service in the cutthroat, fluid world of recruiting. It’s a skill he now understands compounded his trouble.
“I thought I provided a great service … as far as showing them the recruits, telling them who would be good for their system, things of that nature,” Lyles said. “The evaluating of the talent. That was the service. The concierge service when they came in to town. I took them to the places they needed to go and things of that nature. That was the service. I felt that it was worth every penny.
“But now, seeing how things are being handled on the backside, maybe they didn’t feel that way about it. Maybe I was just an expendable commodity that they could just throw away when they were done using it. Looking back on it, they did play on the knowledge I had of the kid, of the family, of everything that I could tell them that wasn’t pertaining to football, and that did give them an advantage.”
The question is whether the NCAA determines that such acts are legitimate and, mostly, whether Oregon, in this case, should have recognized the problem immediately. If so, it should not have hired a person involved in the recruiting process of players such as James and Seastrunk.
NCAA bylaw 13.02.14, could classify Lyles as a representative of Oregon’s athletics interests. It defines such a person as someone “who is known (or who should have been known) by a member of the institution’s executive or athletics administration to be assisting or to have been requested (by the athletics department staff) to assist in the recruitment of prospective student-athletes.”
“It’s just a shame that it was a conflict of interest,” Lyles said. “I still find [it] ridiculous because the NCAA’s rules are so bogus, because I know that they don’t have the best interests of the players at heart. That’s a farce.
“[They] sit back [in their] ivory towers, looking down on people saying ‘well this is the way it should be,’ but that’s not reality. They don’t come down here on this level and come see how a kid actually lives. They come in after the fact when they just want to basically put the kid in harms way, by taking away one of the only things that he has to be able to be successful.”
The Most Dangerous Man in College Football is frustrated. Frustrated at the NCAA. Frustrated at Oregon, which he thinks could have defended him and his work as a scout. Frustrated that a career he worked to build was gone in an instant.
“The scouting service is over,” he said.
He’s mostly frustrated that what he still says were the best of intentions has turned him into a pariah ripped from coast to coast.
“My name is mud,” he said.
He’s a simple guy, he says. He never meant to screw things up, he swears. He feels used. He can’t quite figure out how it all broke bad.
There is really only one thing Will Lyles does know after nearly four months in the meat-grinder of the Oregon investigation.
“I’m getting the blame,” he said.