All Up In The Recruit Mix
If the NCAA and LSU are facilitating the exploitation of high school athletes by street agents, is it time to change the rules?
By Cody WorshamPosted Mar 16, 2011
News and Analysis
Meet college football’s public enemy number one: Will Lyles.
If you don’t know who Lyles is, you’re probably not a highly touted high school football prospect, a recruiter at LSU (or any other major university’s football program), or a cynical sports journalist.
In any case, Lyles is the sole owner and operator of Complete Scouting Services, a third-party “scouting provider” that provides “in-depth information on…student athletes, but also creates relationships with players, their families, and coaches as well,” according to the company’s website. Remember that phrase.
Others, like the former high school coach of recent LSU signee Trevon Randle, simply call him a “street agent,” college football’s equivalent to Sonny Vaccaro – the “Godfather of basketball” notorious for shoe camps and crooked summer AAU recruiting in college hoops.
The accusations are so serious that the NCAA is currently investigating Lyles and his relationships with some of the nation’s top recruits. And, much to the chagrin of Tiger nation, his connections to LSU are cause for concern. Because the Willie Lyles dollar trail the NCAA is chasing has brought them to the shadows of Tiger Stadium and indicates LSU has paid for Lyles’ services in the past.
The Lyles Rap Sheet
According to reports, Lyles had a close, and possibly improper, relationship with Lache Seastrunk – a class of 2010 running back recruit heavily pursued by Oregon and LSU, among others – but it wasn’t until the summer between Lache’s junior and senior years at Temple High School in Texas that player and “mentor” became extra close.
“All of the sudden, I noticed Lyles was hanging around Temple, Texas, a lot,” Seastrunk’s former high school coach, Bryce Monsen, who met Lyles at an LSU summer camp in 2009, told www.ESPN.com.
After a year in the recruiting spotlight, Seastrunk chose Oregon over LSU and USC in February 2010. Shortly after, Lyles’ company received $25,000 from Oregon, according to ESPN’s report. That was about triple the rate the school paid Complete Scouting Services in each of the two preceding years – and took place after Lyles’ affiliation with his own company had been terminated, says ESPN.
Lyles could be in violation of Bylaw 12, which prohibits third-party recruiting services from receiving a fee for placing a player at a school. Accepting money to influence a player toward a particular university would also qualify Lyles as a booster in violation of Bylaw 13.
While the University of Oregon is the only university currently under national scrutiny for its associations with Lyles, sources say the school is by no means the only D-1 program involved with alleged street agents.
In fact, Lyles has made himself quite comfortable in Baton Rouge in past years and has the NCAA looking into his links to LSU.
Lyles, Miles, and LSU Denials
Lyles’ connections to LSU are at least eerily coincidental, if not corollary – and there are dollars involved.
ESPN’s Joe Schad reported last week Lyles had “ingratiated himself with some top recruits” at several schools – including LSU. In fact, according to blogger Jesus Shuttlesworth of Recruitocosm.com, Lyles’ “roster of satisfied customers” includes four Tigers or former Tigers: Patrick Peterson, RJ Jackson, Brandon Lafell, and Trevon Randle.
In Randle’s case, the relationship is verified. On Wednesday and Thursday of last week, two NCAA investigators interviewed Randle and Randle’s father about Lyles, according to Fox Sports. During Randle’s recruitment, Lyles was “pretty tight” with the Randle family, Trevon said in the report.
Schad and Thayer Evans of Fox Sports both reported Lyles was present during an official visit by LSU assistant coach Brick Haley to Randle’s high school last spring. Haley said he didn’t know Lyles, and that Lyles said he was helping another LSU coach who had visited the school before. Randle’s high school coach didn’t buy Lyles’ claims, and asked him to leave.
LSU officials denied any other improper relationship between Lyles and any other recruits
“Our coaches and staff members only know him to be part of one of a dozen or so recruiting services we have contracted with,” senior associate athletic director Herb Vincent wrote in an e-mail. “We are aware of no other involvement.”
But Lyles hasn’t been a part of just one of these services. In December 2010, LSU paid $6,000 to Complete Scouting Services, according to Vincent. In 2009-10, during Randle’s recruitment as a high school junior, LSU also issued $10,000 payment to Elite Scouting Services. At the time, Lyles also worked for Elite, as a Texas/Louisiana scout, under company president Charles Fishbein.
Furthermore, Elite’s website’s “About” section is worded in places identically to Lyles’ site’s home page, claiming to be a service that offers “in-depth information on…student athletes, but also creates relationships with players, their families, and coaches as well.” (I told you to remember that phrase.)
LSU also paid $10,000 in 2007 to the now-defunct MSL Combines, a company Lyles worked for as a scout, also under Fishbein. This is also the same year Peterson committed to LSU, although LSU paid MSL months in advance of Peterson’s announcement to attend LSU at the 2008 U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
The grand total from LSU to employers of Lyles (so far): $26,000.
In total, the LSU football program paid $103,896.57 for 14 different services in 2009-10, “each of which must fill out and sign a form designed by our compliance office in order to do business with us,” Vincent said.
While the services were cleared by compliance and do not appear to violate NCAA bylaws, their connections to Lyles don’t look good for them right now. The evidence may be circumstantial at this point, but at best, LSU is guilty of ignorantly funneling money to the employers of an alleged street agent. At worst, they have a working relationship with a man accused of acting as a booster.
The school is considering the threat serious enough that head coach Les Miles is “nailing down everything LSU knows about Lyles,” according to Sports by Brooks.
Associate athletic director Michael Bonnette confirmed Miles’ involvement and affirmed the athletic department’s denials.
“I’ve asked Coach Miles, I’ve asked Sam Nader, [recruiting coordinator] Frank Wilson, and they all know the name,” associate athletic director Michael Bonnette said in an interview. “But to a man, every one of them says, ‘we’ve subscribed to a service,” and that could be said for 20 or 30 colleges.”
The Sunny Side of Scouting
Lyles’ “service” is one of many LSU and other schools use yearly.
But not all are quite as shady as those that allegedly allowed Lyles to get close to players. Others are legitimate – necessary, in fact. So what’s the difference between the shadier services and the legitimate programs?
According to Dwight Thomas of scouting company LRS Sports, it’s a matter of the personal relationships Elite and Complete boast of on their sites and the openness of their operations.
“There is no hidden agenda with me and what I do,” Thomas said in a phone interview on his way home from one of the many scouting trips he takes every year. Thomas been working in the college recruiting business for over a decade, and is widely considered one of the founders of the modern recruiting service.
“I was the first guy in America to run a high school combine,” he said. “I started doing them about 15 years ago.”
Thomas said the idea came to him when he decided to retire from coaching high school football, after a 30-year career highlighted by four years coaching all-time NFL leading rusher Emmett Smith at Escambia High in Pensacola, Fla.
“I didn’t want to coach anymore, but I wanted to stay in the game,” he said.
After questioning many of the college coaches he knew from his years at Escambia, he realized the acute need among D-1 programs for “objective information,” as he calls it.
So, he began offering college athletic programs just that, traveling the southeast and scouting the top talent in the country’s gridiron hotbed. He followed every lead and loose end to discover some of the best players in the nation, including former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and former LSU stars Peterson and Rohan Davey, among many others.
He also attended combines (or hosted them), where top talents gather to run timed 40-yard sprints, lift weights, and show off their skills and athleticism. Combined with the hours upon hours of high school games he watched, Thomas acquired a wealth of scouting information for which college recruiters, including LSU’s, were willing to break out their wallets.
That’s why LRS hired Thomas, and he continues to scout while overseeing all the company’s recruiting services. It’s also why LSU shells out $4,800 each year for Thomas’ findings.
Thomas says he isn’t in it for the money. He’s in it for the kids, something he demonstrates by, ironically, staying away from them.
“I don’t bother kids, and I’m not driven by the media, [or] what some people call the ‘recruit mix,’” he said. “All that I work for is to help the high school kid get promoted, the high school coach to promote him, and the college recruiter on the road to find objective information.”
And unlike other “recruit mix” sites like Scout.com and Rivals.com, Thomas keeps his information under wraps and out of the public eye to ensure the players aren’t being exploited.
“The only people that see anything I have are the college coaches that subscribe to the service,” he said.
While the street agent is more like a pimp, whoring out amateur athletes to desperate recruiters looking for an easy score, recruiting companies like Thomas’s provide a valuable service to universities and aspiring athletes by eliminating frictional factors of distance and time.
“I’m the farthest thing from a street agent,” he said with a laugh. “I know those people, and I see them and how they act around these kids. I hear the stories about them getting into recruiting and telling the kids which schools to go to, and it’s disgusting.”
While unwilling to name names, Thomas did have a few epithets to offer.
“Shyster, sleaze; you hear those words,” he said. “Some of them are very polished – a wolf in sheep’s clothes.”
NCAA: The Enablers
If Lyles truly is a wolf in sheep’s clothes, then the very same organization investigating him has been outfitting him for five years.
In 2006, the NCAA passed Bylaw 22.214.171.124.4, which stated college recruiters could only attend school functions – meaning camps, combines, and anything outside of the player’s high school were off limits.
The intent was to give the NCAA greater control over the recruiting process and keep recruiters at a distance from amateur athletes. Instead, it further exaggerated the market Lyles and Thomas work in and made programs like LSU dependent on their work.
The severe restriction of first-hand observation for university recruiters both crippled program’s abilities to recruit and opened up an almost unlimited market to third-party services. The jobs once held and operated primarily by university employees were outsourced to private companies, who could provide more extensive coverage and detailed database records at a much more cost-efficient rate than an additional assistant coach – and without an overseeing eye from compliance departments.
Media giants XOS digital were so impressed by the burgeoning recruiting market that they purchased five of its biggest players in the industry last June, including Rising Stock Scouting Video, to whom LSU paid $13,995 last year.
To put it in perspective, the $103,896.57 sum spent on third-party scouting services in 2009-10 is one-third the salary of LSU recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson. For that, the program gets access to 14 national databases, which provide much more detailed and organized information than one assistant, a beat up Honda Civic, and an infinite supply of 5 Hour Energy could hope to compose in a lifetime of Excel spreadsheets.
But while this third-party system works to the benefit of football program and to legitimate services like Thomas’s, it also enables the black market of street agency. Universities who want to violate the NCAA’s amateur requirement statutes simply funnel the money through agents like Lyles.
And it’s not just a problem here at LSU. If Lyles is involved with Oregon and LSU, you can bet he’s likely involved at the many football powerhouses in the 2,500 miles between. Some, perhaps LSU, may be guilty only by failing to know the character of the services they contracted – guilt by ignorance. However, it’s just as likely many programs are well aware of the manner in which some of these companies operate.
It’s a threat the NCAA won’t admit responsibility for, but former LSU chancellor and current NCAA president Mark Emmert knows it’s one of the forefront issues in amateur sports. Emmert told the Rotary Club last week that the NCAA is developing policies to cope with street agents, and to provide protection for recruits.
“How do we give them the information they need to make a thoughtful decision instead of listening to someone who’s whispering in their ear, who may not necessarily have their best interest at heart?” Emmert asked. “It’s going to take us a while to get a clear set of proposals, but we’ve got a lot of people who are interested in it. Everybody understands that this is a serious problem in football.”
One solution is to ban recruiting services from establishing relationships with recruits. This would stop agents like Lyles from operating, while allowing services like Thomas’ to continue. It also eliminates the need for LSU and others to trust the legitimacy of crooked companies.
For now, the University of Oregon will remain the scapegoat, and Lyles the villain. And the NCAA may crack down hard on both to set an example. Even worse, LSU’s connections to Lyles may lead to further investigation, and possibly indictment.
But until the NCAA decides to treat the disease – the seemingly impossible task of keeping athletes generating millions of dollars in revenue from actually receiving those revenues – instead of the symptoms, the street agents will simply find another way to make a buck, no matter how hard the hammer falls.
The cost may just be the integrity of college sports.