NCAA officials are examining whether a Texas man helped steer high school football prospects to defending Pac-10 champion Oregon, and Ducks officials on Thursday told ESPN.com that the school paid the man $25,000 in the spring of 2010 for recruiting services.
Sources close to the inquiry told ESPN.com that NCAA officials are taking a closer look at Oregon's recruitment of running back Lache Seastrunk, a redshirt freshman from Temple, Texas, who was one of the country's most highly recruited prospects in 2010. Specifically, the NCAA is asking what role Texas-based trainer Willie Lyles played in Seastrunk's decision to attend Oregon, the sources said.
Oregon athletics department spokesman Dave Williford confirmed to ESPN.com on Thursday that Oregon paid Lyles $25,000 for his recruiting services. Oregon's payment to Lyles was made shortly after Seastrunk signed a national letter of intent in February 2010 to play football for the Ducks, choosing them over California, LSU and USC.
Williford supplied the information after ESPN.com requested a copy of the check under state open records laws. Williford said neither the NCAA nor Pac-10 had contacted Oregon about any possible violations.
"Most programs purchase recruiting services," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said Thursday. "Our compliance office is aware of it. Will has a recruiting service that met NCAA rules and we used him in 2010."
In the past, Lyles has aligned himself with recruiting services.
But a person who once worked with Lyles said the $25,000 payment exceeded the $16,500 Oregon paid the recruiting service for its work during the previous two years. The source said Lyles' affiliation with the recruiting service had been terminated prior to Lyles billing Oregon on his own.
The NCAA revised its bylaws in 2010 to make monitoring of recruiting and scouting services more stringent. In this case, the NCAA will likely ask Oregon exactly what it received from Lyles. In general, schools must ask prospective recruiting services to outline what they're offering before they become clients, and to detail if the service is available to all institutions at the same rate, if the rate is publicly identified and several other questions.
The NCAA will also look to see if Lyles violated NCAA bylaw 126.96.36.199, which states a student-athlete may allow a scouting service or agent to distribute personal information to a school -- provided a fee is not based on placing the player at a school.
Seastrunk's mother, Evelyn, said Thursday night that she didn't know Lyles received $25,000 from Oregon.
"Willie said he was a trainer," Evelyn Seastrunk said. "Now Oregon says he's a scout? Is he on Oregon's payroll? If Willie Lyles collected $25,000 off my son he needs to be held accountable. The NCAA must find out for me. I don't know how to digest someone cashing in on my son."
A handful of FBS football coaches surveyed by ESPN.com on Thursday said recruiting services typically charge $5,000 or less per season for video footage and information about high school prospects.
The Oregon athletic department issued a statement that said: "This is something we remain confident that is within the acceptable guidelines allowed by the NCAA and occurred with the knowledge of the department's compliance office."
The NCAA, sources said, also is examining Lyles' relationship with Ducks star tailback LaMichael James, who last season was a Heisman Trophy finalist and the country's leading rusher with 1,731 yards. James, a rising junior from Texarkana, Texas, helped lead the Ducks to a 12-1 record last season, including a 22-19 loss to Auburn in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game.
In December, Lyles was James' guest at the ESPNU Home Depot College Football Awards Show in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Lyles described himself as James' trainer and advisor.
Lyles, a Houston resident, has been tied to other high school players from Louisiana and Texas, who eventually signed with schools such as Auburn, Baylor, LSU, Oklahoma State, Southern California and Texas A&M.
Lyles did not return several messages left on his cell phone by ESPN reporters.
The NCAA has been exploring the involvement of third-parties in the football recruiting process, specifically in regard to coaches and others who affiliate themselves with 7-on-7 camps and also people who work for recruiting services that charge programs, according to sources.
Former Temple (Texas) High School coach Bryce Monsen, who was fired after the 2010 season, said he met Lyles during a summer camp at LSU in 2009. During Seastrunk's senior season, in which he ran for 1,174 yards with 15 touchdowns, Lyles attended several of Temple High's games, according to Monsen.
"All of the sudden, I noticed Lyles was hanging around Temple, Texas, a lot," Monsen said.
Monsen said Evelyn Seastrunk, the player's mother, informed him his help wouldn't be needed in Seastrunk's recruiting.
"I was told to stay away from Lache and his mother, as far as recruiting," Monsen said. "Lyles and Lache became good friends and Lache had a lot of trust in him."
Oregon has enjoyed recruiting success in Texas in recent years, signing high-profile players such as James, Seastrunk and starting quarterback Darron Thomas, a Houston native.
Bob Jones, who coached Thomas at Aldine High School in Houston, said he is familiar with Lyles. Jones said Thomas never developed a relationship with Lyles, though.
"[Lyles] seemed to be around the Houston area, but never around Darron," said Jones, who now coaches at Shepherd (Texas) High School. "I never understood what his mission was. I never understood why he was roaming around. I can't tell you what he's done, but it always looked a little different."
The NCAA, according to sources, is also examining Lyles' relationship with Sean Nelson of Thibodeaux, La., whose own relationship with top football prospects has been scrutinized by the NCAA. Last month, NCAA investigators interviewed former Thibodeaux High School coach Dennis Lorio about Auburn's recruitment of receiver Trovon Reed and offensive lineman Greg Robinson this year. Reed signed with Auburn last year; Robinson signed with the Tigers in February.
Robinson and his mother also were questioned by NCAA officials.
According to people with knowledge of Seastrunk's recruitment, Lyles and Nelson both accompanied the prospect on his visit to Texas in 2009. A source familiar with Seastrunk's recruitment said he made an official visit to Oregon but never made an unofficial visit.
Meanwhile, NCAA officials have also interviewed a Dallas man about his relationship with Kelly. Baron Flenory, co-founder of New Level Athletics and Badger Sports Elite 7-on-7 camps, played college football at New Hampshire when Kelly coached there.
Flenory told ESPN that NCAA enforcement officials have attended his 7-on-7 camps this year and asked him about third-parties' roles in college football recruiting. One of Flenory's prized pupils, linebacker Anthony Wallace of Skyline High School in Dallas, signed with Oregon in February. Flenory denies steering Wallace or any other recruits to Oregon or any schools.
"People think I'm the boogeyman and another Sonny Vaccaro," Flenory said, referring to the sports marketing executive, who has worked with sneaker companies and basketball prospects. "But it's not like that. People have a perception about what Sonny has done. They think of negatives. But there are two sides to it. I do believe in the great side of what 7-on-7s can do for kids in recruiting and that's why we've been so transparent with the NCAA."
According to an Oregon state government expenditures database, Flenory also was paid $3,745 by the Ducks in 2010.
"I sold the recruiting package to Oregon first because of my prexisting relationship [with Kelly]," Flenory said. "But it was years ago. And I didn't realize it was a big deal."
Oregon paid at least two other scouting services for their services: $8,000 to Gary Howard of Northern California Scouting and $1,995 to PrepTracker, LLC of Nashville, Tenn.
As part of a new initiative to clean up college football recruiting, the NCAA is examining the roles so-called street agents and summer camp organizers play in prospective student-athletes' college choices.
Rachel Newman-Baker, NCAA director of agent, gambling and amateurism activities, told ESPN.com on Thursday that the NCAA is exploring whether to establish a task force for college football, similar to one recently formed to better monitor college basketball recruiting.
"[Football] is very similar to non-scholastic basketball based on what we know," Newman-Baker said. "It seems to be a lot of the same issues with recruiting services, street agents and these non-scholastic teams traveling all over the country. It's eerily similar."
Newman-Baker said NCAA staff members have attended several 7-on-7 passing camps across the country during the last several weeks. NCAA investigators have also interviewed head coaches at FBS schools in an attempt to better understand the changing recruiting landscape.
One FBS coach told ESPN.com that "football is becoming AAU basketball."
Former Florida coach Urban Meyer, who now works as a college football analyst for ESPN, said street agents are becoming an increasing problem in the sport.
"It's certainly prevalent and it's certainly out there," Meyer said. "In some areas, it's really out there."
The NCAA's renewed efforts come about four months after it was revealed that Kenny Rogers, a former Mississippi State player, was involved in Heisman Trophy winner Cameron Newton's recruiting. The NCAA ruled that Cecil Newton, the player's father, was aware of Rogers' pay-for-play scheme to solicit $180,000 from Mississippi State boosters before his son signed with Auburn. The NCAA declared Newton ineligible for one day in November, before he was reinstated and led the Tigers to their first national championship in more than 50 years.
Earlier this week, NCAA president Mark Emmert told the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge, La., that new NCAA rules are being developed to deal with "third parties." Emmert said the new rules would apply to parents, agents or anyone else trying to profit from a relationship with a student-athlete.
"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 and basketball."
The NCAA initiative to further examine football recruiting came at the request of new NCAA Vice President of Enforcement Julie Roe Lach, who was hired last fall. Five NCAA investigators from major enforcement and two members from the agents, gambling and amateurism staff will spend the next several months gathering information about football recruiting.
Joe Schad is a college football reporter for ESPN. Mark Schlabach is a college football reporter for ESPN.com.