Oregon coach Chip Kelly is known as a master tactician, a guy who employs a unique offensive attack and frenetic pace to give his teams an edge over opponents. It turns out Kelly was using a far more ethically questionable approach to give his program an edge in recruiting. Following Friday's explosive Yahoo! Sports interview with controversial middleman Will Lyles, Kelly may soon be known more for the latter than the former.
Nearly four months after the disclosure of Oregon's $25,000 payment to Lyles' company Complete Scouting Services touched off an NCAA investigation, Lyles has spilled the beans on his relationships with the Oregon coaching staff and several Oregon-targeted recruits, most notably running backs LaMichael James and Lache Seastrunk. As we long suspected, and as Lyles now admits to Yahoo!, "... [Oregon] paid for what they saw as my access and influence with recruits." Lyles said Kelly told him to "find out what the best paying [recruiting] service is" and Oregon would pay that amount, which it did, despite the fact Lyles' service did not yet exist.
Suspicions were already high after the school released copies last week of the supposed "2011 national scouting package" that Lyles provided the staff, consisting entirely of outdated profiles of 140 prospects from the class of 2009. At the time, Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens insisted to CBSSports.com: "I have full confidence we are absolutely doing [business] the right way." Maybe he was putting on a good face until the NCAA process ran its course. Or perhaps he was unaware at the time of many of the actions Lyles claims to have taken on behalf of Oregon recruits. Because you'd be hard-pressed to read Yahoo!'s story and come to the conclusion that Kelly and his staff have been doing things "the right way."
Oregon spokesman Dave Williford, fielding an SI.com request Friday to speak with Mullens, said, "Rob and the athletic department stand by our original statement" that the school "[has] and will continue to work with the NCAA on this matter." He told Yahoo!, "We believe we did nothing wrong."
That may still be true by the letter of NCAA law. Even after Lyles' admission that his recruiting materials were a sham ("I gave them, like, old stuff that I still had on my computer," he told Yahoo!), even after reading about the lengths he went through to help James become academically eligible and to manipulate Seastrunk's family situation so that he could sign with Oregon, it's unclear what, if any, NCAA rules were broken. The role of figures like Lyles is a relatively recent development of which the NCAA is only now trying to get a handle.
But does it even matter? Oregon officials can no longer say with a straight face that Kelly's staff is doing things "the right way" when emails, phone records and a particularly damning handwritten note show how complicit they were in dealing with a man that allegedly did the following:
• Concocted a plan for James, then a high-school senior in Texarkana, Texas, to transfer to an Arkansas school for his final semester to avoid taking a standardized state test required for college eligibility. Afterward, Lyles said Kelly (then Oregon's offensive coordinator) praised the scheme as "a great idea."
• Served as Kelly's chaperone whenever he recruited in Houston, even arranging his high-school visits.
• Arranged for and accompanied several prospective recruits (including Oregon signee Dontae Williams) on a 2009 visit to the USC-Oregon game. Kelly sent a handwritten note afterward telling him "thanks for orchestrating everything and all your help with these guys."
• Contacted Oregon in January 2010, when it appeared Seastrunk's mother might not sign off on a letter of intent to Oregon, to find out how he could petition for a change of guardianship that would allow Seastrunk to substitute his grandmother's signature (which he did). Phone records show substantial contact between Lyles and Oregon staffers (including Kelly) during that time.
Lyles was a middleman. He held influence over prospects like James and Seastrunk. Oregon may not have "bought" Seastrunk, the most sinister conclusion some may draw, but Kelly made sure Lyles was rewarded for his help. There is no longer room for debate on this. Oregon isn't the only school that deals with hangers-on like Lyles (who was likely involved with other schools), but it got caught. And Kelly, as the face of the program, deserves the brunt of the blame.
In the coming months, NCAA investigators will wade through all this muck, and their recently announced enforcement processing center will try to figure out what parts, if any, it can pin on the program. Oregon fans should brace themselves, because over the past year, prominent NCAA officials have spoken constantly about their concern over third parties in recruiting. Oregon could become its landmark case on the issue. (One break for the school: Lyles said he did not tell NCAA investigators everything he told Yahoo!)
It may be that Lyles is deemed "a representative of Oregon's athletic interests" (i.e., a booster), in which case any activity deemed as an attempt to sway potential Ducks signees would be a big no-no. Even if not, the NCAA has clear policies on who can recruit on the road for a program. Hint: It's only the nine guys on the coaching staff.
Any such violations would likely result in significant sanctions.
Or, it may be that Lyles' actions fall into a legislative gray area. It's still a mystery. But even if Oregon doesn't vacate any wins or lose any scholarships doesn't mean everything's hunky-dory in Eugene.
The very high-profile head coach of a very high-profile program -- one that played in the national championship game last January and has largely been portrayed as a feel-good story -- has been caught in writing acknowledging his relationship with a guy who manipulated a player's graduation plans and another's guardianship status, both to the benefit of Oregon. It's abundantly clear by now that he signed off on a $25,000 payment to a guy that had no business getting a dime from the school.
Oregon -- with the generous help of Nike and Phil Knight -- has spent more than a decade carefully crafting its aura as the cool school with the slick uniforms and the flashy offense. Kelly was the charismatic mastermind that took the program from good to great. Both are suddenly taking on a more dubious image. How long until Kelly's superiors admit this isn't "the right way?"