Despite concern, Texas paid service

Updated: November 11, 2011, 12:59 PM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

Despite learning months earlier that scout Willie Lyles had requested $3,000 from a University of Texas booster to ensure a recruit's visit, the Longhorn football program paid $15,000 to a recruiting service that employed Lyles in 2008-09, according to documents obtained by ESPN's "Outside the Lines."

Lyles, who later started his own recruiting service with a client list of Oregon, LSU and Cal, is at the center of an ongoing NCAA investigation. The personal trainer-turned-recruiting guru intensified the scrutiny when he told Yahoo! Sports that a $25,000 payment he received last year from Oregon was not for his work as a traditional scout, but for his influence with top recruits and his ability to usher them through the signing and eligibility process. That included heralded running back Lache Seastrunk from Temple, Texas.

Lyles was employed by Elite Scouting Services as the lead scout for the state of Texas and parts of Louisiana when the Longhorn athletic department signed the Florida-based company to provide prep scouting information. Texas paid $15,000 for the one-year deal that began July 1, 2008. Prior to that, Texas had a contract with another scouting service, MSL Sports, where Lyles had also been employed as a state of Texas scout.

In February 2008, according to documents, a booster alerted Texas assistant coach Major Applewhite in an email that Lyles had called and told him he needed $3,000 for a recruit to visit the Austin campus.

Applewhite, according to documents, advised against making any payments and later made a statement to Texas compliance officials.

Nick Voinis, Texas' senior associate athletic director for communications, said Wednesday that university compliance officials contacted the NCAA with concerns about Lyles, though Voinis wasn't sure when or the extent of the conversation.

Billing records and invoices shed minimal detail on what Texas received for quarterly payments of $3,750. The most specific is a September 2008 invoice referencing UT as making payment for "Elite Scouting Services 2010 Book and Consultation.'' Voinis said it included "standard web-based recruiting information'' and "maybe a book.'' In its public records request fulfilled last week, "Outside the Lines" requested copies of the materials given to Texas by Elite, but nothing was provided.

"Once we confirmed there were issues surrounding him, we had no other dealings with him,'' Voinis said of Lyles. "We were committed to the service for one year. Once that commitment to Elite was fulfilled, we had no further dealings with him.''

Voinis said he didn't know the extent of UT's dealings with Lyles in his role with Elite Scouting Services.

Charles Fishbein, who founded Elite Scouting Services and previously worked with Lyles at MSL Sports, described Lyles as the primary contact with UT in both of his positions. "Willie had the relationship,'' Fishbein said of the Longhorn football program. "So he was the one servicing them.''

Lyles, who joined Elite Scouting in June 2008, was fired by Fishbein at the end of 2009 because of job performance. Fishbein acknowledges he had suspicions that Lyles was orchestrating his own deals by promising schools access to players he was close to, saying: "That was something that was always a concern for me, that he would get us paid but also do his thing behind us.''

The documents obtained by "Outside the Lines" do not indicate that Texas cut any side deals with Lyles.

Lyles, who did not return calls for comment, has previously accused Texas of leading a campaign against him because he refused to push players toward the school. The documents -- including email exchanges between coaches and staff, as well as boosters and friendly media types -- clearly indicate UT was eager to play a role in exposing Lyles.

Media accounts tying Lyles to other college programs routinely were exchanged via email among the UT athletic staff, often originating with head coach Mack Brown.

Yet at the same time Lyles was being cast as a bad guy by UT staff, the Longhorns wrote four checks to the service that employed him as their scout in Texas, where he was responsible for evaluating prospects and rounding up game film and piecing together highlight tapes.

According to documents, Applewhite met with UT compliance officials and also detailed what he uncovered about Lyles' recruiting practices in a statement signed Aug. 31, 2008.

Soon after he was hired to the coaching staff in January 2008, Applewhite received a call from Ken Collins, a Texas grad and successful Houston business executive, suggesting he make himself known to Lyles because he was close to some top recruits. Applewhite eventually spoke with Lyles, who unsuccessfully tried to pitch him on a player wanting to transfer from Georgia Tech. Lyles was told UT was only interested in high school recruits.

Fearful that Lyles had already cost Texas "three or four recruits,'' Collins looked into bringing political heat on the "street agent that breaks not only ncaa (sic) rules, but also Texas legal rules.'' Collin portrayed the description of Lyles in an email to Texas grad Amy Maxwell, a politically connected Austin attorney, on July 31, 2009, and sought her assistance in getting Texas attorney general Gregg Abbott on the case.

Collins wrote Maxwell: "Bottom line is that I will pursue this through Gregg IF the Texas coaching staff tells me OK AND if you can get me through to Abbott.''

There are no documents or follow up email indicated what, if any, action Collins pursued.

Reached by ESPN, Collins refused to discuss Lyles and abruptly hung up the phone Wednesday. "I'd rather not answer any questions about that. Appreciate your time, goodbye.''

According to the documents, Applewhite not only advised Collins to stay away from Lyles but also contacted a recruit's mother and expressed misgivings about Lyles. The Texas assistant coach was already working the Lyles angle with friends in the media. One of those allies was UT grad Jason Suchomel, who has covered Longhorn football and recruiting for more than a decade as editor of Orangebloods.com, a Rivals.com website that is owned by Yahoo! Sports.

In an Aug. 27, 2008 email -- under the subject line: "Call me asap on this Will Lyles stuff," Suchomel wrote: "Bobby Burton is all over this Will Lyles stuff. Wants his yahoo (sic) investigative reporters ... to look into it. He's talking a lengthy investigation covering several months. Burton actually called me and put me on a conference call with him and one of the reporters. Call me this afternoon or tonight so I can fill you in.'' Burton is a nationally known recruiting analyst.

Two months later, UT records show Yahoo! Sports filed an open records request with the university seeking documents related to agent and recruiting activity in violation of state and NCAA rules.

Meanwhile, Suchomel continued to keep his ears open for Applewhite on the Lyles and recruiting fronts via email, updating him in great detail at times on where Texas stood on possible commitments from top prospects. He wrote Jan. 29, 2009, to Applewhite: "I haven't run the Will Lyles note that we've talked about ... If you get this and want me to put it in the War Room, give me a call tonight. If not, we can always run it next week if you still want to do that.''

When the Lyles scandal erupted in full last summer, one of the UT concerns was the amount of money being spent on football recruiting services. Athletic director DeLoss Dodds asked the question in an email after it was reported that Alabama had spent nearly $220,000 on a handful of different services.

Arthur Johnson, the Longhorns' assistant athletic director for football operations, responded by saying UT contracted service through a single provider that was not close in magnitude, adding: "A couple years ago, there was an agreement with another service ... We started looking into this when the Oregon news hit earlier this year.''

That old agreement was with Elite Scouting Services. Even before being told of details in UT athletic department documents, the ESS founder suspected that a disagreement between Lyles and Applewhite had led to the contract not being renewed.

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com. Mark Fainaru-Wada of ESPN's Enterprise Unit also contributed to this report.