Senior Writer

Recruiting might be headed down a dark alley


St. Thomas Aquinas High School is different. That's because recently retired coach George Smith is different when it comes to shadowy third-party influences on his players.

"I would find it very, very strange if some ---hole came in and said, 'I want to talk to [one of my players],' " Smith said.

Maybe the 62-year-old prep coaching icon (he is still athletic director of the Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. school) got out at the right time. Smith spent 34 years developing Aquinas into one of the nation's top programs, sending scores of players to Division I-A programs. A certain character developed at the school. Perhaps that's why Smith wasn't edged out by those third parties.

The offseason 7-on-7 scene -- hot in South Florida as well as other areas -- is getting a lot of scrutiny since last week's revelation that Oregon paid $25,000 to a Houston-based recruiting service. Will Lyles, who runs the service, reportedly mentored current Duck freshman Lache Seastrunk in his recruitment. The school also paid $3,745 to Badger Sports Elite, which runs several 7-on-7 camps. Several Duck recruits have attended those camps, according to a story broken by Yahoo! Sports last week.

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If the proprietors of those organizations were found to have directed players to Oregon, they could be classified as boosters. The exchange of money, then, would make it an NCAA violation. Oregon stands by its expenditures, saying they were approved by the university's compliance department.

"It used to be four, five, six years ago, it was the street agent guys," Smith said. "That got cracked down on. ... I have not come across any of that [7-on-7 improprieties]. Our program is probably different than others. I think they would know how they would feel about it, if I found out about something like that."

Smith's iron fist is appreciated by the NCAA as it becomes sadly obvious there is no limit to the human ability for ingenuity. Basketball long ago fell victim to morally questionable parties making illicit money off high-school labor. The NCAA, though, has a head start on football's next generation of slimeballs. The dressed-up name -- "third party" -- refers to anyone other than a family member or a high school coach who runs a kid's recruitment.

"I had no clue about the involvement of third parties in recruiting," said Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who played on 7-on-7 teams in Texas. "I always thought it was families and high school coaches."

Being a Stanford kid, Luck knows a lot of things. The street, apparently, isn't one of them. The NCAA wants to clean up the street -- in football. A legion of investigators has been assembled, A Team-style, to determine just how pervasive third parties have become in the sport.

The NCAA's A Team was the idea of new enforcement chief Julie Roe Lach, who took office in October. There are seven investigators fanned out across the country at various times attempting to determine just how much third-party infiltration has spread.

Lache Seastrunk was reportedly mentored by a third-party service Oregon paid $25,000 for. (Getty Images)  
Lache Seastrunk was reportedly mentored by a third-party service Oregon paid $25,000 for. (Getty Images)  
Rachel Newman-Baker, director of the NCAA's Agents, Gambling and Amateurism division, calls it a pilot program that could lead to a permanent group similar to the Basketball Focus Group. Just what we need, you're thinking, another NCAA committee. In this case it might be warranted.

Even if Lyles is completely innocent, several sources have said $25,000 is a high amount to pay for a recruiting service. Lyles' invoice shows he provided a national recruiting package that covered 22 states.

"I can't believe a place like Oregon needs a scouting service," said Lynn Lashbrook, executive director of Portland, Ore.-based Sports Management Worldwide, which specializes in sports business education. "You can't tell me a coach at Oregon can't get the phone number of a kid in Temple, Texas."

"You can call us," Smith added. "We'll e-mail film. It wouldn't cost anybody anything."

To the NCAA, there is nothing wrong with recruiting services, "provided this service is made available to all institutions desiring to subscribe and at the same fee rate for all subscribers." In fact, with the NCAA banning head coaches from going out on the road in the spring (April 15-May 31), the services may have become more important. Oregon coach Chip Kelly has become known as one of the nation's most aggressive recruiters. That's how he got to Oregon. Kelly and current Ducks receivers coach Scott Frost bumped into each other in the hallway of a Miami high school while recruiting. About a year later, Frost was hired.

"Oregon's all over the place," Smith said. "They're down here [in Florida] heavy. They have human beings walking the schools."

A former Ducks recruiting coordinator told the Oregonian the school decided to get into national recruiting services after being shut out in the recruitment of eventual Oklahoma star Adrian Peterson. But if Lyles is innocent, there are plenty who aren't.

"They're a big part of it," Newman-Baker said of the third-party influences. "They're probably one of the largest concerns to us right now. ... We're still trying to learn how deep they go."

The NCAA, no doubt, will ask Oregon to document, beyond the invoice, what the school got for that $25,000. But how much money is too much? It may be something the A Team will begin to determine.

"That's a good question," Newman-Baker said. "That's [money amounts] something the membership is going to have to figure out. ... How many scouting services are we subscribing to and how much are those scouting services? More importantly, what are they getting in return for that?"

There is a soft deadline of early summer for the group to get back to Roe Lach with a recommendation. The NCAA can make a difference in football because it has a head start. As mentioned, basketball recruiting already is controlled by the dark side. Football is merely trending that way, with the shadowy figures in the background with their hands out.

"It is disconcerting, frankly, because a lot of the information that we're getting back is the same old stuff," Newman-Baker said. "The recruiting services, the tie-ins with agents, the same song and dance we've heard before [in basketball]. The good part, I feel like we're more on the front end of it, at least more of the front end than where I felt like we were before with basketball."

It is the evolution of street agents and "advisors" that concerns the NCAA. The emergence of 7-on-7 leagues in the offseason -- the NCAA calls them "non-scholastic" teams -- has given those third parties an entrée into the recruiting process. In some cases, all-star teams are assembled and flown around the country for tournaments. An easily influenced 18-year-old gets more attached to his summer coach than he does his high school coach. Theoretically, that coach could realize he controls a commodity, not just a team.

"It's eerily similar [to basketball]," Newman-Baker acknowledged.

It adds up to flesh-peddling. The question is whether the A Team has arrived in time.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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