When former USC defensive backs coach Willie Mack Garza stepped away from his post just days prior to the Trojans season opener against Minnesota this year, it was a blip that barely made the national radar, let alone the local one.
Granted, the timing was nothing if not strange, and Garza’s listing of "personal issues,” as his reason for leaving seemed to ring a little hollow. After all, there are plenty of coaches who battle personal issues that don’t step away from their post, especially at such an important time in the calendar. Still, little was thought of the move at the time, and it was all but forgotten as the Trojans went on to win their first three games of this season without him.
Well on Monday night the news was hardly forgotten, as we finally got some clarification on why Garza left. That news came when Yahoo’s Dream Team of college football investigative reporters cracked another case, this one surrounding Garza and a payment he made to talent scout du jour Willie Lyles. At the time Garza was working at Tennessee, and the payment was through Lyles to get prized recruit Lache Seastrunk to campus for an unofficial visit. Under NCAA rules, unofficial visits can’t be paid for by the school, and certainly not by an actual member of the coaching staff.
Meaning that it’s looking like the combination of Lyles and Seastrunk has entrapped another major college football program (and maybe two), and only gotten Lane Kiffin into more hot water with the NCAA. At this point, the trio practically has their heads mounted on “Wanted Posters,” inside the NCAA’s Indianapolis offices.
An assistant coach during Lane Kiffin’s tenure at the University of Tennessee wired $1,500 to a talent scout in July 2009, funding the airfare for an unofficial recruiting trip by then five-star prospect Lache Seastrunk and his mother, Yahoo! Sports has learned.
In an apparent NCAA violation, then-Volunteers secondary coach Willie Mack Garza sent the money to one-time scout Will Lyles, who had paid for plane tickets for Seastrunk and his mother Evelyn.
So seriously, the first question might be, “Where do we begin?” Is it at Tennessee, a school that seemingly may never stop paying for Kiffin’s sins from his one year on campus? At USC, where a program that was just hit by NCAA sanctions two summers ago could be in their crosshairs again? Is it with Seastrunk, a player who has never seen significant time on the field in his college career, but has torpedoed more programs than we can count? Or is Lyles himself, a con man of the highest order, who has repeatedly portrayed himself in the media as a good guy trying to help the kids, that has proven to be much more enemy than friend?
Let’s start in Knoxville, where the one-year Lane Kiffin Experiment has repeatedly blown up like a bad science class project gone terribly wrong. The guy practically started committing NCAA violations the day he set foot on campus, most famously including an incident where the coach sent female students to watch high school players in South Carolina. The whole circus didn’t fully come to an end until an NCAA investigation concluded just months ago, when it was announced that Tennessee was able to avoid any major sanctions to its football program, but with the latest allegation, their case may be reopened. As things stand, the Volunteers could be hit with a “repeat violators,” rule, however, Tennessee doesn’t expect that to happen.
"We are aware of the situation as is the conference office," Tennessee spokesman Jimmy Stanton told the website. "We've been verbally contacted by the NCAA enforcement staff regarding a recruiting issue in 2009 related to the former coaching staff and a student-athlete who never attended Tennessee.
"We believe, as does the conference office, that this matter is not subject to the repeat offender provision."
Well, now that that’s settled (maybe), let’s talk about Seastrunk, a player who has proven to be much more of a headache off the field, than one who is productive when he actually steps on it.
As we’ve learned over time, Seastrunk was attached to Lyles at the hip during his recruitment as a five-star, do-it-all running back out of Texas. Eventually he committed to Oregon, a school which is currently under investigation because of their relationship with Lyles.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last six months, you probably know the deal between Oregon, Lyles and Seastrunk, but in case you don’t, what it essentially boils down to is this: Oregon paid Lyles $25,000 for his scouting service, but in return received very little in the way of actual scouting materials (you know, video, hand-written reports etc.). Eventually Oregon came to Lyles asking for those materials, but only after the NCAA began moving in on Eugene. Well now the NCAA is fully investigating the school, and trying to figure out one essential question: Did the Ducks pay Lyles for his “scouting service,” or did they pay him to deliver Seastrunk and other players to Eugene? Given that he never actually gave them scouting materials, it seems to be the latter. Even Lyles has gone on record and said that he believes Oregon kept him around because of his “access and influence with recruits."
With the NCAA investigation ongoing at Oregon, it’s really hard to say what will come of it all. The one thing we do know is that whether the school paid Lyles specifically for Seastrunk or not, the superstar running back hasn’t delivered anything but headaches. He spent the 2010 season redshirting, and didn’t see the field for a single snap, as Oregon advanced to the BCS National Championship Game, before eventually losing to Auburn (which was coincidentally another school that heavily recruited Seastrunk before eventually backing off. Hmm, I wonder why?). Buried on the depth chart entering this season behind LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas, and with a sick family member back in Texas, Seastrunk transferred to Baylor, where he’s currently sitting out.
Of course while it’s easy to pin all the blame on Seastrunk, it’s becoming more apparent by the day, that he was just a pawn in Lyles little small-time scam.
For weeks following Yahoo’s initial report on him in July, the former “scout,” repeatedly said that his only regret in this whole situation was trying to “wear too many hats.” In other words, Lyles eventually came to realize that he couldn’t act as both a scout working directly with colleges, while at the same time trying to mentor and help players like Seastrunk.
And while that whole narrative is so cute it should be on a Hallmark card, it hardly fits the continually evolving profile we have on Lyles.
For one, if he really did care so much about Seastrunk (or any other player), it seems a bit ironic that he’d be willing to throw the player under the bus, and repeatedly drag Seastrunk’s name through the mud, just to clear his own. That’s basically what has happened over the course of the Willie Lyles press tour the last few months.
More importantly though, I couldn’t help but think one thing when reading the report Monday night: Since the beginning Lyles has claimed that if he had to do it all over again, he would’ve learned the NCAA rules and regulations better, and not put Seastrunk in harm’s way. Again, that’s great. But I just find it absolutely, positively impossible to believe that even if someone had only a bare bones minimum of knowledge about NCAA rules, that they’d still think it was ok to accept money from a coach for a player to visit a school. Simply put, no one expects Lyles or any scout/mentor/friend/agent to know every nuance of the NCAA rulebook. But taking money from a coach in any regard is NCAA Rulebreaking 101, plain and simple. If Lyles really cared about Seastrunk- as opposed to just capitalizing off of him- it seems implausible that he’d have allowed the player to travel on Garza’s dime.
Speaking of Garza, the interesting question now becomes what happens at USC.
For one, if these accusations are proven to be true (and they most certainly will be, since as always, Yahoo has receipts and paper verification to back all of their accusations up), Garza’s time coaching college football is done. Any coach paying for a kid to visit the school on an unofficial visit is, again, rule breaking 101. There just doesn’t seem to be any logical reason to think that Garza will be able to talk his way out of this one.
Maybe more importantly though, is what now becomes of things at USC.
Fair or not, Kiffin has been able to leave many of the problems of his past in Knoxville, and avoid any heavy scrutiny (at least from the NCAA), while in Los Angeles. But having brought Garza from Tennessee (again, where he committed the violation while under direct supervision of Kiffin) to Troy, there’s no doubt that Kiffin is now tied to Garza and whatever may come of him.
Which begs the following question: Should USC cut ties with Kiffin?
It sounds crazy, yes. But at the same time shouldn’t be something that’s totally disregarded either.
On the one hand, USC is still just in the beginning stages of a punishment by the NCAA that saw them miss the postseason last year as well as this one, with heavy scholarship reductions coming down the pike. Going forward, it’s still going to be a good 4-5 years before they get out of the NCAA’s crosshairs all together, and the last thing that the school needs is more penalties on top of the ones they’ve already got.
And while Kiffin has seemingly kept his nose clean in Los Angeles, as we mentioned earlier, he was practically a secondary violation committing machine during his time in Knoxville. Even if he hasn’t done anything wrong while at USC, there’s no doubt that at the very least, he is willing to try to bend the NCAA’s rules to their absolute breaking point, and has not shown very good judgment in who he surrounds himself with. This Garza thing is going to linger for months, and only further put him and his current employer under the microscope.
There’s also one little tiny caveat that is easily forgotten which could lead to Kiffin’s uncertain future: As easy as it is to forget, it was former Athletic Director Mike Garrett who hired Kiffin, not his current boss Pat Hayden. Hayden has no emotional attachment to Kiffin, and if anything his only prerogative since stepping on campus has been to try and ensure that the school complies with NCAA rules. This latest Garza news certainly doesn’t help Kiffin’s cause. And that’s not even taking into account that on the field, the team has been highly underwhelming while under Kiffin’s watch.
Either way, it looks to be another few anxious months both in Knoxville and Los Angeles, not to mention Eugene and in the Kiffin household as well.
It’s another day and another school, but Lyles bloody fingerprints continue to show up all over the college football landscape.
Follow Aaron Torres on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.