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Barnett took winding road to Michigan

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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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GARLAND, Texas

About this series

 

There’s a crisis brewing in college football recruiting. The NCAA is examining the role of third parties, commonly known as “street agents,” and their expanding influence in recruiting. This effort could result in new rules to curb their power.


In the final installment of a four-part series, FOXSports.com profiles Michigan signee Chris Barnett, who has had a chaotic journey and doesn't know how the Wolverines started recruiting him.

 

During a video interview with Scout.com in August 2009, Chris Barnett was asked who would be influential in helping him decide on a college.

“My dad,” said a smiling Barnett, a then-junior tight end who was starting to emerge as one of the nation’s best at his position in the Class of 2011.

Barnett’s answer made plenty of sense. After all, his father, Elzie Barnett, is the coach of A. Maceo Smith High School in Dallas.

“I’ll listen to my Dad with him being a coach; he’s going to be helping me the most,” Barnett said in the interview with Scout.com, a network of sports websites that covers recruiting coverage and is owned by News Corp., which also owns FOXSports.com.

But when Chris Barnett signed with Michigan on signing day in a surprising decision last month and reneged on his commitment to Arkansas, his father wasn’t involved at all. Instead, the man behind the camera during Barnett’s Scout.com interview takes credit for him becoming involved with the Wolverines: Baron Flenory.

“I help him and I give him advice,” said Flenory, co-founder of Dallas-based New Level Athletics and BadgerSport Elite 7-on-7 camps, of his relationship with Barnett in a January interview.

But while Flenory refused to reveal that advice, Barnett has transferred high schools five times, attended four different high schools and twice broke commitments to colleges. The bizarre recruiting odyssey of the 6-foot-6, 245-pounder is a window into Flenory’s influence among top recruits whom he befriended while working as a Dallas-based recruiting analyst for Scout.com.
 

Who's who in this story

 

Chris Barnett: Dallas-area high school tight end who signed with Michigan last month. Has attended four different high schools and had been committed to Oklahoma and Arkansas. Has relationship with Baron Flenory.


Baron Flenory: Co-founder of Dallas-based New Level Athletics and BadgerSport Elite 7-on-7 camps. Reputed street agent. Former defensive back at New Hampshire when Oregon coach Chip Kelly was an assistant there. Paid $3,745 by Oregon in 2009 for a recruiting package he sold to the Ducks.


Elzie Barnett: Chris Barnett’s father and Dallas high school football coach. Wasn’t involved in son’s college decision and would have preferred him signing with Arkansas.


Duke Barnett: Chris Barnett’s uncle and brother of Elzie Barnett. Chris Barnett has lived with him since January.

 
 

“It all makes sense if you understand how dysfunctional (expletive) is,” Elzie Barnett said of his son’s recruitment. “But it doesn’t make sense to a layman. He’d be like, ‘What the hell?’”

Barnett’s path is also a cautionary tale for recruits who come into contact with Flenory at his BadgerSport Elite 7-on-7 camps. NCAA enforcement staff have attended his 7-on-7 camps and asked him about the involvement of third parties in college football recruiting.

In 2009, Flenory sold a recruiting package to the University of Oregon for $3,745. If he assisted in or were involved in the recruitment of players to Oregon, the NCAA would consider him a booster, and any payment to him would be considered a violation of Bylaw 13, which prohibits boosters from directing a recruit to a school.

Oregon maintains it has committed no wrongdoing, and that the purchase of scouting services from Lyles is allowed under NCAA rules. Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said the Ducks are cooperating with the NCAA’s request for documents related to their purchases of services from scouting agencies.

Flenory’s BadgerSport Elite 7-on-7 camps this year are being held at campuses such as the University of Michigan, University of Alabama and University of South Florida.

“I’m a friend,” said Flenory, who played football at the University of New Hampshire when Oregon coach Chip Kelly was an assistant there. “I’m a big kid. I’m a 28-year-old guy that loves kids, loves helping and loves football.”
 

MET IN 2007

 


Elzie Barnett said he and his son first met Flenory while watching his older son, Eryon Barnett, play in a high school football game at Cowboys Stadium in 2007. At the time, Flenory worked for Scout.com.

Elzie Barnett said he agreed to send Flenory video of some of his players at Smith High. After that, he said he occasionally talked to Flenory to get updates on when players’ videos would appear on Scout.com.

“That was it,” Elzie Barnett said.

But it was all just really beginning for Chris Barnett, who had already moved around among family members so much during his childhood that his father described it as “hell.”

His father said Barnett started his freshman year at Garland High School and lived with his paternal grandmother. He then transferred during the second semester to Smith High and moved in with his father.

He played his junior season at Smith High, before moving out of his father’s house in December 2009 and transferring to Trinity High School in Euless, Texas.

In February 2010, while at Trinity High, Barnett committed to Oklahoma. Two months later, his father said, he moved back in with him and attended Smith High for the remainder of his junior year. He then moved in with his mother and transferred to L.D. Bell High School in Hurst, Texas, for his senior year and committed to Arkansas last October.

“When things don’t go right, that’s with you, me or anybody else, we have to face that issue,” Elzie Barnett said. “Chris has never had to do that. Chris has always been able to say, ‘I don’t like it here’ and somebody would say, ‘You come stay with me.’”

But Chris Barnett describes his nomadic high school journey as “a life lesson.” He said it was caused by relationship problems with family members and financial difficulties.

“I’ve been through a lot of turmoil,” he said in an interview this month, “a lot of stuff that’s kept me moving around.”

In January, Barnett’s uncle, Duke Barnett, had his nephew move in with him and enrolled him back at Garland High.

I needed him to be really focused these last four months of school,” Duke Barnett said. “I didn’t want him stressed about anything other than going to class, getting his grades as high as he can get them and just to make sure these last four months of high school that there was plenty of stability and plenty of love and plenty of support and those types of things.”

But through it all, Chris Barnett stayed in touch with Flenory. He listed him as his role model in an interview with an Arkansas high school sports website in November.

“Over time you just develop a relationship,” Flenory said. “So I developed that relationship with him and it’s a pretty strong relationship.”

So much that Flenory said Barnett called him in mid-January and told him that he was unhappy with his commitment to Arkansas because Razorbacks offensive coordinator Garrick McGee was looking at becoming Tulsa’s coach.

Flenory said he told Barnett he should stick with Arkansas, but said Barnett asked him about other schools, which Flenory declined to specify.

 

CONNECTING WITH MICHIGAN

 


Flenory said he told Barnett that he didn’t know about those schools, but did know that Michigan was looking for a tight end. He said he asked Barnett if he wanted to look at the Wolverines.

Once Barnett told him yes, Flenory said he called a Michigan coach, whom he declined to identify. “That’s irrelevant,” Flenory said.

Soon, Barnett heard from Wolverines wide receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski. Just five days before signing day, he took an official visit to Michigan.

During the trip, Barnett said he felt comfortable with the Wolverines players and coaches. He also liked the university’s academics and envisioned himself someday living near the school while raising a family.

During Michigan’s recruitment of his son, Elzie Barnett said he never heard from a single Wolverines coach, despite Hecklinski and head coach Brady Hoke making a home visit with Chris Barnett and his uncle. Elzie Barnett was surprised by Michigan’s lack of communication because when Arkansas recruited his son, he had been in contact with McGee.

“It’s highly unlikely that a school would recruit a kid without talking to his father when he’s a coach,” Elzie Barnett said. “I just don’t know what to say.”

On signing day, Hoke was already having his news conference to discuss the Wolverines’ signees when Barnett faxed in his letter-of-intent. “That’s exciting news,” Hoke said at the time.

Efforts to reach Hoke and Hecklinski were unsuccessful. But Michigan spokesman Dave Ablauf said Flenory did call the Michigan football office to let the Wolverines know Barnett was still looking at other schools despite his commitment to Arkansas. Ablauf said neither Hoke nor Hecklinski know Flenory.

COMING UP 7S

Part 3 of a four-part series looks at the national proliferation of 7-on-7 and why it is ripe for street agents gaining access to players.

Although Flenory said he talked to Barnett about Michigan, Barnett said he was never unhappy about his commitment to Arkansas and doesn’t know what prompted the Wolverines to start recruiting him.

“I really don’t,” Barnett said. “I guess they heard that I was being able to take visits.”

Yet Chris Barnett credits Flenory for being “a lot of help” in his own recruitment and that of his close friend, Anthony Wallace, of Skyline High School in Dallas. Wallace is one of the nation’s top linebackers this year and last month signed with Oregon.

Barnett said Flenory never told him to choose a specific school, just to pick the best school for himself.

“He would always make sure we was going in the right direction,” Barnett said. “He didn’t want us to do anything that was bad for us. Being a kid, you really sometimes just don’t know what’s what.”

Barnett’s father and uncle were also unaware of Flenory’s involvement in Michigan’s recruiting of Barnett. Duke Barnett said he does not know Flenory, but had heard of him.

“I know what took place in my living room over the past three weeks and at my dining table for the past three weeks and the long nights and the lists and the praying and things like that,” Duke Barnett said last month. “Those things I know. This guy wasn’t involved in any of that.”

Told that Flenory contacted Michigan about his son, Elzie Barnett said, “That figures.”

Chris Barnett

Before he signed with Michigan, Chris Barnett previously committed to Oklahoma and Arkansas.

“Telling me that Baron got it done doesn’t surprise me,” he said.

Elzie Barnett said he believes that his son should have signed with Arkansas instead of Michigan so he could play in the Southeastern Conference and the Razorbacks’ pro-style offense.

Chris Barnett plans to play as a freshman this next season at Michigan, but faces a difficult road to get on the field. He had knee and hernia surgery this past winter.

Despite all of Barnett’s moving around, he is on pace to graduate from Garland High in May, Duke Barnett said. For now, all Elzie Barnett cares about is his son getting a high school diploma.

“I ain’t mad,” Elzie Barnett said. “I’m tired. There’s a difference. I’m tired. Chris will be 19 in September. It’s been 18 years of up-and-down, up-and-down. I’m ready for him to go to school so people stop talking about it. If he can play, let’s see if he can really play. If he’s going to graduate, let’s really see if he can graduate. Honestly, I’m mentally tired.”

That’s a far different ending to the role that Chris Barnett envisioned his father having in his recruitment just over a year and a half ago in his video interview with Flenory.

“He’s going to make sure,” Barnett said of his father in the interview, “I’m not getting played.”

Tagged: Texas, Eryon Barnett

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