Nothing new about this con-sulting game

Published Sep. 2, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

It's perfectly understandable why the past several weeks have been devoted to the study of Nevin Shapiro, who apparently bankrolled Donna Shalala's favorite football team, the Stanford of Dade County, sometimes known as the University of Miami. A 5-foot-5 con man who seems to like football players even more than hookers, Shapiro is both perversely entertaining and very South Florida. It's as if he stepped out of a Carl Hiaasen novel.

But people are losing sight of what's really important here. On the eve of another college football season, with the big opening game set for that temple of amateurism, Cowboys Stadium, some long and glorious traditions are being overlooked.

The pairing of No. 3 Oregon and No. 4 LSU is being called the Willie Lyles Bowl, as it was an affiliation with Lyles that has each program under NCAA investigation. In March 2010, (as reported by Yahoo!, the same folks who brought you the Shapiro story), Oregon paid $25,000 to Lyles' newly created firm, Complete Scouting Services. Last December (as first reported on this site), LSU cut him a check for $6,000.

The payments are apparently not the problem. Rather, the only issue is whether — in the NCAA's estimation — Lyles acted as a representative of either university's interests. I know that's difficult to believe. I mean, just because each school signed Texas players (including Oregon's Heisman candidate, LaMichael James) who were being advised by Lyles, is no reason to jump to conclusions — unless, of course, you happen to be living in the real world.

Lyles fancies himself a "recruiting consultant." Actually, that's not fair. These state-run institutions of higher learning consider him that, too. After all, "recruiting consultant" sounds like someone you can put on the books.

But Willie Lyles is less indigenous to Houston than Shapiro is to Miami. There have always been Willie Lyles-types. They have endured for generations, populating in a variety of climates, wherever ballplayers come of age; a symbiotic species, living off that wondrously named genus, the "student athlete."

Still, the offending euphemism here is "recruiting consultant." It illustrates the cynicism with which athletic departments do business and the sanctimonious impotence of the NCAA. Decry the media all you want, but basically, at this point, Yahoo! Sports is the closest thing the NCAA has to an enforcement division.


But back to virtues of tradition. "Recruiting consultants" are new in name only. In the-not-so-distant past, they were referred to as middlemen, hustlers, street agents and flesh peddlers. That's not to say they were all bad guys. They just weren't as evolved as guys like Willie Lyles.

As I imagine this causes great consternation among previous generations of street guys, I called an old friend who used to be in the basketball business. Yes, he said, he'd be watching the Willie Lyles Bowl.

"He did something for the school, the school paid him. What's the problem?" he said.

"You could've made a score," I said.

This friend of mine, who still lives in Queens, figured in a bunch of college basketball scandals. Texas A&M — not on the wish list for most city kids — was once sanctioned for its affiliation with him.

"They deemed me as being a representative of the university," he said, still miffed. "Which I was not."

Actually, coaches called him a "taxi service." They'd come from faraway places like College Station and he'd pick them up at the airport and chauffer them to equally exotic locations in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. I used to call him a street agent and a hustler. He'd get upset and proclaim himself "a consultant." I'd laugh at him, but I wouldn't argue the point anymore.

"I wasn't a representative," he said again.

Still so sensitive. Why? "All you needed was some business cards," I said.

"What kind of business cards?"

Ones that said "Consultant."

"I wasn't thinking of it like that."

Some cards, a website, a company name, and he could've billed the programs directly. Everything would've been on the books, legit. I asked him how much he used to charge.

"Maybe a thousand," he said. "But that was for two or three days of driving these coaches around, taking them to games, introducing them to the players."

Exhausting, for sure. And not nearly what it was worth to the coaches. I remind him that Lyles charged Oregon $25,000 just last year.

"I like my job," he said.

He works security, a midnight shift.

"I'm a supervisor," he said.

I wouldn't argue the point. Besides, that's more than the NCAA has.