Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Scott Cate has all the toys. A 15-passenger jet, a 7,000-square-foot yacht, a speedboat, a 4,000 square-foot houseboat and a high school football team.
He doesn't actually own the Cottonwood Colts, but it certainly seems that way to his detractors on the Utah prep sports scene.
Since the multimillionaire booster and now offensive coordinator sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into upgrading its athletic facilities, once hapless Cottonwood has become the state's marquee school. Cate also funds an after-school tutoring program staffed with former collegians like Jason Kaufusi, who played at Utah.
To some, he is a white knight who has given often struggling teenagers a place to succeed academically and athletically. To others, he is a meddling father who uses his money to recruit talented players around his son Alex, the Colts' LSU-bound starting quarterback.
"I get drilled for spending my money at a public school. Drilled," said Cate, who made his fortune in the telecom industry. "I just do it because I want to be in a high school situation to help kids."
Parents and players have taken notice of the well-stocked weight room, three-story press box with coaches' offices and film room along with the tutoring program. They are taking advantage of Utah's controversial open enrollment law, which allows students to attend any school that has room.
For some, open enrollment is the bane of Utah prep sports.
"Everyone is trying to get people in their communities now to help with the nicer facility to get a better draw of kids. It doesn't make sense to me," said Riverton High coach Mike Miller.
"I think if a kid isn't loyal to your program and is out shopping, then you don't want him anyway because he and his parents will be a pain in the neck."
Open enrollment gives rise to frequent charges of coaches, boosters and parents enticing promising young athletes out of their neighborhood schools. The wooing sometimes starts as early as seventh grade.
Publicly, many coaches are loathe to talk about recruiting; they don't want to come across as crybabies, says one.
Privately, they can't see each other without talking about it. The touchy topic arises "every time we get together, whether it's a region meeting or a casual meeting," said Kearns High coach Doug Bills, president of the Utah High School Football Coaches Association.
In Bills' estimation, it's not so much coaches recruiting players as parents shopping schools.
"It's an ongoing problem that could only be solved one way: You play where you live," he said.
That wasn't good enough for the mother of junior Simi Fili, now a Cottonwood star defensive lineman.
Fili's mom showed up in the weight room one afternoon with her 325-pound son in tow. He'd been at Juan Diego and Highland, and the boy's grades were atrocious, she said. Over months, the boy's family had been negotiating with three schools as coaches vied for his athletic talent. Meanwhile, Fili was flunking out. Cottonwood was the only school talking about Fili's grades and education, said mother Le'o Fili.
"I knew that I needed help with him," she said. "Cottonwood already had the program in place. It felt like a good fit for Simi."
He landed on the Colts' roster. Last week, he was in study hall working with tutors paid by Cate. He is maintaining his grades.
These kinds of stories don't make the view from the Kearns bench any easier to take.
Bills counted 11 players living within the Kearns boundaries on rival Hunter High's sideline during a lopsided loss this season. "You don't mind getting beat," he said, "but you hate getting beat by your own kids."
Certain schools are magnets for parents who think their children can thrive athletically and possibly earn college scholarships. Recruiting allegations have swirled for years, most notably around perennial power Skyline.
Lately, talk has shifted to Cottonwood, a team that until last year endured 17 straight losing seasons. The Colts lost in the 4A championship game last November and are poised for a state title run this season. The team's star running back, Stanley Havili, lives outside the area as do several other top players.
Athletic transfer requests, including boys and girls in all sports, to the east-side school have ballooned from six in 2002 and 2003 to 20 last year and 17 this year, according to UHSAA. But there are still eight schools with more transfers in 2005, including leader Skyline with 28.
Open enrollment appears inherently at odds with UHSAA guidelines that ban students from transferring for sports. UHSAA revised its rules this past spring to crack down on coaches who lure athletes to their schools through summer camps and club teams.
Nevertheless, UHSAA processed 785 transfer requests this year.
Athletes switch schools for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the chance to be noticed by college recruiters. That isn't a reason to transfer as far as UHSAA is concerned.
"I have no interest in whether your son or daughter gets a scholarship," said Evan Excell, UHSAA executive director. "Our interest is participation."
While there always have been allegations of recruiting, the tenor of criticism and attacks against specific coaches are especially intense this year.
Many coaches interviewed for this series have a story about losing a player due to some questionable conduct.
"I wouldn't sell my soul just to win ball games," Miller said. "There are other things than winning."
A three-page letter was delivered to the UHSAA and copied to the Deseret Morning News this month. It is signed "a Disgruntled High School Football Fan," and it details a variety of "unethical" behavior by coaches and schools. The writer blames it on open enrollment. "This policy has created a monster in the world of high school athletics."
Excell concurs it is a problem. "If we didn't have that, we could say play where you live," he said.
That makes no sense to Cate, an unabashed proponent of open enrollment. He's sees a double standard when students want to transfer for football as opposed to art or music.
"We pay taxes so that our kids can go to school," he said. "I don't understand why we have to be told where we can send our kids to school."
Cate, a former University of Utah quarterback, denies recruiting anyone to Cottonwood.
"If I ever give anything to a kid or promised a kid something, they should shoot me and kick me out of the state," he said.
Recent rumors have Cate putting players' families up in Cottonwood-area condos and paying off the mortgage for a transfer student's mother. Such things he said, would get him in trouble with the IRS.
"To do what? Win a frickin' high school football game?" Cate says. "That would be categorically, no."
Still, Cate has become a fixture at the school. He spends 12 to 16 hours a day maintaining the fields, cutting highlight films for college recruiters and meeting with parents of academically struggling players.
On any given afternoon, players can be found in the study hall with former college stars like Kaufusi. Cate retains the tutors, who double as assistant coaches, with a personal services contract. He pays for their advanced degrees or teaching certificates if they agree to spend five years working at any high school.
"I don't want to be known as recruiting kids here," Kaufusi said. "We hear it often. That's not reality. I'm trying to offer the best environment for the kids to be successful."
Cottonwood head coach Tom Jones is unapologetic.
New protocol for the football team has had wide-ranging benefits for players and students. "The school has bonded with us because we aren't just a sad bunch of losers," Jones said.
Some of Cottonwood's transfers have gone from failing grades to A-students, from would-be gang bangers to good citizens, Cate said. He demands they study and go to class. With head coach Jones' blessing, he benches players for being late to meetings or missing study hall.
"We're trying to teach life skills here," Cate said.
The Granite School District has investigated what Cate has built at Cottonwood.
"We really haven't found anything," said Louie Long, senior director for secondary schools. "We found that parents really believe in what they're doing over there."
Excell has heard similar rumors about Cottonwood.
"I've talked to parents who said I don't care if my kid ever plays," he said. "They are going to help him get through school."
East High coach Aaron Whitehead tiptoed around the R-word.
"It seems to me that the teams that are good just tend to get better," said Whitehead, who didn't care to elaborate.
East lost Havili to Cottonwood at his dad's behest. The Leopards beat the top-ranked Colts two weeks ago, giving his team a certain degree of satisfaction.
But he has nothing but praise for Havili. "Stanley is a tremendous kid. He's got the whole package," Whitehead said, adding his integrity and character will take him far in life.
"If I have a kid who doesn't want to stay (at East), best wishes to him," he said.
Long, a former coach and principal at Olympus, doesn't fault Cottonwood or any school for making their programs more attractive."We have choice," he said. "I would try to put the best product out there on the field so kids would come to it. If you have a good athlete, what would you do?"
TOMORROW: Football in a small town
Prep football is coming on strong in Utah, long considered a basketball state, like a running back loose in the secondary. Attendance and enthusiasm for the state football playoffs currently under way is running high.
Deseret Morning News reporters interviewed dozens of high school football players, parents, coaches, school officials, doctors, boosters and community leaders across the state to explain Utah's increasing fascination and sometimes obsession with high school football."Chasing Glory" is a four-day series that will examine controversial claims of "recruiting," the ever-increasing size of today's players, football dynasties, and a special visit to a distant Utah town where life is simpler and football the center of their universe.
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