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Ice carvings and lavish dinners: A look at the cost of football recruiting at Washington

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 7, 2020

Jimmy Lake, left, kept together Washington’s recruiting class following the retirement of longtime coach Chris Petersen, right, in December. (Dean Rutz / Associated Press)
Jimmy Lake, left, kept together Washington’s recruiting class following the retirement of longtime coach Chris Petersen, right, in December. (Dean Rutz / Associated Press)
By Adam Jude Seattle Times

SEATTLE – A buffet lunch for 70 guests began inside Husky Stadium’s Touchdown Terrace, a 7,000-square-foot, field-level suite, at 11:55 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018, smack in the middle of one of the most successful recruiting weekends the Washington football program had during the Chris Petersen era.

The lunch featured a taco bar with shredded beef barbacoa, pulled chicken tinga and shrimp Veracruz. Dessert was set on two 6-foot-long tables. On one table sat cinnamon churros warming under heating lamps; on the other sat two fountains, one flowing with chocolate and the other with caramel.

In the center of the suite, on a 60-inch round table, was a large ice carving made by a local artist at a cost of $1,175.

The final tab from Ravenna Catering for the two-hour lunch: $9,620.51.

For this final weekend before college football’s December signing day, nine recruits came for their 48-hour official visit to the UW campus, a rite of passage for top prospects and a red-carpet routine for top programs.

The recruits and their parents flew in from California, Hawaii, Nevada and Arizona, and there was special interest – among Husky coaches and fans alike – in Laiatu Latu, a four-star defensive end from Sacramento, California, and one of two recruits visiting that weekend who hadn’t yet made a commitment to play for the UW.

The Huskies were putting on a full-court press for Latu in particular, one person close to the program had said that weekend, and a review of meal receipts, itineraries and travel logs, all obtained by the Seattle Times, from those 48 hours indeed show a first-class treatment of the recruits and their parents.

Those records from December 2018 offer a glimpse of what a 48-hour visit can look like for touted high school athletes being courted by major college football programs: a three-night stay in a downtown hotel; a lavish dinner at a five-star steakhouse; limo rides; bowling outings; a tour of Pike Place Market; and a seemingly bottomless budget for treats and snacks that would be the envy of every teenager.

The net cost for that weekend: $71,007.13.

The net result: Eight of the nine recruits on campus that weekend formally signed to play for the Huskies three days after their official visit ended.

Budgets rise nationwide

The pampering of recruits is standard operating procedure around college football. The NCAA allows recruits up to five “official” visits to college campuses, and each school is allowed to cover the costs of transportation and lodging for recruits and their parents, plus three meals per day and “reasonable” entertainment expenses.

Nationwide, recruiting budgets have swelled around college football.

The 52 public schools in Power Five conferences – the Pac-12, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big Ten and Big 12 – reported expenses of $35.5 million on football recruiting in 2016. By 2018 that figure jumped to $50 million, according to an investigation published last summer by the Louisville Courier Journal/USA Today Network.

Georgia spent more than anyone on recruiting in 2018 – $2.6 million, which represented an increase of 352% in its recruiting budget from five years earlier. Notably, Alabama ($2.2 million spent), Clemson ($1.8 million), Texas A&M ($1.7 million) and Florida State ($1.6 million), among others, had significant increases in their recruiting expenses since 2013.

Under Petersen, the Huskies were an exception.

In 2018, the Huskies spent $714,872 on recruiting, a budget that had remained virtually the same since Petersen succeeded Steve Sarkisian as the UW coach in December 2013. Football recruiting expenses are covered as a line item in the overall operating budget of the football program, by far the UW athletic department’s largest revenue generator.

According to the investigation, the UW spent just slightly more than the average ($708,750) spent by the 10 public programs in the Pac-12 in 2018.

Those close to Petersen at the UW often described him as a budget-conscious coach, if not a frugal one. Official campus visits often centered on his “Built for Life” program, which featured an hour-long PowerPoint presentation on how he and the UW staff aimed to develop players and prepare them for life after football.

Brandon Huffman, a national recruiting editor for 247Sports.com, says recruits he would talk to after visiting UW almost always mentioned Built for Life as the key selling point in their – and their parents’ – interest in the Huskies. That’s in contrast to a lot of coaches, Huffman said, who noted specifically that Sarkisian used the big-city feel of Seattle as a focal of his recruiting pitches.

“For Petersen, it was really about selling the UW football program more than the city of Seattle,” Huffman said. Under Petersen’s reign, he added, UW treated official visits as “a business trip, rather than a weekend bender.”

An ‘amazing’ 48 hours

The nine recruits visiting Dec. 13-16, 2018, arrived in Seattle that Thursday night or Friday morning. For the two recruits visiting from Hawaii, defensive linemen Sama Paama and Faatui Tuitele, the trip began with Friday morning rides to the Honolulu airport from Luxury Limo (cost: $134.45 each).

UW recruiting staffers had arranged similar executive-style pickups for the five other recruits coming from out of state for their official visit. The round-trip cost of car services to and from airports: $2,540.14.

The families from Hawaii flew coach on their Alaska Airlines flights.

Once on campus in Seattle, recruits must sign a “prospect form” that lays out 11 NCAA rules and/or UW athletic department policies for the official visit. The recruits’ student host – a current football player – is also required to sign the document. A sampling of the policies:

Rule 4: “A maximum of $75 per day may be provided to the student host to cover the actual costs of entertainment during an official visit. … ”

Rule 5: “Cash may never be given to a prospect. … ”

Rule 7: “A prospect may not be introduced to alumni, boosters or other representatives of UW athletic interests.”

Rule 8: “The use of alcohol or drugs by student-athletes, prospects, coaches and staff members is expressly prohibited by department policy during an official visit and throughout the recruiting process.”

Rule 9: “All forms of adult entertainment are strictly prohibited … ”

For all the recruits – Latu, Paama, Tuitele, Jacob Bandes (Antioch, California), Kyle Patterson (Gilbert, Arizona), Kamren Fabiculanan (Westlake Village, California); Troy Fautanu (Henderson, Nevada); Alphonzo Tuputala (Federal Way, Washington); and Nathaniel Kalepo (Seattle) – just about every hour of the official visit was accounted for ahead of their arrival, according to an itinerary provided to the Times.

Each recruit had 20 minutes scheduled for a one-on-one meeting with Petersen, who also did separate Built For Life presentations for most of the families. Recruits also had one-on-one sessions with the head strength coach and the head trainer. At various times during the weekend, recruits and their families will take a tour of UW’s main campus; break down game film with an assistant coach; hang out with current UW players; and relax in UW’s recruiting lounge, which features a pool table, a ping pong table and a video-game system that can be played through Husky Stadium’s main video board.

One of the more popular events of a weekend visit has become a photo shoot with recruits in the Husky Stadium locker room. The recruits will try on variations of the Husky uniform, pose for pictures with each other – and on this weekend with Dubs, the Husky mascot – and often share those images on their social-media accounts. (Latu’s post with those images got 103 retweets and 702 likes on Twitter.)

From there, the recruits will head out of the locker room and into the Husky Stadium tunnel, as if preparing to take the field before a big game. In the tunnel, they will be greeted by former UW quarterback Damon Huard, who will huddle the group and give a “pregame” speech, pumping up the recruits just before they charge the field.

Among the weekend highlights: a Friday night dinner at Fogo De Chão, an upscale Brazilian steakhouse in Bellevue; and a Saturday night dinner at Aerlume near Pike Place Market.

Friday’s dinner receipt notes 71 guests, and each guest (be it a recruit, a parent, a coach, a coach’s spouse or a UW support staffer) is logged on a UW accounting form. Among the main dishes: 14 plates of the long bone ribeye (dry-aged for a minimum of 42 days), at a cost of $89 each; 10 chilled seafood towers ($99 each); and 69 “amethyst” dinners ($62 each). The total bill: $8,838 (or $125 per guest).

Saturday’s dinner bill: $7,454.15 (60 guests).

In all, a UW accounting form lists $10,939.65 for “snacks.” That appears to include one cocktail party for recruits’ parents (cost: $7,177.09), several stops for fast-food burgers, and one $415.55 grocery receipt that includes only gum, candy, sports drinks, coffee and 32 bags of beef jerky.

It sure appeared the recruits went home Sunday with stuffed stomachs.

Latu posted a message on Twitter calling it an “amazing!” weekend at the UW. Two and a half days later, he signed on to play for the Huskies.

A new approach?

Petersen abruptly stepped down as UW’s coach on Dec. 2. Assistant Jimmy Lake was promoted to coach. Two weeks later, the Huskies kept all their recruiting commitments for the 2020 class, signing 23 recruits during the December early signing day – a class at the time ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 by 247Sports.com.

As the Huskies’ defensive backs coach and co-defensive coordinator, Lake established himself as one of the Pac-12’s premier recruiters the past six years. How might he distinguish himself now that he’s the driving force behind all the Huskies’ recruiting efforts?

Petersen was famously selective with whom he offered scholarships; he first wanted to get to know a recruit, and he wanted a scholarship from UW to mean more than the average scholarship offer. Huffman said the expectation is Lake will be “less deliberate” than Petersen when it comes to doling out those offers.

“Aggressive” is a word Lake has used already on several occasions to describe how he wants the new-look UW offense to operate on the field.

Will that same aggressiveness cross over to his recruiting strategies – and perhaps to the UW’s recruiting budget?

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