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At the pinnacle of Cottonwood High School's football success, an inside joke made its way through coaching circles and opposing sidelines.

Star players on the Colts' roster, the joke went, traveled to expensive camps and prospective colleges on a private jet owned by donor and offensive coordinator Scott Cate. Mess up in a game, however, and a player was off the plane.

In reality, few, if any, Cottonwood players ever saw the inside of one of Cate's jets. But Cate, a wealthy telecommunications entrepreneur who estimated he poured more than $5 million into Cottonwood's program before a new school policy was enacted earlier this year, acknowledges buying tickets to fly players around the country and providing for other needs, such as tutoring to keep their grades up — all with little scrutiny from school officials. Cate also admits he paid assistant coaches whom Cottonwood otherwise would not have gotten.

Yet the former University of Utah quarterback insists he did nothing wrong despite new Granite School District rules that prevent anyone who donates more than $499 a year from active participation in programs. The change led an insulted Cate to withdraw all support from Cottonwood last summer.

"For me, it was no different than going to work as a counselor or a teacher," he said. "It's my way of giving back to my community. You take rough-edged kids and get them degrees. If there's a nefarious underpinning here, where is this thing I'm supposedly getting?"

Program falls apart • Cate's football prowess and deep pockets over 13 years transformed the Colts' program from perennial basement dweller to stunning success. Cottonwood never earned a state title, but it won plenty of games and made it to the state finals in 2004 and 2008.

At least 31 players went on to play Division I college football, and many more feel they gained much from playing football for the Colts.

This past spring, though, the program fell apart. Head coach Josh Lyman resigned, accused of an inappropriate relationship with a student. One assistant coach was booted from the team; a drunken driver killed another. Finally, Cate himself left in a bitter divorce with hard-to-swallow consequences for all involved. The team this year — despite fielding seven Division I recruits — ended the season 3-8.

To this day, many people don't understand why a millionaire would give his money to a high school football program. What did Cate get from his time at Cottonwood?

"For me, football was a religion," he said. "Every day, I had 100 kids who I could impact by teaching them lessons through the game of football. The football field was my church."

"Gives nothing away for free" • Cate sold his company and retired with a fortune at 35. He had decided to try coaching when a friend suggested he approach Cottonwood.

What Cate saw at the school his children attended discouraged him. At halftime, parents descended on the locker room to coach their own sons. He felt the meddling went too far.

He saw value in running the program as a business.

"I was able to liberate the program from parents who gave money, then wanted their kids to play," he said. "Because we had money, we were able to say, 'Hey, your kid is going to play based on whether he's good or not.' "

Cate's rules were simple: Work hard. Study hard. The best players played.

Former players said it was not fun, but it wasn't supposed to be. They were asked to lift weights and condition for two hours daily. Coaches instituted a rigorous tutoring and study-hall program and tracked grades. Those who followed the rules earned Cate's attention.

"The man gives nothing away for free," said Tony Trujillo, a linebacker from the 2006 class who went to Illinois State. "People outside the program think Cottonwood has been given everything. He always made it an obligation: If you deserve things, I will give them to you."

And give he did. Richly.

Cate rebuilt facilities to match the program he envisioned: a press box, a baseball field, a softball field and a concession stand. He maintained a beautiful grass field before replacing it with turf. He remodeled the weight room and brought in top-of-the-line electronic and training equipment. Cottonwood coaches got laptops to review film and study plays.

One big draw of the program was that Cate paid a company to film all practices and games, then cut up highlight tapes for individual players. He would get the tapes online or even mail them directly to college assistants, helping bring exposure to Utah recruits.

"We had the same film service that the Dallas Cowboys used," Cate said. "For years, people gave me grief that I was just marketing the kids. That was the point."

Cate also recruited college assistants to help build the program. He paid them to tutor and gave them tuition money. Some of the coaches went to clinics in Las Vegas where Cate covered all expenses.

When school officials heard Cate was paying assistants, they asked him to stop. He stubbornly plugged on, unable to see a problem with his approach.

Former players saw Cate as the businessman he is. He asked all players to be 10 minutes early to meetings. He taught them the value of finishing work before starting play, and getting through tough times to eventually taste rewards.

"Even now, Scott's kind of the voice in my head, telling me to grind," said Matt Martinez, a linebacker who eventually walked on at the University of Utah. "He did that with everybody he coached. He never showed up unprepared. And people who say he was too tough as a coach haven't been around a real hard-ass."

Ultimately, any internal complaints were dismissed by the on-field product.

"We would hear grumbling," former assistant coach Jodi Thompson said. "But like anything else when you're winning, those grumblings get shouted down."

A plea for help • Although Cate denies actively recruiting players, talent certainly found its way to Cottonwood.

The program's most successful players — fullback Stanley Havili, lineman John Martinez and quarterback Cooper Bateman — all came from outside the school boundaries. Martinez and Havili went on to play for USC. Martinez is a junior there; Havili now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. Bateman will enroll at Alabama.

Cate said his relationship with Havili began with a plea for help from his family. Embroiled in his own legal troubles, Sione Havili asked Cate to take his younger brother under his wing.

Cate worked out with Stanley Havili and gave him rides home from practice while he was at East High but insists he did not recruit him. Havili said he only transferred because his family thought it would be good for him, and he agreed.

Most coaches agree Havili's transfer from East initiated the stream of players who would follow.

Cate's "heart was in the right place, but it was like field of dreams: If you build it, they will come," former Murray coach Dan Aragon said. "I don't know if they recruited in the first place, but what they did over there certainly changed the landscape. It was kind of an arms race."

No one had quite the war chest Cottonwood did, and as a result, the Colts enjoyed success. In 2002, the team was 1-10. By 2004 it was 10-4 and earned a trip to the finals, breaking a streak of 15 losing seasons.

Between 2004 and 2011, Cottonwood accumulated a 72-25 record, more wins than in the previous 24 seasons. More importantly, its stars went on to top college programs. Seeing the success, more families streamed in via open enrollment or transfers from Murray, Glendale and West Valley City.

Competing coaches complained. Some felt forced to re-evaluate their programs.

At East, then-coach Aaron Whitehead tried to emulate Cottonwood while still maintaining a community-based program. East built a new field and began tracking grades.

"When we lost Stanley Havili and other kids, I had to ask myself, 'What are they doing that we aren't?' " Whitehead asked. "For us, it was about keeping our kids. We tried to build a program that was competitive that also allowed kids to play with their friends they grew up with."

Some Cottonwood-area kids transferred to nearby schools, convinced they'd never play behind incoming talent. Aragon said two of the best defensive backs Murray ever had, Clayton King and Tez Allums in 2006, lived within Cottonwood boundaries.

A source familiar with the program who wished to avoid reprisal from those loyal to Cate said the transfers tended to have an upper hand.

"The underlying culture was that the kids who came from out of the boundaries were favored, like they were shiny and new," the source said. "Anybody who was in boundary was at a serious disadvantage."

"My head was blown up" • Kaisa Kinikini is among those who privately questioned the lessons some players learned at Cottonwood.

Kinikini is Havili's uncle and also the uncle of Simi Fili, another player who crossed boundaries to play for Cate.

Cottonwood's reputation for providing tutors and other amenities appealed to Fili's mother, Le'o Fili. She believed she'd found a school where her son could focus on academics, develop his athletic ability and stay free from gangs.

But Simi Fili seemed content to coast academically and assume his future in football would carry him, his uncle said.

"To me, he bought them out," Kinikini said of Cate. "They used our [Pacific Islander] kids to build a program, then they cared nothing about them."

As a Cottonwood defensive lineman in 2007, Fili was the state's top prospect and committed to play at the University of Oregon. But academic missteps kept Fili from competing at Oregon. He attended four community colleges before landing a scholarship at East Central Community College in Decatur, Miss., where he was gearing up for the 2011 football season before he again returned to Salt Lake City, where he said he is training for "The World's Strongest Man" competition.

Fili said his mistakes were his own.

"What happened is that I was just a naive high school football player. I was thinking that I was an All-American [and didn't need to work on my grades]. My head was blown up," Fili said.

Fili said friends at other schools were jealous Cottonwood players had professional-looking highlight tapes to send to colleges thanks to Cate. Fili thinks critics simply are envious of Cate's success.

Havili credits Cate with helping him achieve his NFL dreams.

"He's like my second dad, and I know a lot of those other players feel the same way," Havili said. "A lot of first-generation Polynesians have parents who don't understand the system. People like Scott Cate who get us scholarships and opportunities — that's the reason our parents came to America."

"I might have gone quietly" • Cate believes he's now a victim of his own lofty aspirations.

He knows some parents aren't happy with how things turned out for their sons. Cate clashed with some who sent their sons to Cottonwood seeking scholarships and complained when they didn't get playing time.

"There were several parents who claimed Scott was racist against white kids, which is interesting because Scott is white," said Vicki Johnson, a former booster club president. "My son is not a starter, and he got a lot out of the program."

The school district insists the new policy was not aimed at Cate. To him, that stand would be laughable if it weren't so maddening.

"I was told I would have to go before they even voted to put the rule in place," he said. "If they had said, 'Hey, let's work this out. We're going to give you a little respect,' I might have gone quietly."

Instead, Cate expressed his frustration by taking back anything he could load in his truck: tackling dummies, footballs, computers, video equipment. He stored them but then heard about problems at East, the No. 1-ranked team, which this year forfeited games for fielding ineligible players. He donated his equipment to the Leopards out of sympathy.

"I wanted to give it to someone who appreciated it," Cate said. "They appreciated it very much."

"It's a travesty" • On the day Cate left, Cottonwood hired former Dixie State coach Greg Croshaw, who walked into a hurricane.

Croshaw inherited a talent-rich but low-depth roster with high expectations and an equipment shed with no footballs.

Despite a roster of all-stars, including Bateman, the Colts couldn't win. An exit in the first round of the playoffs was the lasting legacy of a group that boasted seven Division I commits.

"It was definitely a shock," Bateman said. "We kept battling all year but just fell really short. You can't really point a finger at anyone."

Not everyone shared that stand. Midseason, some parents went to the administration asking that Croshaw be fired.

Even those who believed the new coaching staff should be given a chance have issues with how the transition was handled.

"I like what Scott did. I don't know why he did it, but I don't see a lot of bad from it," said Fred Anderson, whose son is a junior.

Many are waiting to see how Croshaw and his staff respond to a fresh start and a full offseason, but several parents see an inevitable downward spiral for the program.

"It's a travesty that the school district took advantage of a man's generosity and then sent him packing," Johnson said. "The kids were the ones who got the short end of the stick, and that's sad."