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(Tribune file photo) What did Scott Cate, shown here in a 2010 football practice, get out of donating millions of dollars? “Every day, I had 100 kids who I could impact by teaching them lessons through … football. The football field was my church.”
Cottonwood benefactor built football program into success, only to be told to leave
Prep football » As grown-ups debate the booster’s deeds, former players have his back.
First Published Dec 30 2012 01:01 am • Last Updated Apr 08 2013 11:34 pm

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.

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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?

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"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.

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