Calvin Mickens was elated. The freshman cornerback from Beaumont, Texas, had just appeared in his first college game, Oklahoma State's 2005 season-opening 15-10 home victory over Montana State, and he had performed well, forcing a fumble, breaking up a pass and making two tackles. In the locker room, as Mickens and his teammates shed their gear, a man he had never seen before approached and handed him cash. "I was like, Wow, this is the life!" Mickens says. "I'm 18, playing football, and I just got $200."
Mickens says he received several similar postgame handoffs from other boosters during his first season in Stillwater. After a 62-23 loss at Texas A&M in which he had an interception, Mickens recalls getting $800 in the locker room from a different man. At the time he didn't consider that he was violating NCAA rules. He saw other teammates receiving similar gratuities and assumed they were the perks of playing for a big-time program.
In separate interviews seven other former Cowboys told SI they received cash payments; 29 other OSU players were named by teammates as having also taken money. Those payments, which stretched from 2001 to at least '11, were primarily delivered three ways: a de facto bonus system based on performances on the field, managed by an assistant coach; direct payments to players from boosters and coaches independent of performance; and no-show and sham jobs -- including work related to the renovation of Boone Pickens Stadium -- that involved at least one assistant coach and several boosters. "They figure if a player shines and you pat him on the back in an obtainable way, he's going to do whatever he can to keep getting that paper," says Javius Townsend, a redshirt offensive lineman during the 2010 season, who says he did not take payments but knew of others who did.
Not all Oklahoma State players were rewarded. Former Cowboys who spoke to SI estimated that between 15 and 20 players received money under the table in any given year, meaning that many contributors, including starters, never saw a dime. Why were some paid and not others? Often it was a willingness to request money. Players who sought financial assistance were often directed by teammates or sometimes a member of the coaching staff to a generous benefactor; in some instances they were paid on the spot.
Some players received $2,000 annually and others around $10,000, multiple players told SI; a few stars allegedly received $25,000 or more. Often lost in the discussion about whether college football players should receive more than room, board and a scholarship is that some already are compensated, in violation of NCAA rules. At a school like Oklahoma State the desire to create a national-title contender spawned a widespread bonus program, and it paid dividends: Since 2002 the Cowboys have had 10 winning seasons out of 11, and in 2011 finished No. 3 in the country, the highest final ranking in the program's 111-year history. "It was just like in life when you work," says Thomas Wright, a defensive back from 2002 to '04. "The better the job you do, the more money you make."
In 2003 cornerback Darrent Williams keyed a 38-34 home victory over Kansas State, returning an interception 63 yards for a touchdown. After the game, defensive tackle Brad Girtman says he saw a football staff member hand Williams an envelope. This, by itself, was not unusual. After home games players get a per diem of around $15; after away games the NCAA allows them to receive an amount equal to what the university allots for any athletic department employee on a work trip.
But this envelope was fatter, and it was packed with bills. "I saw that one," says Girtman, who played in Stillwater from 2003 to '04. "I was like, Holy s---." To that point, Girtman says, the most he had received for his performance was $500, from a member of the football staff. "I was getting paid on the low end," Girtman says. "Some of those guys got monster payments."
Bonuses were delivered in a variety of ways, multiple players told SI. Sometimes players got extra money in their per diem envelopes, which were usually distributed by low-level football staff members. On other occasions an envelope with money was waiting for them in their locker the day after a game. Wright says that if a player found a new pair of socks in his locker postgame, there was a good chance some cash was inside one of them. "It was crazy," he says of the payouts to some of the most prominent players. "They were getting money like out of control. It was as clear as day."
The amount paid for a specific play was not always the same. For Girtman, quarterback hurries were worth $50, a tackle between $75 to $100 and a sack from $200 to $250. Echoing his teammates' claim, Girtman says the rates were told to him by assistant Joe DeForest, who ran the special teams and secondary under coach Les Miles from 2001 to '04, and was the associate head coach, special teams coordinator and safeties coach under current coach Mike Gundy from 2005 to '11. When players met with their position coaches after games, according to Girtman, DeForest would go from group to group and discuss with the players what they had done. "Your stats definitely dictated how much you were getting," Girtman says.
Linebacker-defensive end Rodrick Johnson (2004 to '07) told SI it was openly discussed among teammates that DeForest set rewards of between $100 to $500 for a big play on special teams. Cornerback-wide receiver Chris Wright (2001 to '03) says he saw DeForest hand stacks of bills to certain players. "It depends on who the player was, how many yards they ran for, how many catches they made, how many touchdowns they scored, how many tackles," says Wright, who says he did not take money. "It all depends on performance."
VIDEO: SI's special report on Oklahoma State
DeForest, now the associate head coach and special teams coordinator at West Virginia, says, "I have never paid a player for on-field performance. I have been coaching college football for almost 24 years, and I have built a reputation of being one of the best special teams coordinators and college recruiters in the country based on hard work and integrity."
Girtman, Mickens and Johnson told SI they received bonus payments, and seven other players say they were aware of payouts. Another dozen Cowboys -- including Williams, running back Tatum Bell (2000 to '03), wide receiver Adarius Bowman (2005 to '07), defensive end Victor DeGrate (2003 to '06), quarterback Josh Fields (2001 to '03) and safety Vernon Grant (2002 to '04) -- were identified by teammates as having received bonuses. Teammates say they knew those players were paid because they witnessed them being handed money and/or those players openly discussed their bonuses.
VIDEO: Behind the investigation
Williams and Bell were particularly voluble. "Not only did he show [the money], he let you know," Johnson says of Williams. "He said, 'If you perform like I perform, you get paid like you're supposed to be paid.'" Running back Seymore Shaw (2002 to '04) says Bell "couldn't keep his mouth shut. He'd get [money] and he'd hurry up and come and tell me."
Williams was shot to death in 2007 while a member of the Denver Broncos; Grant died in a car accident in '05. Bell, DeGrate and Fields all denied getting illicit payments. Bowman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
One of the signature moments of Gundy's nine seasons as coach came in September 2007, when he staunchly defended quarterback Bobby Reid at a postgame press conference. A columnist for The Oklahoman had questioned Reid's maturity, and Gundy responded by shouting at the writer, "He's not a professional athlete, and he doesn't deserve to be kicked when he's down."
VIDEO: The fallout
Johnson (Reid's onetime roommate), Mickens, Shaw and wide receiver Artrell Woods say Reid was a professional athlete, though. They say that Reid had received money earlier in his career, when he was the starting quarterback. (Now an offensive administrative assistant at Oklahoma State, Reid denies receiving money while a player.) By the time of Gundy's rant in 2007, Reid was no longer a starter, and Woods says Reid's bonus money had dried up. Says Woods, "They cut his ass off."
Bob Simmons, the Cowboys' coach from 1995 to 2000, drew a firm line when it came to allowing boosters access to his players. "He wouldn't even let them in the locker room," says QB Andre McGill, who was a freshman during Simmons's final season.
Miles took a more hospitable approach after he arrived in 2001 from the Dallas Cowboys. According to several players, boosters were permitted in the locker room; they were often on team flights and bus trips; they turned up at the training table. The boosters were at their most visible after a big victory, and no win was bigger during Miles's tenure than a 16-13 upset at No. 4 Oklahoma in the teams' regular-season finale of 2001. The Cowboys' victory kept the archrival Sooners from a shot at the BCS title game and sparked OSU's surge under Miles. In the locker room after the game, boosters approached key players and slipped cash into their hands. "We are talking about $500 handshakes," says safety Fath' Carter (2000 to '03), who observed others accepting such payments. (Miles denies that players were paid and says he gave boosters less access to the program, not more.)
Such handouts became more frequent as the team became more successful. Multiple players say it was common for some boosters to walk down the aisle of the team plane or bus and distribute cash-filled envelopes to the best players. Carter says he and other players were handed as much as $100 by adoring boosters as they walked from the Student Union to the stadium on game days. "We would get into the locker room, and guys would say, 'Yeah, Fath', I got one of those handshakes,'" Carter says. These payouts were independent of the performance bonus; players considered them thank you's from passionate fans. "They take care of their cats," says Doug Bond, an offensive lineman from 2002 to '04 who denies receiving payments. "They're not doing it for everybody."
Mickens says he visited a local businessman four times to collect cash, receiving about $500 on each trip. "I'd call him up and say, 'Hey, I need you to look out for me,'" says Mickens. "And he'd be like, O.K., come by." Mickens says Bowman visited the booster with him on several occasions and that Bowman received "way more" money.
Boosters became so pervasive after Miles took over that they began connecting with players even before they arrived on campus. (T. Boone Pickens, the school's most prominent booster, was not implicated in any improprieties by SI's sources.) Shaw says that after he decided to attend Oklahoma State in 2001 as a senior at Shawnee (Okla.) High, a booster gave him between $400 and $500. When Girtman, a prized recruit from Houston's Memorial High, verbally committed in January '03, he says DeForest gave him a list of boosters and their telephone numbers. Girtman recalls that DeForest pointed to one name on the list and said, "If you need anything, call this guy." Girtman says he never contacted the booster.
DeForest and assistant Larry Porter, who was running backs coach from 2002 to '04, also made straight payments to players. Girtman says that when he arrived in Stillwater in the summer of 2003, DeForest handed him a debit card with $5,000 on it, which was periodically refilled. Ricky Coxeff, a cornerback in 2003 and '04, says he waited in the car on several occasions as Williams and Bell visited DeForest at his home and then returned with cash. Shaw says that Porter gave him $100 "four or five times," telling him to use the money to get something to eat. Several weeks before the start of fall camp in '03, Carter says that Porter gave him "a couple hundred bucks" in the locker room so that incoming freshmen Coxeff and defensive lineman Xavier Lawson-Kennedy could stay at Carter's apartment -- before they were allowed under NCAA rules to begin receiving room and board. Lawson-Kennedy confirms that he and Coxeff stayed at Carter's apartment.
DeForest says each of the allegations against him is untrue. Bell denies receiving money from DeForest. In a statement Porter, now the running backs coach at Texas, says, "I've been made aware of the accusations, and I'm disappointed because they are all absolutely not true. None of that ever happened."
In 2006 an internal investigation at Oklahoma revealed that Sooners quarterback Rhett Bomar and offensive lineman J.D. Quinn worked a few hours a week at a car dealership but filed padded time sheets and collected thousands of dollars in unearned income. The players were dismissed from the team in a scandal that rocked Norman. But the Sooners' violations paled next to the bogus jobs 83 miles away, in Stillwater.
Early in his first season Shaw says he went to Miles and told him he needed a car to get to his classes. Shaw says Miles replied, "I can lead you to where you can get some help." Shortly after, Shaw says, he was introduced to Kay Norris, an Oklahoma State graduate affectionately called Momma Norris, who ran the school's athletic museum on campus, Heritage Hall. Shaw says that whenever he needed money while in Stillwater he called her. He says that Norris paid him $400 to take a Christmas tree out of her attic, and that numerous times she paid him $700 to clean the floorboards of rental houses. "I was there about an hour," Shaw says of each cleaning job.
According to multiple players, though, the generosity of Norris, who died of lung cancer in 2006, was exceeded by that of other Cowboys supporters. John Talley, an area director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, had been close to the football program since at least 2002, when his son, Saul, was a walk-on long snapper. "John Talley was the hot name around campus," Johnson says. "If you needed a job, call John Talley."
Carter, Girtman, Johnson and Thomas Wright each say that Talley either grossly overpaid them for jobs they did or compensated them for jobs they didn't do. They allege that numerous other players benefited from Talley's generosity too. Girtman says Talley paid him $1,500 to $2,000 every two weeks during one summer to work on his horse ranch, far more than the job was worth. Talley could also be counted on to set up speaking gigs for players, paying $100 for a 15- to 20-minute talk. "You might get more depending on who you were," says Shaw. Carter says he and a few other players were once paid by Talley to help shoe horses. Asked if the players did the work, Carter says, "Are you kidding? Most of us hadn't even seen a horse before."
Quarterback Aso Pogi (1999 to 2002) says he and another player lived at Talley's ranch one summer rent-free. In retrospect Pogi says, "It's a big deal. I was the starting quarterback." (Talley says that Pogi lived at his ranch and had to work to cover his rent; Pogi denies that he did any work.)
Talley says that he sometimes paid players a fee for speaking engagements and that they frequently did work on his ranch, noting he always paid an hourly wage. He also says he cleared the speaking fees and the hourly employment through the university's compliance office. "I have paid lots of players to work on my ranch," Talley says. "But I would never pay someone not to work."
OSU compliance director Kevin Fite says of the speaking engagements arranged by Talley, "They were not cleared through our office as paid speaking engagements. In fact, two of my staff members indicated to me that they had had conversations with John and told him you cannot pay for speaking engagements. If you want to employ our student-athletes for other things, that's fine, but you cannot pay them for speaking engagements."
While Fite says the school cleared Talley to employ athletes on his ranch, he acknowledges that Talley's paying in cash "is not something I am comfortable with. I think that's a concern. I would prefer to see it done a different way."
Players also say there were others willing to pay them for little or no work. Coxeff says that he worked in a female booster's yard a half-dozen times during the summer and was paid $100 to $200 each time for "barely doing anything." William Bell, a redshirt defensive end in 2004, says someone from the coaching staff (he doesn't remember who) directed him to a booster who allegedly needed work done at his home. Bell and a teammate arrived at the booster's house and were told that their "job" was to fish for catfish in a pond on the property. "And we got to keep all the fish we caught," says Bell, who says he was paid "a couple hundred dollars" to sit and fish.
Boosters weren't the only ones funneling money to players through dubious work arrangements. Shaw says he accompanied Williams to DeForest's home on a few occasions and witnessed DeForest giving Williams money for jobs he didn't do. "We'd go over to the house, and [Williams] would fake like he's starting up a lawn mower ... so people could see him," Shaw says. "[Then he'd] cut it off. [He'd] start up a Weed Eater. Cut it off. [For that he'd get] $400, $500, $600."
DeForest says he compensated players who worked at his house but always "paid them fair market value based on services rendered." (Oklahoma State's compliance office does not have a record of clearing a player to work for DeForest.)
In the summer of 2007, during the renovation of Boone Pickens Stadium, players signed up for jobs such as moving materials or doing cleanup at the site, for which they were paid an hourly wage. The university says that 17 players worked on the stadium site in '07 and that the school received weekly updates from the contractor on which players worked and how many hours they put in. "There's even in the records an indication of frustration on the part of [the contractor] because guys would show up, work one day, and then they never wanted to work again," Fite says. "Now they weren't paid, but they didn't want to work, and it was hard work." (The contractor says that it did not pay any player for work not performed and that the OSU compliance department monitored the employment of players.)
Some Cowboys remember it differently. Mickens says he was paid for the entire summer but worked at most a week. "I'd sign in and I'd go hide," he says. Johnson says, "I'd show up, sign in, leave," sometimes rubbing dirt on his white T-shirt to make it look as if he'd worked before signing out. Woods says that he and at least 10 others were also paid for work they didn't do.
The $174 million renovation of the stadium and other athletic facilities was an essential element in the building of the Oklahoma State program. So too were illicit payments, players say. This arrangement shrewdly married the two.
In January 2012, the NCAA delayed implementation of a $2,000 expense allowance for scholarship athletes, and a group working on a new proposal has been unable to generate one. For the foreseeable future the money that many, including NCAA president Mark Emmert, acknowledge that athletes need to cover their full cost of attendance will remain stuck in committee.
At Oklahoma State the bonus system, the booster and coach payouts, and the bogus jobs provided players with money that was seldom spent on extravagances. One or two standouts bought a new car or expensive jewelry, team members say, but the vast majority of the players used the extra cash to purchase everyday items -- food, clothing, tickets to a movie. "There were some athletes who were almost starving," says Carter. "Wherever the money came from, they were like, Yeah, I'll take that."