In 2003 one of the nation's top high school recruits pretzeled his large frame into an airplane seat and embarked on his official recruiting visit to Oklahoma State. Though several big-time schools were pursuing him intensely, the recruit was intrigued by the Cowboys. The previous year they had appeared in the Houston Bowl -- their first postseason game in five seasons and just their second in 14 years -- and there was an unmistakable sense of momentum surrounding the program.
When the recruit arrived in Stillwater he received an enthusiastic greeting from two members of Orange Pride, a group made up of female undergrads that is described on the university website as an "organization that donates their time and efforts to assist with Recruiting for Oklahoma State and the Football Program." The women explained that they would be taking him to dinner, the recruit recalls, but first they had a stop to make. A short time later he was having sex with both of them. "Rock 'n' rolling, I had the best of the best -- the aces," says the recruit, who spoke to SI on the record but is not being named to protect the identities of the two women.
Full coverage of SI's special report on the Oklahoma State football program
Hostess programs have been part of college football since the 1960s. Friendly, often attractive students greet recruits, usher them and their parents around campus and promote the virtues of the school. There have long been suspicions about sexual interactions. In 2004 public scandals at Colorado and other schools revealed that sex had been arranged for visiting prospects. Although no formal campus organization was implicated in those cases, several colleges shuttered their hostess programs or rechristened them with less suggestive names. That year the NCAA passed legislation that, in part, prohibited "the use of alcohol, drugs, sex and gambling in recruiting."
Oklahoma State not only kept Orange Pride intact, but by 2004, multiple sources told SI, the group also became a key contributor to the program's rise. Membership in the organization more than tripled; there was a greater emphasis on attracting prettier and more outgoing women; and more than a dozen Cowboys who played from 2001 to '11 told SI that a small number of Orange Pride members had sexual relations with them or with other prospects during recruiting visits. According to the former hostesses who spoke to SI, the vast majority did not have sex with recruits. But for those who did, it proved to be an effective inducement.
SI NOW: A look at Orange Pride, the hostess group at Oklahoma State
"There's no other way a female can convince you to come play football at a school besides [sex]," says Artrell Woods, a Cowboys wide receiver from 2006 to '08, who says he did not have sex with an Orange Pride member on his recruiting visit but was aware of others who did. "The idea was to get [recruits] to think that if they came [to Oklahoma State], it was gonna be like that all the time, with ... girls wanting to have sex with you."
Chantal Drumgole (née Sanders) an Orange Pride member during the 2003-04 academic year says there was a group within the group "and I am not that kind of girl, a groupie that is just about the football players and trying to sleep with the football players." A former Orange Pride hostess from the same year who asked not to be named recalls, "People did cross the line. That's why I was only in the program for one year.?... It was very disturbing. When I found out, that's why I quit."
VIDEO: SI's special report on Oklahoma State
None of the more than 30 former players or the 14 former Orange Pride members who spoke to SI about the group had direct knowledge of a coach or athletic department staff member instructing a hostess to have sex with a recruit. But a former Orange Pride adviser and two former members of the football staff say that coaches sometimes decided which hostesses to pair with which recruits. Also, one former football staff member says that he and at least one other colleague were aware that certain Orange Pride members were having sex with visiting prospects. What's more, Oklahoma State football personnel played a central role in vetting Orange Pride candidates, with Les Miles, who coached the team from 2001 to '04, and current coach Mike Gundy interviewing some applicants -- a practice that does not occur at the three other Big 12 schools that confirmed to SI they had hostess programs.
Asked about his involvement in Orange Pride, Miles responded by email. "The volunteers' role in our program was important and I wanted to stress how seriously we took their duties and responsibilities and the manner in which we expected those students to conduct themselves if they were selected for Orange Pride." As for the role of sex in recruiting, Miles wrote, "I am not aware of this ever happening and am quite sure that no staff member was aware of recruits sleeping with this group of students or any other students."
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Gundy declined to comment on Orange Pride, and university officials accused SI of sensationalizing a small number of alleged sexual encounters between recruits and hostesses. Those officials also say that during Gundy's tenure the program pulled a scholarship offer to a top recruit after an Orange Pride member accused him of unwanted sexual advances. (That alleged incident was never brought to the attention of law enforcement, school officials say.) Oklahoma State, however, did not deny that Orange Pride has played a prominent role in recruiting under Miles and Gundy. Athletic director Mike Holder says a review of the organization might be warranted in the wake of SI's findings.
Former players say that on some occasions the role of sex in recruiting was less than subtle. Chris Wright, a defensive back, says that in early 2001, shortly after Miles and his staff took over, he hosted a recruit. Wright took him to a Stillwater club and to a couple of house parties. When the recruit left campus after the weekend, Wright says he met with Joe DeForest, then the special teams coach, to review the visit. "You didn't do your job," Wright recalls DeForest saying.
Wright says he was confused and asked DeForest to explain. According to Wright, the assistant coach said that when he had asked the recruit if he had sex the night before, the recruit responded that he had not. "He was pissed I didn't get [the recruit] laid," Wright says of DeForest. "He told me I would never host a recruit again."
In an email, DeForest, who remained on the staff through the 2011 season and is now the associate head coach and special teams coordinator at West Virginia, told SI, "I do not recall that conversation ever occurred."
Less than a year after Chris Wright says he was chastised for failing in his role as a host, Thomas Wright (no relation to Chris), a safety from Sweeny, Texas, took his official visit to Oklahoma State. He says that one night during his visit he drank alcohol and smoked marijuana until he passed out. He woke up late in the evening at an apartment, where he had sexual relations with an Orange Pride member who wasn't his official hostess, never bothering to ask her name. "It was amazing," Wright says of his official visit. "It was a different world. You're like, Why wouldn't you go to this school? You get what you want."
Oklahoma State has had a hostess group since at least the 1980s -- the school did not know the precise date of inception -- but multiple sources told SI that the group underwent a significant transformation after Miles replaced Bob Simmons in late 2000. Under Simmons, Orange Pride consisted of about 10 to 15 female students, and they were little more than tour guides. No player can recall Simmons's taking much interest in the group or its personnel. "With Simmons, those girls were just here to make sure recruits got to each place safely [during the day]," says Richard Murphy, a defensive lineman who played in 2000 for Simmons and in '01 for Miles. "Then they sent you with the football players who were going to be your host [at night]."
Orange Pride's growing prominence coincided with the Cowboys' resurgence. By 2002, when the football program began putting pictures of Orange Pride members in its media guide, the group had increased to 48. That year Rivals.com ranked Oklahoma State's recruiting class (including the sought-after Thomas Wright) No. 25 in the nation. The following season, when Orange Pride expanded to 54, the Cowboys' class ranked 15th. (School officials say that this season Orange Pride consists of about 40 members.) To be sure, Orange Pride wasn't solely responsible for that success. Miles was a deft pitchman and assembled a competent staff.
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More than a dozen former players tell SI that Orange Pride not only grew under Miles and Gundy but that its culture also changed. They say that there was a small group within a group that could be counted on to "take care of" prospects. T.J. Minor, a defensive end in 2005 and '06, recalls watching an Orange Pride member at a recruiting party: "As soon as the recruit came in, she was like, Where is he? She just went to town right then. She slept with him on the spot. At the time I was thinking, like, Wow, That's cool. It's part of recruiting."
Of course, recruits also had sexual relations on their visits -- arranged by players -- with female students who weren't members of Orange Pride. During his December 2003 official visit, linebacker-defensive end Rodrick Johnson says a player led him to the room of a woman who performed oral sex on him. "I didn't say two words to her," he says. Johnson, Woods and Calvin Mickens, a cornerback from 2005 to '07, say players also regularly took recruits to another female student who gave them oral sex.
Two other players on their recruiting visits -- one of which was during the same month that Gundy, the offensive coordinator under Miles, was promoted -- say they had sex with Orange Pride members. Linebacker LeRon Furr, who played at Oklahoma State in 2009 and '10, says he didn't sleep with an Orange Pride member on his official visit, but he knew several recruits who did. Says Furr of the small number of hostesses who were having sex with recruits, "Those girls knew that they had to show the players a good time and get them [to Oklahoma State]: sex, going out, alcohol, smoking [marijuana]."
Adds a former staff member, who says that he and at least one other staff member under Miles were aware that a few Orange Pride members were having sex with recruits: "The thing about Stillwater, there's really nothing to do. The guys come on visits. They stay at [a hotel]. The girls would go up, bam, bam, and that was it."
Bond Ferguson (née Munson) was nearing the end of her freshman year at Oklahoma State in 2002 when a senior she knew asked her to consider joining Orange Pride in the fall. (Freshmen aren't eligible.) "We all loved sports," Ferguson says. "She said it was a really neat way to get involved."
Like most of the 14 former Orange Pride members interviewed by SI, Ferguson enjoyed her experience in the group, despite the time and money involved. (She told SI she never had sex with recruits.) Hostesses have to volunteer two hours in the football office each week, answering phones, stuffing envelopes and doing other clerical jobs. They were required to purchase as many as six outfits and had to pay for the candy, cookies, Gatorade and other treats they left in players' lockers.
As a perk, Orange Pride members were given tickets to home games and traveled to some road games. Some hostesses had been cheerleaders or in dance groups in high school; others had played sports. Orange Pride offered them a connection to athletics in Stillwater. "You kind of felt a part of the [football] program," says Ferguson, who at the end of her three years in Orange Pride was given a ring by the athletic department that "matched the football players' rings."
Members of hostess groups are forbidden by NCAA rules from contacting a recruit before he arrives on campus. The first time Orange Pride members and recruits spoke was often when they arrived on campus on Friday night. On game days the hostesses sometimes led recruits and their parents on a campus tour and sat with them during a meal, answering any questions they had about the university or the football program.
Hostesses at Oklahoma State are required to sign two documents, one that states that they will "use appropriate conduct which is required of YOU [underlined] within institutional, Big 12, and NCAA guidelines. You should always use good judgment, common sense and I understand that breaking State Laws is out of our institutional hands." The other says that Orange Pride members will "conduct [themselves] with high standards of ethics and morals." The university says these rules, which strictly prohibit having sex with players or recruits, were instituted in 2008.
In most years Orange Pride had a dedicated coordinator, usually a female member of the football staff; from February 2003 until March '04 it was Shayla Simpson, a recruiting assistant. Simpson says that she, along with a longtime football secretary and possibly a veteran hostess (she could not recall), did an initial screening of candidates. (Then and now, women must submit a photo with their application.) Simpson, the secretary and an assistant coach then met with the most promising candidates.
"Then [Miles] would do an interview," Simpson says. "So [the hostess] really got to meet him, know what his game plan kind of was, talk about what his expectations were.?... It was very important to [Miles]. He knew, yes, we all knew that the beauty helped. I'm not going to lie about that part. It's a picture. It's no different than having a pretty campus. It's no different than having a really big football field. It's part of the whole package, [but] you couldn't be pretty and an idiot and call it good. You had to really understand the game because you couldn't sound like an idiot when you talked to recruits."
Another former football staff member under Miles adds, "One of Les's biggest things, he wanted more personality. I remember our first few recruiting weekends [in 2001], the girls just kind of stood in the corner. They weren't real -personable.?... Was part of it to have pretty girls too? Let's get real."
Asked why she thought the head of a prominent football program would be interviewing potential recruiting hostesses, Ferguson says that Miles "just wanted to know our personalities." Similarly, Kennedy Lewellen got an audience with Gundy before joining the organization in 2008. She recalls his asking her, "What would I say about OSU to try and make recruits come here?" (Lewellen, like Ferguson, told SI she never had sex with recruits.)
After the women were interviewed by Miles, Simpson says, he listed his top candidates. "For the most part, he would kind of pick.?... We would all kind of sit down and concur."
Simpson says "we did have coaches who would request [certain hostesses]." The pairing decisions were typically made by an assistant coach. Under Miles, Josh Henson, the team's tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, says he handled the assignments. Henson told SI he was not aware of any incidents during which a hostess had sex with a recruit.
One former staff member under Miles who also says he had no direct knowledge of hostesses sleeping with recruits acknowledged that this might have been an unintended, though not entirely unwelcome, by-product of the expansion of Orange Pride's role in recruiting. "Do [the allegations] shock the hell out of me? No," he says. "I never felt like it was my job to go to them and ask, 'Are you sleeping with this recruit?' At the end of the day that's their own personal choice.?... It was kind of like that thing where you're scared to go digging."
"What knowledge would a female student have about campus, about the academics and the football program that a male student wouldn't have?" asks Melanie Page, a psychology professor at Oklahoma State since 1998. "You don't need to have a beautiful woman in that role."
Coaches across the country would disagree, and Oklahoma State is not the only school to have its hostess program come under scrutiny in recent years. In December 2008, The New York Times reported that hostesses at LSU sat on the laps of recruits. (The Tigers' coach then, as now, is Les Miles.) In 2011 the NCAA concluded that Tennessee violated rules when it paid for three members of its hostess program -- also called Orange Pride -- to travel to a high school game in South Carolina that featured players Tennessee was recruiting. Tennessee hostesses also contacted recruits through Facebook and other social networking sites. (In neither of those cases were the LSU or Tennessee hostesses alleged to have had sex with recruits.)
On the surface, what allegedly occurred at those schools and with the small number of Orange Pride members and recruits in Stillwater might appear harmless. But is it? Players told SI there was a sense of entitlement among teammates, that they felt that the women on campus existed for their pleasure. Says Katherine Redmond Brown, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, "Things like hostess programs are a big part of that toxic conditioning."
Says Page: "I was a student manager for the [wrestling] team in high school, and I remember how cool that felt to be part of a program. A lot of women's self-esteem is tied to the attention they receive from the opposite sex. If you are putting women in a position like that [with Orange Pride], even if the sex is voluntary, those women are still being taken advantage of."
Asked if she could see the school abolishing Orange Pride, Page says, "A lot of blind eyes are turned at OSU." She adds, "It would take one statement from Mike Gundy to begin that shift. He is a powerful and charismatic figure, and he has the power to shut down [Orange Pride], to send a clear message that we are not about putting young women in that position [and that] we respect women and want to function at the highest level of ethics."