In this dog-eat-dog world of college football, it appears not everyone is playing fair on the recruiting trail.
The NCAA transfer portal and lucrative name, image and likeness (NIL) deals have brought on what Jake Dickert calls "immense challenges" for Washington State. The Cougars' head coach aired his frustrations this week, calling attention to invasive recruiting tactics that he said other schools have employed in attempts to poach WSU players.
"There's more tampering going on than you could ever imagine," Dickert said Monday. "We've had guys contact our players' parents. We had a coach from another school contact one of our players and offer him NIL (benefits) — a coach.
"You can't even imagine the things that are happening behind the scenes right now to try and pry our players away from this place."
The NCAA approved an NIL policy in July 2021, allowing athletes to market themselves and earn compensation. There were suddenly no rules preventing college standouts from signing endorsement deals, cashing in on their personal brands and getting payouts for bringing major value to their programs.
Big-name programs with deep pockets — or, rich donor-backed collectives — have an advantage in the NCAA's top-heavy version of a free-agency market.
It may be one thing to tempt players with NIL deals if they are undecided prep recruits, or already in the portal and searching for best offers. But it appears some recruiters are jumping the gun, dangling NIL packages in front of players to draw them into the portal.
"It's stunning. It's amazing," Dickert said. "It's the new thing that I guess comes with this portal transformation, but it's not right. Who's regulating this stuff? There's challenges we're facing that I obviously am extremely disappointed with — what other teams and other programs (are doing), and the collectives maybe acting on their own behalf.
"To try to get our players' parents, and offer them money and opportunities and stuff, it's unacceptable to me."
Officially, it's not allowed. But tampering was already an issue before NIL came along.
"Recruiting a player from a college team before he enters the portal is against NCAA rules, but even now, it happens in rampant fashion," Sports Illustrated's Ross Dellenger wrote in April 2021. "With transfers eligible immediately and a pending NIL rule looming on the sport, officials expect even more illegal recruitment."
Robbie Tobeck, a former WSU offensive lineman who played center in the NFL for 14 seasons, helped launch the "Cougar Collective" last year to facilitate NIL deals for WSU athletes. He's been dealing with outside competition recently.
"I've had multiple players tell me they are approached all the time," Tobeck tweeted in response to a video of Dickert's tirade about shady NIL practices. "It's time to get control of the tampering @NCAA."
Nearly 2,000 college football players have entered the transfer portal since the start of the month, according to SportSource Analytics.
The Cougars have lost 12 players to the portal since the end of their regular season.
Eight of them hadn't earned significant playing time at WSU and entered the portal to explore their opportunities elsewhere. Dickert has no qualms with that.
The other departures were a bit puzzling. Four Cougars decided to leave the program despite having locked up key roles.
Francisco Mauigoa and Travion Brown, who shared reps at middle linebacker this season, both entered the portal earlier this month.
Mauigoa took an official visit to Miami last weekend. Mauigoa's younger brother, Francis, is a five-star offensive tackle who is committed to Miami.
Brown visited USC this weekend, according to a report from On3.
De'Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie, two-year starters at the outside receiver positions, both entered the portal Dec. 6.
A day later, Stribling received offers from Utah and Oklahoma State. The sophomore committed to Oklahoma State on Monday. Ollie announced an offer Monday from Fresno State — the team WSU will face in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl on Saturday at SoFi Stadium.
The Cougars (7-5) will ride out the postseason with a shorthanded roster and a limited staff.
Three WSU assistants have been lured out of Pullman this month. Offensive coordinator Eric Morris accepted the head-coaching job at North Texas on Monday. Defensive coordinator Brian Ward is taking the same position at Arizona State, and edges coach A.J. Cooper is also joining the Sun Devils.
Dickert was asked how his team has handled the recent attrition.
"When things started shuffling around, we talked about putting a stake in the ground," he said. "You gotta stand for something. I think that's important. You stand for each other, most importantly. The biggest thing I said, 'You need strength, look at me. I'm going to show you strength. Let's keep going.'
"You're seeing the energy and the vibe, it's back. It's where we need it to be."
Team captains such as receiver Lincoln Victor and edge rushers Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. have "done a really good job of keeping the group together and keeping us focused," guard Grant Stephens added.
After their bowl game, the Cougars will make their final preparations for the NCAA's early signing period, which opens Wednesday. NIL and the transfer portal affected WSU this month, and the Cougars might not enjoy the same funding advantages as other Power Five programs, but perhaps the team can use the portal and NIL to its advantage. A few of WSU's top players this season were transfers who captured NIL deals, including All-Pac-12 linebacker Daiyan Henley (Nevada) and quarterback Cameron Ward (Incarnate Word).
"I was in the portal at one time, so I support the guys who are transferring," Ward said. "They gotta do what's best for them and I wish them nothing but the best, but we're moving on with the guys who want to stay here."
The Cougar Collective is asking for support to reward dedicated Cougars, attract new talents and keep players in Pullman. (Contributions can be made at www.cougarcollective.org.)
"The game is changing," Dickert said in late October when asked for his thoughts on NIL. "We encourage it and we're excited about the future of it. The biggest message to Cougs everywhere is: It's time to engage. ... When we lose a player because someone else gave them money and we want to react, let's engage. Let's accept the moment and let's evolve with the current landscape.
"Cougs have always responded and we're asking Cougs to respond now more than ever."