“I just felt comfortable putting almost my life – my football life – into these coaches’ hands more than the other coaches’ hands. It’s not a bad thing that you went from a MAC school to a Big East school. I mean, do you want to fight to get into the Top 25, or do you want to fight to win a national championship? Of course, I’m a competitor and that’s what I chose to do.” – Cody Kater, January 2010, on his decision to de-commit from Central Michigan and sign a letter of intent to play at Cincinnati. A few weeks earlier, Butch Jones had left CMU to become the Bearcats head coach.
Cody Kater recalls saying it. All of it. Like it was yesterday.
“That sounds exactly like what coach Jones was saying to me,” Kater says, more than three and a half years later.
Butch Jones had told him of the grand plans. The bright lights of the city, winning a Big East title, and a shot at the BCS national championship.
Kater, an impressionable 17-year-old in his senior year of high school, wouldn’t get that chance in Mount Pleasant, Jones said. But he would in Cincinnati.
“These guys like you, they offer you, why don’t you follow them to a bigger school and do bigger things?,” Kater recalls. “That’s what your parents think, and that’s what the town thinks. And the town was pushing me to go big, too.”
At Montague High School, Kater was used to being “the guy.”
There, he started three seasons at quarterback, leading the football team to back-to-back Division 6 state championships in 2008-09 and still holds the school’s all-time scoring record in basketball.
But in a town with a population of less than 3,000, it’s hard to get noticed. It took a state title in 2008, after losing in the semis the season before, to drum up interest from schools.
And it came fast and furious, led in summer 2009 by Butch Jones and his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Mike Bajakian. They called Kater and his parents frequently, attended his games and were the first to offer him a football scholarship. They made it known that he was a priority for their 2010 CMU football team.
“They were very personable, very friendly, kind of took us in – and it wasn’t just Butch. It was all of the coaches,” said Dee Kater, Cody’s mom. “We knew all the coaches. They knew about us, and we knew about them.”
Other schools (Northwestern, Cincinnati under Brian Kelly, several other MAC schools) offered Kater scholarships to play football, but he had different reasons for turning each down. The school wasn’t right, he wasn’t sure about the coaching staff, or he didn’t feel like he would have a shot with the guys ahead of him.
In reality, he was dead set on playing for Jones at CMU.
Then came the call, an early December morning. It was Jones, to inform the Katers that he had signed a contract to become the football coach at Cincinnati. While media reports at the time said Jones’ phone call was to encourage Cody to de-commit from CMU and follow him to Cincinnati, Dee Kater insists that it was to only to tell them that he was moving on.
“He talked to me first,” she said. “And the minute I heard his voice – because we were paying attention to all the things on TV about him being interviewed here and there – I kind of knew he was going to tell us something.”
In an interview following Saturday’s team scrimmage, Cody declined to discuss the call.
A month later, Cody took an official visit to Cincinnati and later signed a letter of intent to play football there. It surprised some who thought he had his heart set on CMU the school, not the coaching staff. But Cody says there were too many unknowns with incoming coach Dan Enos: It was his first season as a head coach, and he hadn’t hired a quarterbacks coach yet.
So he stuck with what he knew and who he knew. Had he listened to his gut, he later admits, things might have turned out differently.
‘I wasn’t in the right place’
Even after his official in January 2010, Kater wasn’t sure about Cincinnati.
It was big and different from what he had been accustomed to. Right after moving there that summer, a shooting happened a few blocks from his residence hall.
“Growing up in a small town, the only college campuses that I went to were campuses like (CMU),” Kater said. “You’ve got your student life, but not in the city. It just wore on me, dragged on me, for a really long time.”
And there was Camp Higher Ground, a practice facility in rural Indiana where the Bearcats go every summer for preseason camp. Cody thought he came down with mono, Dee said, and had to miss workouts.
And Jones began to change, she said. He yelled at him constantly, vulgarities included, and wasn’t the Mr. Nice Guy they came to know.
“They just weren’t the same friendly guys that they had been before,” Cody said. “Before, they had gone out of their way to make sure they talked to you. And then, once we were down there, it wasn’t the same kind of thing anymore.”
As the season went on, he struggled. Even his brother, Kyle, 29, living two hours away in Indianapolis wasn’t enough to convince him to stay. Dee said she and her husband, Brad, thought Cody was just homesick and encouraged him to at least finish out the season and fall semester.
“You can just feel yourself changing as a person, being more depressed, more slow about everything. Questioning everything,” Cody said. “You start realizing that, and as the season went on, my parents wouldn’t talk to me about it anymore. I said I didn’t like it, and they wouldn’t talk about it.”
Finally, Cody had enough. He called his high school football coach at Montague, Pat Collins, for advice on what to do. During the final three weeks of the semester, Kater walked into Jones’ office and told him he wanted out.
Jones, like most coaches would, told him no and to persevere.
“I don’t think it was all Butch’s fault,” Collins said. “There were some naive actions on our end, and we weren’t ready for that process. There are different styles of coaches out there. There are guys that when you go there, they are still very sincere guys. They’re still connected and very successful. And there are guys who are hard coaches. They rip you up and down and don’t give you one bit of love once you’re on campus, and they believe that’s the best way to get the most of you.”
Collins helped Cody find a place to transfer. CMU and Michigan State were both out of scholarships for the year, but Grand Valley State University was willing to offer him a full scholarship right away. Cody was a bit reluctant, worried that he might get stuck at the Division 2 level.
He felt like he was a Division 1 player and eventually wanted to return. Grand Rapids Community College and coach Tony Annese offered him the chance to play right away. Annese knew Kater from high school, having coached the basketball team at Whitehall, Montague’s rival.
“I played football my whole life, then they redshirt you and you just practice,” Kater said. “You don’t know your ability because you’re just getting crushed on by 22 and 23-year-olds, so you don’t know what you’re doing anymore. At GRCC, I just wanted to prove I could still play football, throw the football around a little bit.”
And did he ever throw the ball around. Kater led GRCC to a perfect 11-0 record in 2011, throwing for more than 2,200 yards and 19 touchdowns, with another nine touchdowns on the ground.
He was back on the map, and receiving offers again. San Diego State wanted him, Florida International offered him, and UConn showed interest. Then came a call from Dan Enos, a coach he turned down publicly two years earlier.
Enos was ready to offer him a scholarship. Kater, ready to come back — ready to start over — happily obliged.
“When he was a senior in high school, then when I met with him after his year at GRCC, it was like talking to a different person,” Enos said. “I went from talking to a boy to talking to a man.”
Kater was brought in last year to provide competition for starter Ryan Radcliff. But in reality, it wasn’t close. He only played a handful of snaps, going 2-for-4 for a whopping 12 yards, because he hadn’t mastered the offense.
In his defense, though, it was the third offensive system he had to learn in three seasons.
“I wasn’t ready,” Kater said. “I had those types of nerves. You don’t know what’s going on, you don’t get the whole grasp of everything that’s going on. And you don’t feel prepared in your mind.”
Now, he has no doubt that he’s prepared. He’s had to undergo constant scrutiny and pressure since the spring, when Radcliff graduated and Enos declared a quarterback competition for the 2013 season. Before he was named starter last week, he was prodded and bugged by friends and family.
Looking back on his journey, Cody realizes he’s made mistakes. His family and support system, too. Big ones. Instead of going with his instincts, he let his emotions and relationship with Jones’ staff take precedent.
But on Saturday, in front of more than 100,000 people at Michigan Stadium, the spotlight on Kater — at least temporarily — returns. It’ll be the junior’s first start at the Division 1 level, some three years after telling Enos no.
Kater has learned a lot. He’s seen a lot. He’s been told a lot.
So, when Collins tried telling him he’s been a part of plenty of big games in his life?
“I think this game’s a little bit bigger,” Kater said.