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The untold history of the cookie cake, recruiting's must-have dessert

Great American Cookies

Check the social media page of any top recruit between August and the end of January, and chances are you'll find a picture of a cookie cake. The pizza-sized cookie, precisely frosted around the edges, almost always bearing the name of a college, is ubiquitous this time of year.

When a recruit arrives at campus on an official visit, his hotel is adorned with snacks, beverages and, almost always, a well-thought-out cookie cake.

How did we get here? How did the cookie cake become the recruiter's go-to confection?

"I think nobody probably knows where it started, but everybody has seen other schools doing it, so they started it," Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. "I think everybody in the country does that or something similar to it. Now it's a staple to pretty much all official visits."

As clouded in mystery as the origins are, the few coaches who remember say cookie cakes had their humble origins at Army, of all places, when Bob Sutton became head coach in 1991.

Sutton knew that West Point could be foreboding to recruits and going there to play football could be intimidating. Sutton and his recruiting coordinator, Tim Mingey, wanted to humanize and personalize the experience for visiting prospects.

What better way to do that than with cookies?

"It's not an elaborate thing. It's a core, down-to-earth, basic thing," Sutton said. "We were going to come at you at the most basic level. The human side of recruiting is how I would put it, that it's nothing fancy, but it made things a little more friendly."

At the time, all West Point cadets were receiving boodle boxes, which were essentially goody bags full of snacks and treats. It wasn't easy to get off campus, so a woman named Angela, who worked in the kitchen at West Point, put together boodle boxes for the cadets.

Mingey and Sutton thought the boxes worked well for the cadets, so why not try them with recruits? The cookies Angela baked for the cadets were increased in size, so the visiting prospects could take them back to their hotels or their sponsors' homes on campus and eat them all weekend.

The prospects would take a tour of campus then head to the football offices, where, in the lounge area, a cookie cake was waiting for them.

"It wasn't the most glamorous thing you could do on recruiting trips, but it was kind of like comfort," Sutton said. "That's a cookie. I love those. No matter where you're from, everyone loves cookies."

Recruiting is a constant battle of advantages and one-upmanship. Like a scheme or blitz package or pass play, if it works, another coach is going to steal it. Cookie cakes are no different. Coaches change jobs and exchange ideas. Recruits talk and compare what one school did for them and what another didn't. And so, the cookie cake as recruiting tool spread.

"Cookies are still cookies. Kids love cookies."

Former Army coach Bob Sutton

It eventually made its way to Toledo after Gary Pinkel took over for the Rockets in 1991. Even there, its genesis gets a little fuzzy. Pinkel's defensive coordinator, Tom Amstutz, believes that current Utah State offensive coordinator David Yost brought the cookie cake with him when he became the Rockets' recruiting coordinator in 1996.

Like at West Point, it was all about comfort.

"My thoughts were, we wanted to make the recruits feel a part of our family, and who do you share cookies with but your family?" Amstutz said. "I am a cookie person, so I knew right away this was a hit. Who doesn't love a cookie, and who doesn't love a giant cookie more?"

The Rockets got their cookie cakes from the Great American Cookies store in Franklin Mall near Toledo's campus. Great American Cookies now has 14 franchised stores in college markets and five on-campus stores.

The company also has its place in cookie cake recruiting lore.

In 2014, South Carolina self-reported a minor NCAA violation for putting recruits' names on cookie cakes. It was suddenly an "impermissible icing" scandal.

With social media, most of what a recruit sees during his process and thinks is exciting will be posted to his accounts. That includes cookie cakes. While the cakes began humbly, as a personal touch on recruiting visits, the publicity has made them a staple, almost a requirement, for every recruiting visit.

That's why, now, they're just another frosted weapon in the recruiting arms race. And for coaches, it's more free marketing to other recruits.

"Fifteen years ago when you did it, you were just hoping [a recruit] and his family loved it as they ate it and talked to their friends about it," former Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "Nowadays, anything that can get you out there on social media with a tweet, a Snapchat, Instagram, if you hit that world, you hit a home run. That's where it becomes really important that you're doing something different than everyone else when they walk into their hotel room."

In recruiting, the search for the next big thing means that sweet treats have to evolve. That is exactly why Scott said Clemson decided to move away from cookie cakes, instead using gourmet cupcakes for official visitors. Recruits, always a fickle audience, have grown tired of cookie cakes now that every program in the country is using them.

A few years ago, a few staff members approached the Clemson coaches about switching it up but still using desserts to stay in the game. Scott and the other coaches liked the idea, and they found a local bakery to create unique, gourmet cupcakes for each recruit who makes his way to Clemson.

"For us, you're always looking for something new, a new way to improve or change something up," Scott said. "We've had more people complement us on the cupcakes than the cookie cakes because it became something everyone was doing everywhere. So I think they appreciated something different."

Each year, schools spend millions on recruiting -- even flying helicopters to high school games -- but as coaches race to be ahead of the pack and focus group which desserts to serve their recruits, the original titan, the cookie cake, can't be forgotten.

Sutton doesn't know for sure if he and Mingey were the two who started the craze, but he knows that it worked for them at Army. Sometimes the most complex process can be turned into something so simple.

"Cookies are still cookies," Sutton said. "Kids love cookies."