Breakfast was served on the terrace that summer morning, the menu featuring grass-fed New York strip steak, sweet potato hash with diced chicken and chocolate-chip pancakes.
This generous buffet on the UCLA campus in August 2018 befitted a faculty celebration or lavish donor event. It was neither. Instead, the football team gathered to eat before the start of training camp.
Later in the day — after stretching and drills, players launching themselves at tackling dummies — the Bruins returned to the Wasserman Football Center for lunch, choosing from a salmon carving station and Cornish game hen. Dinner that evening included grilled flat-iron steak with balsamic reduction.
“We definitely liked the food,” former linebacker Josh Woods said. “They tried to get us things that everybody would eat.”
This culinary largesse signified an expensive change under new coach Chip Kelly. Upon arriving at UCLA, he more than doubled the previous food budget, spending $2.4 million on non-travel meals in 2018. The following year, that tab doubled again to $5.4 million.
These amounts dwarfed spending at other high-profile programs, raising questions about a UCLA athletic department that reported an $18.9-million deficit last year. Through a public records request, The Times obtained scores of invoices and receipts that shed light on food costs.
Documents show that players dined on Guajillo chili chicken, coffee-braised brisket and pork chops smothered in candied apples and onions. During offseason workouts last year, UCLA spent more than $40,000 to import five barbecue meals from an Arizona restaurant. On other occasions, the program ordered hundreds of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches from a Los Angeles caterer at $4.95 each.
“You can obviously feed an entire football team great and nutritious food for a lot less money,” said David Ridpath, past president of the Drake Group, which advocates for reform in college sports. “UCLA is not that great in football and does this mean a couple extra wins versus, I don’t know, spending $2 million on non-travel food?”
When asked for comment on this story, UCLA athletic officials responded with a statement originally issued last spring, when concerns about spending first arose.
“Over the past several years, UCLA Athletics has made a deliberate effort to increase our investment in our student-athletes,” the statement began. “Among the many places of investment is the important component of nutrition, central to the overall well-being of student-athletes and allowing them to reach their full potential.”
The department cited another reason for increased costs.
The $65-million Wasserman center, which opened in 2017, includes a state-of-the-art locker room and barber shop but no dining hall. The program must pay to have food delivered, arranged on buffet tables on the terrace and kept warm for three, sometimes four, meals a day.
“This is insane.”
Former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma on the team’s current food budget
So far, none of this increased spending has translated into success on the field. The Bruins have gone 7-17 under Kelly. Attendance at the Rose Bowl has declined steadily, hitting a low of 43,849 in 2019. At the same time, ticket revenue has dipped from $19.8 million in 2015 to $12.5 million last season.
“Nutrition is an important ask because it correlates to strength and conditioning,” said a former athletic department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But in the end, recruiting is more important. If you don’t have the players, it doesn’t matter.”
Even before UCLA, Kelly was known for an obsessive approach to nutrition during previous stops at Oregon — the NCAA didn’t require schools to report how much they spent on athlete meals at that point — and at the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, where he famously eliminated “Taco Tuesday” and “Fast Food Friday” as part of a push for healthier eating.
UCLA players say that, after the university signed Kelly to a five-year, $23.3-million contract in late 2017, he immediately asked them what needed to change.
“Me and a lot of the older guys said ‘food,’” Woods recalled. “He went out of his way and asked the administration if we could get more resources.”
Though NCAA rules allow for unlimited meals, under previous coach Jim Mora the program usually provided players one meal each day, supplemented by hearty snacks such as breakfast burritos and personal pizzas. As part of their athletic scholarships, they could also eat on their own at student dining halls.
Sam Kavarsky, the former director of performance nutrition under Mora and Kelly, said the team wasn’t getting enough of the optimal food.
“There were athletes who needed to gain weight,” said Kavarsky, who left the program last year to study chiropractic. “We were set up for failure.”
Kelly started regularly catering breakfast, lunch and dinner for his players, who also received prepared meals to take home on weekends. One frequently used caterer charged $15.99 each for such to-go meals, providing entrees such as free-range turkey skillet and grilled grass-fed steak, according to invoices from summer 2018.
The coach was focused on “body composition,” wanting his athletes to possess more fat-free mass, a higher ratio of lean muscle. The team often worked with UCLA’s catering service to, Kavarsky said, “source the right type of proteins, carbohydrates.”
Menus featuring ostrich burgers, wild boar and venison offered different amino acid profiles. All of this came at a cost.
“Listen, go to the market and look at the price of grass-fed beef versus ground beef,” Kavarsky said. “You have to be realistic … you get what you pay for.”
But splurging on food coincided with other cost increases for an athletic department that was running a deficit for the first time in almost two decades. The department had to secure an interest-bearing loan from the university to cover the gap. The next NCAA financial disclosure, covering the fiscal year through June 30, 2020, isn’t expected to become public until January.
Some of the budget strain relates to almost $15 million in severance costs after firing Mora in 2017 and men’s basketball coach Steve Alford in 2018. But expenses also include a significant investment in football, with the budget increasing from $27.3 million in 2017, Mora’s last full year, to $35.4 million under Kelly in 2019.
While the program plowed more money into areas such as support staff, recruiting and game expenses, spending on meals represented 15% of the team expenses and the single biggest increase in non-severance spending.
“Is the women’s soccer getting the same benefits as football? What about the women’s golf team? Are they eating the same?”
Nick Schlereth, an assistant professor of recreation and sport management at Coastal Carolina University
By comparison, Pac-12 schools spent between $398,000 and $1.2 million on non-travel football meals in 2019, according to financial disclosures filed with the NCAA. That doesn’t include Washington, which delayed responding to a public records request until next month, and Stanford and USC, which don’t have to provide the information because they are private.
Even powerhouses such as Ohio State ($3.4 million), Georgia ($1.5 million) and defending national champion Louisiana State ($381,000) didn’t come close to the Bruins’ total.
UCLA officials contend “it is inaccurate to draw a comparison” because other Power Five programs have athlete-specific dining halls and shift overhead and operating costs for those facilities into other parts of the budget. Further, officials say, dining halls charge a flat fee per person while caterers are more likely to charge based on consumption.
After leaving UCLA, Kavarsky consulted for other schools across the country and says that “not many college football programs are putting as much emphasis on fueling their athletes” as the Bruins.
College sports experts voice concerns about not only the $5.4-million total, but also its relationship to spending for other UCLA teams. The school spent $6.1 million on non-travel athlete meals in 2019, 89% going to football. Women’s basketball, for instance, spent less than $97,000 for meals.
“Is the women’s soccer getting the same benefits as football?” asked Nick Schlereth, an assistant professor of recreation and sport management at Coastal Carolina University who has studied athletic budgets nationwide. “What about the women’s golf team? Are they eating the same?”
Not everything fed to the football team is extravagant. Menus obtained by the Times include a hot dog bar with all the fixings, Buffalo chicken tenders and make-your-own sandwiches. But other invoices list London broil with roasted shallot jus, Bananas Foster French toast, ribeye steak, crustless quiche, and roasted asparagus with portobello mushrooms, feta and pomegranate seeds.
“This is insane,” Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who is executive director of the reform-minded National College Players Assn., said of the spiraling food budget.
His activism started, in part, after Bruins teammate Donnie Edwards was suspended for one game in 1995 after a sports agent allegedly dropped off a bag of groceries worth $150 at the player’s apartment.
“This type of spending is not the exception, it’s the norm when you consider runaway expenses in the form of coaches’ salaries, bloated administrative staff and luxury facilities,” Huma said. “Why not let players choose which they’d prefer since it’s supposedly all about their well-being?”
Other former Bruins had a different perspective, appreciating better food. Bolu Olorunfunmi, a UCLA running back from 2015 to 2018, recalled that after Kelly took over, refrigerators in the Wasserman center were filled with snacks and sports drinks.
“I was like ‘Whoa,’” he recalled. “They’re definitely putting money into this.”
Offseason workouts represented another opportunity for appetizing spreads. Hawaiian barbecue was a favorite, with dishes such as poke, Kalua pork and chicken katsu delivered by a restaurant in Carson. The price tag for one such meal approached $3,500.
“Someone would text that there was Hawaiian barbecue,” Olorunfunmi recalled. “Some guys would come just to get the food.”