Ken Caldwell investigated for UCF ties

Updated: May 2, 2011, 4:31 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Ken Caldwell, a 42-year-old Chicagoan, is drawing the attention of the NCAA because of his involvement with UCF.

Caldwell was the subject of a story that ran on The New York Times website on Friday night detailing his relationship with a UCF recruit named Kevin Ware. Ware rescinded his commitment on Thursday after The Times said he learned of Caldwell's background. The Times said Caldwell arranged conversations between Ware and UCF coach Donnie Jones, which is prohibited by the NCAA.

Caldwell's name is on the NCAA enforcement radar because of his involvement in the controversial recruitments of several basketball players, and at least one football player, because of his name-dropping of prominent agent Andy Miller, and saying he works for Nike. And because of his multifaceted connections with the University of Central Florida, which has enjoyed some notable recruiting successes this year.

Ware, from Conyers, Ga., signed with Tennessee but was released from his letter after coach Bruce Pearl was fired. He narrowed his next choice to Louisville, Georgia and UCF. On April 12, Caldwell announced a "scoop" on Twitter -- that Ware would visit UCF.

"Great choice Kevin," Caldwell tweeted.

According to The Times, Caldwell arranged a joint phone conversation between Ware, Jones and Jones' staff -- a violation of NCAA rules. Ware committed to the Knights on April 20. Yet last week, while in Louisville for the Derby Festival Classic All-Star Game, Ware asked to be labeled undecided on his college choice in the game program and in publicity material.

That renewed the hopes of the Louisville fans, only to see Ware reaffirm his commitment to UCF this week.

A source told ESPN.com that Caldwell told people Ware was solidly committed to UCF the whole time -- that the waffling was just a show to ensure that the pro-Cardinals crowd at the Derby Festival game did not boo him.

But on Thursday night, Ware abruptly decommitted from UCF, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was vague about his reasoning.

"There's a lot of stuff going on right now, personal stuff that I don't really want to speak about right now," Ware told the Atlanta paper. "I spoke with my family about everything, and I decided it was time to back off on UCF."

A day before the 6-foot-4 guard decomitted, Jones said his school recruited Ware honestly -- no matter who else was involved.

"I hate it that the perception is that we're getting these ... players because of associations with people like [Caldwell and former Louisville player Brandon Bender, his associate]," Jones said. "Those guys have never asked me for nothing."

UCF spokesman Joe Hornstein said Tribble is out of town this week and could not be reached for comment on Caldwell.

Six players on the current UCF roster hail from greater Chicago -- Caldwell's home area. That includes three -- A.J. Rompza, Marcus Jordan (Michael Jordan's son) and Dwight McCombs -- who played for Whitney Young High School. Whitney Young coach Tyrone Slaughter is the director of Ferrari Youth Basketball, for which Caldwell once served as an assistant coach. Caldwell said he considers Rompza almost a member of the family, and said he helped get previous UCF coach Kirk Speraw interested in recruiting the guard -- and that, in turn, opened the Chicago-to-Orlando pipeline.

Caldwell acknowledged he has a son who attends UCF, but disputed the assertion a source made to ESPN.com that recruits have stayed at his son's apartment on recruiting visits that would have violated NCAA rules. He also said he has never received anything from anyone at the school in exchange for steering players there.

But Caldwell went so far as to make a Twitter recruiting pitch about UCF to uncommitted junior college center Stan Simpson, an Illinois transfer and Chicago product. Caldwell and Simpson follow each other on Twitter. On March 2, Caldwell wrote to Simpson, "You need to think about UCF." On March 22, after Simpson tweeted that a Memphis coach was coming to visit him, Caldwell counseled Simpson via Twitter not to commit. Simpson signed with Memphis in April.

"We haven't done anything illegal," Jones said. "If the NCAA investigates us, that's fine. If that's what we have to do to solidify why people want to go to school here, that's OK."

Other coaches know Caldwell as well.

"The feeling I got is that he is what you'd call a runner," said DePaul coach Oliver Purnell, who said he severed all ties with Caldwell and Bender.

"I don't work for any agent," Caldwell told ESPN.com earlier this week. "I don't make any money off basketball.

"Nobody's done anything wrong. UCF is just a school that I like. ... I'm the big UCF guy. I tell people about UCF everywhere I go, just like I tell people about other schools.

"I was first. Ain't nobody ever heard of UCF, ever. Now they have a little success, and they're not supposed to? ... Kentucky gets seven or eight McDonald's All-Americans and nobody says s---. UCF gets some players and people act like there was extra help? That's bulls---."

UCF's Jones acknowledged inheriting a relationship with Caldwell when he took the job, and said he's known Bender for many years. But he says both are above-board relationships.

"We know they're not agents," Jones said. "Obviously, the presumption is they're runners, but you know how many people we deal with every day in college basketball who are like that? It's important to have a relationship with guys like that -- to make sure they don't hurt you in recruiting, or if they know a player, they may say, 'Hey, this guy is all right.'

"If they feel good about UCF and tell [recruits] it's a good place, what do you do?"

Caldwell coached AAU ball for a while, with Ferrari Youth Basketball, and says he's helped more than 130 kids go to college. He is a big talker, witty, charming and street-smart. And he loves having a good scoop -- "you heard it here first" is a common Caldwell expression, according to one acquaintance.

Caldwell acknowledged the reputation he has, saying Nike once refused to give Ferrari Youth Basketball a shoe contract "because of me. They thought I was an agent."

Caldwell has a criminal record -- he was convicted in Illinois on eight counts of felony auto theft in 1998 and originally sentenced to six years in prison before receiving parole in 2001. Prior to that, according to The New York Times, Caldwell was sentenced to six years in 1991 for home invasion and armed robbery. (Caldwell claimed he unfairly took the rap in those cases for a recidivist brother, though he declined to discuss specifics.)

Caldwell says he has broken no NCAA rules.

"Say whatever you want to say," he said during a 90-minute phone interview with ESPN.com Wednesday. "It'll just make my legend bigger."

On a LinkedIn profile, Caldwell claimed to be a "recruiter [of] NBA players at ASM Sports management" -- Andy Miller's agency. Purnell also said Caldwell identified himself within the last year as working for Miller.

Caldwell denied presenting himself as an associate of Miller's and says he makes his living as a realtor. When asked about his LinkedIn profile, he said, repeatedly, "It means nothing." On Thursday, the LinkedIn profile had been taken down.

Miller initially told ESPN.com he did not know Caldwell, then said he had met him briefly once, a couple of years ago at the NBA pre-draft camp in Chicago. He denied any professional relationship with Caldwell.

"He is not associated with me or my company in any way, shape or form," Miller said, adding it is common for street hustlers to say they're associated with an agent in order to gain credibility. "I couldn't distance myself from him more."

At least one other person in Miller's firm did not distance Caldwell from ASM, according to The New York Times story. ASM associate Darryl Woods told The Times this week that Caldwell "works for us."

A series of tweets from March 19 also seem to connect Caldwell to Justin Zanik, vice president of ASM Sports, which is Miller's agency.

Caldwell announced he had a "big meeting today. ... Time for me to close ... No more talking ... Just do it!!! That is my approach ... Let's go!!!"

Then: "In 30 min the world will know who's Boss!!!"

Next: "Well the verdict is in ... I'm the Boss and I am now taking applications for help ... " (Caldwell included his email address in the tweet.)

And finally: "Out with Justin Zanik and I having a few drinks ... Lets [sic] celebrate the new beginning ... Look out here we go!!"

When asked about those tweets, Caldwell said they were related to "some little silly bet we made about a basketball game. Accepting applications? I was just talking s---." Caldwell said he's only met Zanik four times, dating back to Zanik's time working for agent Mark Bartlestein.

Miller said the Chicago-based Zanik knows a lot of people in the city with basketball connections, and may know Caldwell on a personal level. But he said Caldwell "is certainly not a recruiter for Justin or associated with Justin professionally in any way. He has no professional dealings with anybody at ASM."

Caldwell and Bender have been tied to at least three players who are 2011 football or basketball signees of the Knights. All wound up signing with UCF after decommitting elsewhere.

The football signee is quarterback Demarcus Smith of Louisville Seneca High School. A self-described life-long Louisville fan, Smith verbally committed to the Cardinals in 2009, days after they hired Charlie Strong as their coach. Yet Smith surprised many by sending a signed letter of intent to UCF.

That touched off months of controversy. Seneca coach Louis Dover said on signing day there was "a situation" that prevented Smith from making his college choice public. Then Smith held a news conference two days later to confirm his pledge to the Knights, calling it "a business decision, not a personal decision."

In late March, Smith flew to Orlando and met with coach George O'Leary to request release from his letter of intent. O'Leary denied the request, and Smith is now making a formal appeal for release to the National Letter of Intent Steering Committee.

"He really wanted to go to Louisville," O'Leary told ESPN.com. "I said, 'Well, you shouldn't have signed the document.' Every time he was here, he was fine. He said, 'Coach, I'm all UCF.' Every time he went back to Louisville, I think there was a lot of pressure from a lot of people."

Multiple sources told ESPN.com Caldwell and Bender were involved in Smith's decision, along with a third man who is a friend of Bender's and Caldwell's, former Louisville tight end Rodney Carter. Bender attended Smith's news conference, although he said he had no influence over what the quarterback did and only counseled him to do what was best for himself. One source said Caldwell was spreading news of Smith's signing with UCF before it became public knowledge.

O'Leary said he met Caldwell with two other men he assumed to be Bender and Carter at an Orlando hotel in late January. O'Leary said UCF was playing Rice the next day in basketball and that the Knights had recruits staying at the hotel. O'Leary said Caldwell told him he worked for Nike.

"I thought he was involved with Michael Jordan," O'Leary said. "I never get involved with people like that. I deal with the athlete."

Louisville spokesman Kenny Klein told ESPN.com the school would not comment on prospective student-athletes.

Another source said Carter has been the point man with Smith and at least three other Louisville-area football players, taking them to 7-on-7 camps and involving himself in their recruitment. Among them is Moore High School wide receiver Mekale McKay, a touted 2012 prospect who as of mid-April had scholarship offers from Louisville and UCF.

Carter declined comment to ESPN.com Wednesday, other than to deny that he had any influence on Smith's decision to sign with UCF. Bender and Caldwell did the same.

"I don't work for UCF," Caldwell said. "Brandon doesn't work for them. Rodney doesn't work for them."

The other two UCF commits with ties to Caldwell are basketball players Ware and Michael Chandler of Indianapolis -- part of what was widely considered the best recruiting class in Knights history.

Chandler committed to Louisville as an underclassman, then committed to Xavier last fall, then signed with UCF in the spring. Chandler had high school teammates at Xavier who got him to visit the school last October, and he committed shortly thereafter. It was the last time coach Chris Mack talked to the 6-foot-10 center.

"I never talked to Michael again," Mack said. "We could never get hold of the kid."

Mack called Bender after Chandler decommitted at Xavier.

"The one or two times I talked to Brandon Bender, I basically was asking him why he'd try to persuade a kid to go somewhere else," Mack said. "He said he wasn't. But from what I heard, he was trying to steer him toward DePaul. I called Coach Purnell and he said that wasn't true."

UCF was the final stop for Chandler. When asked by ESPN.com, Bender denied having any influence on Chandler's college choice. But a source with knowledge of the recruitment said Caldwell was bragging about having inside information on what Chandler was going to do well before it became public.

The Times reported that an NCAA investigator was in Indianapolis to interview Chandler about his recruitment to UCF.

Caldwell said he has known Chandler's uncle, Allen, for years through the AAU basketball circuit. Caldwell said his advice was for Chandler to go to DePaul, but he chose to become a Knight on his own. (Chandler still has academic hurdles to clear to become eligible as a freshman at UCF.)

Information for the this story also provided by ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil.