UCF receives NCAA inquiry letter

Updated: August 18, 2011, 1:42 AM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

The University of Central Florida received an official notice of inquiry from the NCAA regarding potential recruiting violations in the school's football and men's basketball program on Wednesday, the university confirmed.

NCAA investigators have already begun interviewing people connected to potential violations. Sources also said they expect the investigation will lead to the NCAA bringing formal charges against the Conference USA member.

"Compliance is the top priority for UCF athletics; playing by the rules is the only way to play," school president John C. Hitt said in a statement. "We will cooperate fully with the NCAA. If we have done something wrong, we will deal with it in a manner that is consistent with our responsibilities as a member of the NCAA and our own high standards of conduct."

The school also said along with the NCAA investigation, it will conduct a third-party investigation of the school's NCAA compliance.

Allegations are believed to center on Ken Caldwell, a 42-year-old Chicago native and former AAU basketball coach who has been tied to Central Florida's recruitment of several basketball players and at least one football player.

Caldwell's son, Erik, attended Central Florida through last spring, and among the alleged violations is recruits stayed at his apartment during visits to the Orlando school.

Caldwell could not be reached for comment, though in the past he's adamantly denied he has broken any NCAA rules. His son declined comment.

Neither of the Caldwells has agreed to be interviewed by NCAA investigators.

However, sources told ESPN.com that Brandon Bender, who is reported to have assisted Caldwell in recruiting players to UCF, was interviewed last week by NCAA investigators as well as legal counsel retained by the university. Bender played basketball as a freshman at Louisville in 2002 and, like Caldwell, is suspected of working on the fringes with players, college programs and agents.

"I haven't done anything wrong," Bender told ESPN.com in April.

NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn declined Wednesday to comment specifically on UCF, though she noted that it's not uncommon for enforcement staff to conduct interviews in advance of a university receiving notice of an official investigation.

At least three NCAA enforcement reps so far have been actively involved in the case.

Central Florida's director of athletic compliance, Courtney Vinson, also declined comment Wednesday, saying, "At this point, compliance is not making any official statements."

Since potential violations were first reported last spring, UCF has retained the Overland Park, Kan., law firm of Bond Schoeneck & King to assist in its dealings with the NCAA. The firm previously was hired by the university in 2008 to review its football training policies following the death of a player and the hospitalization of another.

This situation, though, deals with potential recruiting violations and Caldwell's alleged role in UCF's courting and eventual signing of several greater Chicago-area basketball players. He also reportedly arranged a joint phone conversation between UCF basketball coach Donnie Jones and Conyers, Ga., 6-foot-4 guard Kevin Ware, who pledged to Central Florida in mid-April, only to de-commit 10 days later after allegations surfaced that Caldwell played a role in recruiting him.

Caldwell and Bender also are suspected of having ties to UCF football signee Damarcus Smith, a highly touted four-star quarterback from Louisville who previously had committed to the hometown Cardinals.

Smith asked for his release from UCF in March so he could attend Louisville, but football coach George O'Leary denied the request.

Smith is not on campus and has academic issues that might prevent him from being eligible this fall.

If Central Florida coaches knew Caldwell and Bender were promoting the athletic program, then under NCAA guidelines they become representatives of the school, which bears responsibility for their actions.

"Nobody's done anything wrong," Caldwell told ESPN.com when the allegations first surfaced in the spring. "UCF is just that I like ... I'm a big UCF guy. I tell people about UCF everywhere I go, just like I tell people about other schools."

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. ESPN.com senior writer Pat Forde contributed to this story.

ALSO SEE