This story originally ran in the Star Tribune on Dec. 18, 2013. On Tuesday, Rashad Vaughn formally announced his intention to play college basketball for UNLV.
Pete Kaffey was an assistant basketball coach at Cooper High School in April and also the self-described “mentor” to Rashad Vaughn, the team’s star and one of the nation’s top prep players.
But Vaughn left for a prep school near Las Vegas in July — and Kaffey was not far behind in joining him.
By October, Vaughn was a rising star at Findlay Prep, a program in Nevada known as a pipeline for potential NBA talent. Kaffey, meanwhile, emerged as a Findlay Prep assistant coach.
Kaffey said in an interview that he offered Vaughn “an honest opinion” about transferring to Findlay Prep. He declined to discuss how he became a Findlay assistant coach.
Both departures left Cooper’s head coach, Steve Burton, and athletic director John Oelfke struggling to make sense of it all.
“[I’m] a little ‘old school.’ I’m not used to the way these kids transfer around,” Oelfke said. “To be honest with you, I don’t know how Pete is behind that. [We] did a lot of good things for [Vaughn].”
Though Kaffey’s role in Vaughn’s transfer was not unique — other coaches have followed players to new schools — it has rarely taken place in Minnesota on such a big stage. Along with Apple Valley’s Tyus Jones and DeLaSalle’s Reid Travis, Vaughn had enabled Minnesota to boast of having three of the best high school basketball players in the nation.
It is also unclear how Kaffey’s role as Vaughn’s “mentor” applies to the array of high school and college recruiting rules. A new NCAA rule, while not specifically referring to situations such as Kaffey’s, expanded the definition of sports agents to include anyone who represents an individual “for the purpose of marketing his or her athletics ability” for money, or gets paid for getting them into a school. An agent might include, but is not limited to, contract advisers, financial advisers, marketing representatives and brand managers — or anyone associated with such individuals.
NCAA rules prohibit student-athletes from receiving benefits from “agents and advisers.”
Shortly after Kaffey arrived at Findlay Prep, he announced that Vaughn would be taking an official recruiting visit to the nearby University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where Findlay Prep’s former head coach, Todd Simon, is now an assistant.
Kaffey said his mentoring role began when Vaughn was a fifth-grader in Minnesota — he is now a senior — and that Vaughn had become close to Kaffey’s own son.
A week after Vaughn’s announcement, and before Kaffey himself joined him in Nevada, Kaffey explained his role with the budding basketball star. “Rashad made that decision [to leave Minnesota]. I just gave him my honest opinion,” he said. “With Rashad, [my role is] all about life lessons” and teaching him “a lot of things, from going to church every morning, stuff like that — just teaching him how to be a good person. ” He added that some people “hate the fact that I’m helping some kid — this kid — reach his goal and be somebody special.”
Long before anyone outside of Minnesota knew of Vaughn, Kaffey said he saw something in the young player and the two immediately connected. Troy Vaughn, Rashad’s father, joked about giving Kaffey a room in their home because he had become part of the family.
Kaffey was also instrumental in the first sign Vaughn’s future might extend beyond Minnesota: the decision to have Vaughn play for a Milwaukee-based summer travel team instead of the Minneapolis-based Howard Pulley team. Kaffey and Vaughn traveled to Milwaukee and across the country on most weekends throughout the summer.
In selecting Findlay Prep, Vaughn and Kaffey chose one of the most uncommon prep schools in the country. In 2009, Sports Illustrated said Findlay Prep essentially “outsources the school in high school” and simply focused on fielding a basketball team. As it built a 65-1 record after being created in 2006, according to Sports Illustrated, Findlay Prep’s players lived in a five-bedroom home with a coach and attended classes at nearby Henderson International, a private grade school. Findlay Prep, the magazine added, was largely funded by local automobile magnate Cliff Findlay, a UNLV booster.
Officials at Henderson International School — Findlay Prep is listed as a “program” at Henderson — did not respond to Star Tribune interview requests.
Kaffey, 27, pleaded guilty in 2004 to first-degree aggravated robbery. In the case, Kaffey and another man were charged with pulling up to a playground in Brooklyn Center in a purple Dodge and pistol-whipping one victim with the butt of a gun. A second victim, court records showed, was hit several times on the back of the head as he tried to put his infant into a car. According to the complaint, they took roughly $250 and a cellphone.
After successfully completing and being released early from probation, according to court records, Kaffey’s sentence was permanently stayed.
Said F. Clayton Tyler, Kaffey’s attorney: “I can’t say whether he’s a good guy, or a bad guy, but I think that there’s some records that would reflect that he wasn’t a bad guy.”
In a text message last month, Kaffey indicated he would not discuss the case but said that it was “incorrect” to say he had a criminal conviction.
By mid-July, Kaffey was operating in another world from the one he left behind in Minnesota. He said in a phone conversation from Washington, D.C., where he was watching Vaughn, Reid and Jones play in a summer tournament that “I’m here checking them out.” He said he would be back in Minnesota for a few days, then off to Las Vegas and Los Angeles for basketball tournaments and camps. “I’m super busy,” he said.
By late September, Kaffey was at Findlay Prep and talking of how Anthony Bennett, a former Findlay Prep and UNLV player, was the first pick in June’s NBA draft and how that had influenced Vaughn’s decision to transfer. Taylor Bern, a Las Vegas Sun reporter who covers UNLV, said the arrival of Vaughn and then Kaffey at Findlay Prep “looked completely like a package deal.”
Back in Minnesota, the feeling was largely the same. Kaffey’s “got his relationship with Rashad — I really don’t know really what that is,” said Rene Pulley, the executive director of Howard Pulley Basketball in Minnesota. “We don’t have ‘handlers’ or ‘mentors’ here.”
Burton, the Cooper coach, insisted he was not “blindsided” by Vaughn’s departure, but also said he “didn’t expect Kaffey [his top assistant] to resign.
“I feel like I’m the best coach for” Vaughn, said Burton, who attended the going-away party in August at Vaughn’s home.
“It’s still a business,” Burton said of sports — even at the high school level. “Once we can admit that it is a business, then we can move on.”