Meet Martin Fox, the mysterious Houston sports fixture caught up in the college bribery scandal

Martin Fox is alleged to have funneled money to arrange for students to earn sufficiently high marks on the ACT to be admitted to elite universities. (Yahoo Sports illustration)
Martin Fox is alleged to have funneled money to arrange for students to earn sufficiently high marks on the ACT to be admitted to elite universities. (Yahoo Sports illustration)

When the college admissions bribery scandal blew up Tuesday, the list of those charged with crimes was highlighted by Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. But in college athletics circles, two other names had phones buzzing and industry insiders talking.

Martin Fox and Mark Riddell.

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Neither are household names … unless you work inside college sports, where everyone is now wondering if either or both have additional stories or secrets to share as they face federal felonies.

Fox is widely known across the AAU and college basketball world. Now that the 62-year-old hoops gadfly has been charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering, his murky role within the sport is under scrutiny.

"He was a known person," said Sonny Vaccaro, a godfather of the sneaker business, "but it was unknown exactly what he did."

The FBI says it knows one thing Fox did: facilitating academic fraud as a middleman funneling bribes from the head of a shady college-prep company in California to a standardized test administrator in Houston and to the tennis coach at the University of Texas. In the U.S. Attorney's indictment that was unsealed Tuesday, Fox is alleged to have funneled money from William "Rick" Singer to Lisa "Niki" Williams to arrange for students to earn sufficiently high marks on the ACT to be admitted to elite universities.

Thus, the question arises: If Fox was adept at funneling money to fix tests for these children, was he doing the same for the myriad teenage basketball stars he associated with in the Houston area? The government might like to know. So might the NCAA.

Then there is Riddell, who was indicted on conspiracy to commit mail fraud, honest services mail fraud and money laundering, for his role as the alleged standardized test taker at the heart of part of the scam. The 36-year-old was paid about $10,000, federal prosecutors said, to either take or correct SATs or ACTs for clients to get them a preferred score — from perfect to passing, all while avoiding red flags and security checks the testing services employ.

According to federal prosecutors, Riddell was "just a really smart guy … [who could] get a near-perfect score on demand or to calibrate the score."

"If your daughter took the SAT on her own the first time and got a particular score, retaking the exam, if her score goes up too much, that would invite scrutiny," U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said. "So [the conspirators] would discuss with parents what kind of score was impressive, but not too impressive, and then would instruct Riddell to attempt to get that score. And he was just good enough to do it."

The problematic part for college athletics is Riddell's day job: director of college entrance exam prep at IMG Academy in Florida, the school which churns out scores of college recruits in nearly every sport, including elite players in football, basketball and baseball.

If Riddell was willing and able to fix standardized tests for some people, would he fix them for all people, namely students he was preparing for the exams who might need a specific score to qualify for a scholarship? IMG announced Tuesday it had suspended Riddell indefinitely and launched an investigation into the matter.

It would surprise no one if the NCAA launched its own investigation into Riddell.

Fox mentioned by name in first hoops corruption trial

Fox's relationship with college athletics is more nebulous. He's been described in media reports as the "general manager" of AAU basketball power Houston Hoops. He's also interacted with some of the top players to come out of that talent-rich city in recent years, including former Duke star Justise Winslow, former Kansas star Kelly Oubre and former Kentucky star De'Aaron Fox (no relation) — all of whom became first-round NBA draft picks after a single season of college ball.

Fox sat behind Virginia Tech's bench for the Hokies' final regular-season game with Miami in Blacksburg, Virginia, on Friday night. Virginia Tech’s Buzz Williams is one of many college coaches close to Fox and told the story Wednesday night that when he introduced his son to Fox, his son asked, "'What does he do, is he a coach?'" Williams said, "I'd say no. He's in the middle of everything." He added, "I didn't know he was in the middle of that," referencing the federal trouble.

This isn't the first time Fox's name has come up recently in relation to a federal corruption investigation. During the first college basketball fraud trial in October, so-called Adidas "bag man" T.J. Gassnola testified that Fox wired him $40,000, which Gassnola then withdrew from a bank in cash and flew to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he gave it to a North Carolina State assistant basketball coach. Gassnola testified it was a "payment to Dennis Smith's family." Dennis Smith Jr. played one season at NC State before becoming the ninth pick of the 2017 draft.

Gassnola testified that he repaid Fox a month later. But that loan and the relationship with Gassnola creates a compelling snapshot of Fox as an alleged fixer who transcends levels, the kind of guy a bag man can call for a $40,000 loan to deliver as "cash in an envelope" to an assistant coach to appease the family of a future lottery pick.

"Everyone likes him," said a longtime acquaintance of Fox's with deep ties to the sport. "Martin's a nice guy and he'd do anything to help you. But for some reason he's made his whole being on the underbelly of college basketball."

Fox a fixture in A-list sports circles

Anyone who flipped through Fox's Twitter account Tuesday afternoon witnessed a muscle flex of sporting vanity. There was Fox mugging with Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Johnny Bench in separate pictures. There were scenes from Virginia Tech's postgame basketball locker room, practice at Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse and an up-close shot of Duke's Winslow cutting down nets. There was a picture with De'Aaron Fox and his family minutes after he committed to Kentucky live on ESPNU in November 2015. Fox is in nearly every picture, happy to position himself at events like the Super Bowl and with boldfaced names from around the sports world.

There were more pictures of Fox grip-and-grinning with a host of coaches: Kentucky's John Calipari at his Hall of Fame induction; Rick Pitino in Las Vegas; Maryland coach Mark Turgeon before a game. And there were private jets, lots of private jets.

And by late Tuesday night, Martin Fox's Twitter account had been deleted. So was his Instagram account.

Until he was arrested by the FBI in a sting called "Operation Varsity Blues," Fox was a fixture in A-list sports circles. In court papers, he's described as the president of a tennis academy in Houston. But that doesn't begin to tell the story of Fox, who dabbled in the ticket business, concierge service for athletes, AAU basketball, putting on tournaments and other college events. He lived in the netherworld of sneaker companies, agents and coaches, many of whom would be nervous if what he knows of the basketball black market was passed on to federal authorities.

"He was in the middle of everything," said Buzz Williams, who stressed he wasn't nervous about his ties to Fox and didn't know of Fox's arrest until a Yahoo Sports reporter told him at the ACC tournament Wednesday evening. "I think that's not speaking negatively toward him or the people he knows. Everyone knows Fox. It's not because of one particular thing. It's just all of those things."

This is a well-worn narrative: Noted basketball middleman with heavy influence in the basketball recruiting world gets arrested and faces serious charges and dozens of college coaches around the sport are holding their breath, wondering what he'll tell federal authorities. It's not a new storyline in a scandal-scarred sport, but this Tuesday bombshell from the feds added another layer to the saga.

He's had dealings in the latter stages of this season with Kansas coach Bill Self, sources told Yahoo Sports. He's close enough to twins David and Dana Pump, long known as dabblers in the AAU, event and ticket world, to be known as the "Third Pump Brother." It's not a compliment.

"He's a guy who had his hands in a lot of different things," said a veteran Division I coach who knows Fox. "He was hooked in with the Pump Brothers, and all he'd try and do was get us to play games and sell [conference tournament] tickets. You're not going to be in Texas, or anywhere, and not know Martin Fox."

Fox is listed in the 1977-78 UNC-Charlotte (now known simply as Charlotte) men's tennis media guide as a letter winner. He also was a student manager for the basketball team. Throughout his life, Fox maintained footholds in both sports.

Fox attached himself to so many people that it is difficult to discern where his fandom ended and his business interests began. A few events Fox attended in the latter half of 2015, according to his now-deleted Twitter feed: the USA Basketball Under-19 national team trials in Colorado Springs in June; the NBA draft later that month; the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction in September, when Calipari was honored; North Carolina's opening practice of the 2015-16 season in October; and De'Aaron Fox's nationally televised commitment announcement in November.

"He loved the game," the longtime acquaintance said. "Wherever he could plug in, he tried to."

What was Fox’s alleged role in college entrance scam?

In the "Operation Varsity Blues" hustle, Fox did more granular work.

For instance, Fox is accused of working as a middleman in 2015 between a Beverly Hills, California, real estate developer and a coach at the University of San Diego to secure admission to the school. That included, the feds charge, Fox receiving a wire transfer of $100,000 and delivering an undisclosed sum to the coach.

On another occasion, Fox allegedly received a $50,000 payment from Rick Singer, the central figure in the scandal, for helping "facilitate" a relationship with the woman who ran a Houston-area standardized testing site, where Singer was able to fix the scores by allegedly sending in Riddell.

Singer's ability to corrupt the test site administrators in Houston and West Hollywood, California, meant Riddell could allegedly pose as "proctor" for the exam and either take the test for a paying student or just collect their tests and then correct them later. Each student was required to be diagnosed with a learning disability by a doctor and thus eligible for an untimed test, often taken over two days. On some occasions, the student didn't even know Riddell was changing their answers and fixing the score, according to federal prosecutors.

In the past two years, there's been a flurry of corruption that's shrouded college athletics. There's the three federal cases that have resulted in a spree of guilty pleas and the recent sentencing of three men found guilty of felony charges of conspiracy. There's also a potentially invasive trial scheduled for April in which one of the defense attorneys has promised to pull back the curtain on how big-time basketball works.

But the conspiracy that unfolded this week, touching everything from Hollywood to AAU and involving pretend athletes and seven-figure admission scams, provided a new frontier for those who thought they'd seen everything.

"I can honestly say I've watched the evolution of how money has transferred hands," Vaccaro said. "No matter if the players are good or not, there's always a venue to go to college. This is a whole new world of corruption. I don't know what's left to prostitute in college athletics anymore. Where can we go?"

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