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Fiesta fights to stay in BCS while system plays defense


NEW ORLEANS -- They are in a New Orleans boutique hotel conference room planning strategy. The long table in the middle of it might as well be in a hospital's operating room. There is a form of surgery being performed. Spread out in various pieces of correspondence and information is the life of the Fiesta Bowl. You might have read about it lately. The 40-year-old bowl created so that Arizona State could have a place to go in the postseason is now synonymous with graft, greed, even criminal activity.

That's why they are here with such humility. The Fiesta officials are in the process this week of meeting with the NCAA bowl licensing subcommittee and BCS commissioners all asking the same basic question: Why should you continue to be one of us? As if the BCS needed a bull's-eye attached to it, the Fiesta has become the ultimate dart board for a system that uses uncompensated amateurs to make millions for corporate entities. This is not a pay-the-players argument. It is a supervise-the-adults argument in what has become the country's second-most popular sport in a runaway.

'Over time people's loyalties were to John [Junker] and not to the organization,' Fiesta board chairman Duane Woods says. (AP)  
'Over time people's loyalties were to John [Junker] and not to the organization,' Fiesta board chairman Duane Woods says. (AP)  
For the past year and a half as the Fiesta scandal deepened, critics looked at the system and saw a nonprofit, tax-exempt postseason event supported largely by volunteers stripped bare. The bowl's independent report released in March detailed lavish spending and possible improper political contributions overseen by since-fired executive director John Junker. For the other BCS bowls gathered here for the annual BCS meetings it is guilt by association -- on steroids.

Never has the BCS been more under attack. The Utah attorney general says he will file an antitrust suit. The litigation will come against the system that was labeled a "Cartel" (note the capital "C") in the celebrated book Death to the BCS. Three of the four BCS bowls (not including the Rose) are under some form of tax scrutiny. PlayoffPac, a political action committee in Washington, D.C., used to be an annoyance to the BCS. Now it has obtained enough documents through Freedom of Information Act requests to become a credible opponent.

At issue, here and going forward, is how ostentatious and free-spending can these bowls be and still retain nonprofit status. The loose definition of a tax-exempt organization is that it is a community trust. Money must be plowed back into the organization. The bowls are so adept at knowing where that line is that they employ compensation analysts for their CEOs. Junker made more than $600,000 per year and that wasn't even the issue. It was an abuse of power that reading the report almost reminds one of Watergate. The coverup is still always worse than the crime.

"All of us need to re-ask the question," Fiesta board chairman Duane Woods said. "Where do we draw the line?"

"They have to realize there is a problem," said PlayoffPac's Matthew Sanderson. "They try to paint us as these radicals. We're not getting anything out of this. We're doing this pro bono. We're just a bunch of fans."

Fans who in September filed a 27-page complaint with the Internal Revenue Service against the BCS bowls.

For now, though, the Fiesta is defending only itself. In a month the BCS task force assigned to review the Fiesta's restructuring could boot it out of the system. There is no question that the Cotton Bowl, played in Cowboys Stadium and supported by Jerry Jones' money, is waiting in the wings. BCS executive director Bill Hancock reinforced the Fiesta's plight Wednesday, saying, "The answer is, yes, we believe there is [a way to kick out the Fiesta immediately]."

"But," he added, "we're miles away from there."

That should make the Fiesta exhale. Junker once said that when he took over the bowl decades ago it had $15,000 in the bank. Now it has a reported $15 million to $20 million. The bowl's out-of-the-box marketing is what got it in the BCS rotation in 1998. For example, who would have thought before 1986 that a national championship game between Miami and Penn State could be played in the Arizona desert?

Bill Hancock says the BCS is 'miles away' from kicking out the Fiesta Bowl immediately. (AP)  
Bill Hancock says the BCS is 'miles away' from kicking out the Fiesta Bowl immediately. (AP)  
The odds are that the Fiesta will survive but with a set of penalties that could range from a reprimand to a fine. That's why the scene in the conference room is not far removed from a campaign staff checking the polls. There is a high-powered lawyer, a PR person, a vice president of a major company, even a guy from a crisis management firm that once represented rocker Tommy Lee.

"What does it say if we've done everything right and we get the death penalty?"

The speaker is Nathan Hochman, the high-powered tax attorney retained by the Fiesta. It's obvious the man knows how to make a point. He helped prosecute actor Wesley Snipes in his tax case. Now in the depths of the bowl's existence, he is making the point that punishing the Fiesta sends a bad message "to the next bowl, university, athletic department that comes across allegations and it says, 'Oh my God, if we do what the Fiesta did and do all these reforms they're going to give us the death penalty as well?'"

The Fiesta's reforms are real and significant. It just may be that no one outside these meetings wants to hear about them. Understanding the BCS is hard enough. Having sympathy for one of the system's participants that has strayed is tougher. The task force is looking hard at who the Fiesta picks as its next executive director. He/she must be spotless. Woods will be asked why the executive committee of the board that was supposed to oversee the bowl's operation failed. Part of it had to do with the cult of personality. Junker was one of the most respected figures in college football. At the heart of the report is $46,000 in improper political contributions over 10 years. That's an average of $4,600 per year. That doesn't buy you much influence, which makes the alleged wrongdoing either stupid or arrogant.

"Too much trust in one person," said Woods, also the senior vice president of the Western Region of Waste Management. "Over time people's loyalties were to John and not to the organization."

The entire BCS needs to understand there is a problem. To them, there isn't one. The commissioners still control the system. The Big 12's Dan Beebe and Big Ten's Jim Delany are on record as saying they'll blow up the BCS and go back to the old bowl system if they are pushed too far by outside forces.

"I don't understand how anybody thinks that the court or legislators could issue a ruling that would require student-athletes to play in a certain system, a playoff," Beebe said Wednesday. "And would student-athletes refuse to do that unless they got rewarded more? If they refuse [to play] does the sheriff come and get them? I just don't know how people think that works."

The Fiesta isn't going to be bullied into eliminating one of its signature events, the Fiesta Frolic. This week PlayoffPac released an agenda from the 2008 annual retreat of administrators, TV types and industry consultants. The word "golf" is mentioned 15 times during the three days. It's no secret that participants are wined and dined by the Fiesta and its sponsors, but they also contend that legitimate business is done each year.

"It would probably be honest to say if we knew we were going to be dealing with this kind of stuff would we be calling it the Frolic?" asked one Fiesta official. "Probably not."

The event has been renamed "Valley of the Sun Experience and Fiesta Bowl Seminars." The further issue is that several members of the task force and NCAA subcommittee are Frolic veterans. Hancock says that is not a conflict of interest.

"If anyone believes that two rounds of golf and a dinner is going to affect someone's judgment is mistaken," he said. "Their judgment will not be affected by that. These are ethical, smart, tough, thorough quality people."

In other words, the BCS and NCAA have refused to go as far as the bowl they are investigating. Appoint a special committee with no ties to the bowl to make an objective judgment. And that's OK with everybody. The Frolic, er, Valley of the Sun Experience and Fiesta Seminars lives on.

"What made the Fiesta Bowl really different was hospitality," Woods said, speaking of the report that got it to this place. "That's where it can go too far."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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