Rise and fall of former executive director John Junker
PHOENIX — Alabama and Clemson fans have poured into the Valley of the Sun this week, greeted by the bustle of corporate schmooze fests, souvenir hawks and concerts. As downtown Phoenix buzzes with events leading into the national title game on Monday night in Glendale, Ariz., John Junker's old world pulses with excitement. Junker helped this area become a destination for big-time college football while serving as the Fiesta Bowl's executive director, overseeing five national championships here. The Phoenix area would not be on the verge of hosting its eighth national title game without Junker's charm, generosity and hospitality.
Less than two miles away last Friday morning, Junker, 60, drove his 2012 Toyota Prius to the Human Services Campus of Maricopa County, where he slipped on white sanitary gloves. Junker works as the manager of community partnerships for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic-founded charity that serves local homeless and working poor families. This includes a daily breakfast, and Junker cleans the tables on which roughly 600 people dine on French toast, scrambled eggs and fruit. Junker makes less than one-tenth of the $673,000 salary he made in 2010 and no longer golfs with Steve Spurrier, socializes with Urban Meyer or wines and dines the sport's most powerful commissioners and athletic directors. And yet: "It's an unlimited kind of emotion and gratitude," Junker says of his new job. "I'm eternally grateful."
Sports Illustrated once deemed Junker the seventh most powerful figure in college football, a lofty perch from which he fell in March 2011. A 276-page independent investigation of the Fiesta Bowl revealed Junker as the cartoonish archetype for the greed and cronyism that plagues college athletics. He was fired the day the report was released. The report revealed that Junker spent the Fiesta Bowl's money on everything from flights for legislators and their families to attend a Boston College game ($65,000) to his 50th birthday party at Pebble Beach ($33,000) to human growth hormone (nearly $7,000), which he purchased at an anti-aging clinic. He paid for strippers ($1,200), four golf club memberships in three states ($18,925) and a charity golf event for bowl partners to play with Jack Nicklaus ($110,000). Junker spent as much as $770,865 on his American Express bill one year, with his low expenditure between 2001 and '10 being $241,089—nearly four times his current salary at St. Vincent de Paul.
Even worse, the investigation illuminated allegations previously reported by the Arizona Republic that Junker broke the law by encouraging multiple members of the Fiesta Bowl office to make political campaign contributions, which were illegally reimbursed using bowl funds. Junker got fired from his job, was lampooned in the press and eventually served four months in a minimum-security federal prison in Tucson, Ariz., in 2014 and four months at a halfway house.
Junker hasn't spoken extensively since being released from prison in October 2014. Last Thursday an SI writer showed up at his office unannounced and Junker agreed to talk the following day.
"I don't gloss over it," he says of his legal issues, mentioning he "regrets" his mistakes. "I don't just mention it and move on. That's something that's part of my heart forever. At the same time, you also realize in 30 years of service, even a bad mistake is part of what's going to happen sometimes. There's still a life to live."
When Junker hit rock bottom, St. Vincent de Paul executive director Stephen Zabilski threw him a lifeline. He hired Junker and his wife, Susan, to work for the charity that provides nearly 4,200 meals per day to the underprivileged. These days, Junker finds himself glad-handing and networking for a completely different non-profit organization.
During a tour of St. Vincent de Paul that lasted nearly five hours last Friday morning, Junker talked about his rise, his fall and what he terms his "re-rise" as a public servant. As he reflected on the path that led him from wearing the Fiesta Bowl's trademark canary yellow blazer to a white disposable kitchen apron, Junker looked across to the Phoenix skyline pondering the distance between his old life and new one. "I guess you could say," he says, "that they are worlds apart."
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
In March 2014, John Junker stood before a federal judge for his sentencing after pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge two years earlier. Fiesta Bowl employees were reimbursed more than $45,000 for political contributions, and the scandal resulted in six guilty pleas (but only one jail sentence) for bowl employees. Junker's voice quivered as he asked the judge for leniency. "Every day of the last four years," he told the judge, "I have lived with that sorrow."
How did a bowl game generate enough power, hubris and money to yield a four-year run of ugly headlines, legal issues and eventually prison time? It all started with the game that changed everything: No. 1 Miami against No. 2 Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, 1987. That showdown planted the seeds of possibility for the future of college football, highlighting the power of television and the fiscal future of staging a definitive postseason game.
Top-ranked Miami was headlined by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde, and the Hurricanes transcended sports when they exited their team plane wearing military fatigues and walked out of a steak fry. Penn State coach Joe Paterno had recently been named SI's Sportsman of the Year, and a narrative contrasting the buttoned-up Nittany Lions with the rebellious Hurricanes soon formed. "The hype leading up to that game was Super Bowl-like," former Fiesta Bowl executive director Bruce Skinner says.
The matchup delivered, with Penn State upsetting Miami, 14–10, and at the time became the most watched game—21.9 million homes and a 25.1 rating—in college football history. (The Fiesta Bowl was moved from New Year's Day to Jan. 2 to ensure a bigger audience, another sign of things to come.) "It whetted people's appetite," former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese says. "People wanted a definitive end to the season. They wanted to know who the best team was."
Junker, then an assistant director for the Fiesta Bowl, was hooked. He had shown a knack for building relationships and securing corporate partnerships; the Fiesta Bowl's Sunkist sponsorship, which debuted in 1986, made it the first bowl game to be directly tied to a corporate entity.
Junker grew up in Phoenix, attended Arizona State and polished his glad-handing skills by working in the school's sports information office. While he left to become the executive director of the Sun Bowl in 1989, he took a pay cut to return home as the Fiesta Bowl's executive director in 1990 following Skinner's departure. The move coincided with a sea change in college football, as from the start of the AP Poll in 1936 until 1987, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams played for the national title just six times. Since '87, it has happened 18 times in 29 years, as the public's yearning for season-end clarity in the sport led to the creation of the Bowl Coalition (1992), Bowl Alliance (1995), Bowl Championship Series (1998) and, ultimately, the College Football Playoff that debuted last year.
"What John did, he took the Fiesta Bowl from the level it reached because of PSU-Miami in 1987 and made that a permanent institution by letting people like us know he valued the fact that we were interested," says Malcolm Moran, the director of the Sports Capital Journalism program at IUPUI who covered the 1987 game for the New York Times.
The distance between Junker's old world and his new one can be quantified by the trappings surrounding St. Vincent de Paul's sprawling campus. There's a drive-through liquor store around the corner, subsidized housing a few blocks away and ribbons of barbed wire attached to neighboring buildings.
The mantra of St. Vincent de Paul is "Feed. Clothe. House. Heal." And the final part of that appears reciprocal for Junker. Anyone who knew him during his bowl heyday remarked on his generosity and attention to detail, recalling that his handshakes always included him pulling you in close and patting your shoulder with his left hand. As he led a tour of St. Vincent de Paul's nine-acre campus, it became clear that he treats his new coworkers and employees the same way. As he walked around the warehouses where 400,000 boxes of food are delivered to the needy annually, the showers where hundreds of homeless bathe every day and the facilities that prepare and serve 4,200 hot meals, Junker did it with trademark flare. He bolted to open doors, helped push a cart filled with donated food and used phrases like "dear heart," "kind sir," and "oh gosh."
"My email box wasn't full of job offers when the people at St. Vincent de Paul contacted me," Junker says.
Junker started off making $47,000 per year in operations and has since moved into a different role. (Zabilski said Junker turned down multiple raises but now makes in the neighborhood of $60,000, less than many of the employees who report to him.) Junker's connections from his previous job have helped with business outreach, media contacts and assisting upper-level managers in problem solving. Junker beams while telling the story of a local radio show host, Rosie Romero, making St. Vincent de Paul the designated charity for a holiday event that raised $7,800. (Junker even laughs at the irony of a nametag from a Western-themed event that hangs in his cubicle. It reads, "WANTED: JOHN JUNKER.")
Zabilski knew Junker before hiring him, as Junker had previously served as a volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul for more than a decade. The Fiesta Bowl also frequently donated to the charity, and the children of both men attended the same school. "It's not very often we get CEOs of large organizations who have those kinds of skills and talents that say, 'I want to join St. Vincent de Paul full time and I'll do it at one-tenth of what I used to make,'" Zabilski says. "He's not here for the money or prestige or the power. He's here simply to be of service."
That entails a little bit of everything, from cleaning tables to managing thrift stores to arranging furniture pickups. Junker's tour provided a taste of his varying roles, which span the office's food bank, medical and dental clinics and special ministries program. Junker is particularly proud of a recent article in the Republic, the same paper that produced the reports that led to his downfall, about the work of dentist Dr. Ken Snyder, who gave a girl with a cleft palate both braces and the ability to smile with confidence again.
There will be plenty of skepticism about Junker's new life in college football circles after years of ugly headlines and embarrassment the Fiesta Bowl caused under his watch. But in his new role, Junker's coworkers see his skills, grace and hospitality as being used to change lives for the better.
"We all walk around in this world, and the happiest people are the ones that find meaning in something," says Shannon Clancy, the chief philanthropy officer for St. Vincent de Paul. "Usually that meaning is a connection to something larger than themselves. I think that's what John has found here."
When Steve Spurrier flew to Arizona to attend the Fiesta Frolic for the first time nearly 20 years ago, Junker knew his wife's name, offered to carry his bags when greeting him at the airport and had tee times booked at the area's premier golf courses. Not surprisingly, Spurrier kept coming back.
"It was usually in April or May and still pretty chilly back east," Spurrier says. "It was a chance to get some sunshine in the Phoenix area. I always enjoyed that trip, and John was a wonderful host."
The Fiesta Bowl debuted in 1971 as an outsider bowl to help prop up Arizona State. It grew exponentially in part because Junker and the staff leveraged the bowl's assets—great weather, top resorts and unmatched hospitality—to the sport's most important figures. "He was Robert Preston in the Music Man," says Duke athletic director Kevin White, referencing the infectious traveling salesman from the film. "He was full of energy, an incredible innovator, very smart and could excite the entire Valley of the Sun about the prospects of the Fiesta Bowl."
Starting in 1978, the bowl began to host an annual event called the Fiesta Frolic as a way to entertain a handful of important partners. In the early years, this included a horseback ride, a steak fry, private flights to San Diego for a yacht cruise and a day trip to the Grand Canyon. Former Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen recalls an early Frolic that featured a fishing trip to Lake Powell, where his guide was named after Michigan coach Bump Elliott. "As we pulled up to the dock, I said, 'I'm about to introduce you to your namesake. Bump, meet Bump.'"
The Frolic shrunk the college football world and grew from an intimate event into what former SEC commissioner Mike Slive called "a convention of the game" that hosted up to 500 of the sport's boldfaced names. It became so culturally ingrained that the Pac-10, WAC and Big 12 conferences began holding their spring meetings in Phoenix congruent to it. "It eventually," Hansen says, "became bigger than life."
Along the way, so did Junker. As years morphed into decades and coaches moved from the MAC to the Big Ten, Junker remained consistent. He knew the coaches' records, remembered their wives' names and always asked about the kids. "I love him," says Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who often attended the Fiesta Frolic with his wife, Shelley. "John Junker was different. Shelley still talks about it. He was just so genuine, and the hospitality was ridiculous."
The Fiesta Bowl became more than a game; it became a destination. While other bowls had more established brands given their half-century head start, the Fiesta closed the gap and passed them one tee time, sun tan and happy spouse at a time.
The Fiesta Bowl's large payouts and endless reputation for hospitality earned it the first national title game in the Bowl Alliance (Nebraska vs. Florida in 1996) and in the BCS (Tennessee vs. Florida State in 1999). By 2007, as scrutiny rose about the discrepancy between skyrocketing salaries of administrators and coaches and the fixed scholarships of athletes, the commissioners who ran college football became worried about the optics of the Fiesta Frolic. They decided they couldn't accept gifts like comped rooms at the Biltmore resort, and then-Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe broke the news to Junker in an awkward conversation.
"He had a tough time with that," Beebe says. "It was almost like we were telling him to not be kind and generous. His reaction was like, 'This is who I am. I want to lavish people with gifts. This is the American way.'"
Junker's career unraveled in a quintessentially American way. An anonymous phone call placed to Arizona Republic reporter Craig Harris led to a December 2009 article about alleged illegal campaign contributions. The Fiesta Bowl hastily arranged an internal investigation that doubled as a botched cover-up attempt. Eventually, bowl executives came to their senses and brought in an external investigator. And while no charges ever emerged for the reckless spending, Junker was mocked with lists like this one from Business Insider: "16 Most Ridiculous Purchases Made by Corrupt Fiesta Bowl Executives." The second edition of the book Death to the BCS, by Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter and Jeff Passan, was dedicated to Junker for essentially proving the authors correct for writing the first edition.
Junker didn't help himself, either, as epitomized by his defense of bringing business clients to a strip club. "We are in the business where big strong athletes are known to attend these types of establishments," he told investigators. "It was important for us to visit, and we certainly conducted business."
Osmin Ocardona strolls through one of the dining rooms at St. Vincent de Paul in a ripped red-and-black flannel work shirt and black boots. He gives Junker a warm hello, prompting a story from a darker time. Junker worked at St. Vincent de Paul for more than two years before his sentencing in 2014. Ocardona, a forklift operator and kitchen helper, approached Susan Junker soon after John went to prison. He handed her a $100 bill, which she knew he needed to support his own family of six children. He insisted she take it to help with her two kids, who had just graduated from high school and college. She took the money reluctantly, but she never spent it. When Junker got released from what he calls his "sabbatical", the three of them sat together on his first day back from work and Junker gave Ocardona the same $100 bill and thanked him for the gesture.
"He was crying and we were crying," Junker says. "It shows the generosity of the kind of people around here."
Junker passed the time in the minimum-security prison in Tucson by working in the library for 19 cents an hour, washing windows for 36 cents an hour and making $2 a week sweeping floors. He wore standard issue federal green pants and a shirt and slept in a dormitory-style bunk alongside dozens of other inmates.
He eventually saved enough money to replace the bulky black boots he received while checking in. "You learn to work the system," he says. "That's a long time to wear boots that don't fit."
Junker's pay cut has forced his family into financial austerity, but they managed to hang on to their house. When asked if he would ever run a bowl again, Junker didn't rule out the notion, but said it's very unlikely. "I love what I'm doing and the people with whom I work," he says. "There's zero chance of anyone extending me the opportunity to run a bowl."
He still has a handful of the old canary yellow blazers in his closet, but encourages any Fiesta Bowl officials to drop by and take them if they are in need. Junker's worlds did briefly collide when he attended the Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Notre Dame on Jan. 1. He went at the request of his son, Michael, who is a sophomore at Notre Dame. (Junker listened to last year's game on the radio driving back to the halfway house in Florence, Ariz., where he stayed after his release.)
Junker says his two probation officers aren't crazy about his old life intersecting with his new one, which is why he hasn't written or called back folks like White, former Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood and former Texas A&M AD Bill Byrne. The executives he lavished and befriended still speak highly of him, as Byrne says Junker is one of the smartest people he has ever met. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith calls him "a good man who made bad decisions" and White says Junker "has some magic to him."
But for now the man perhaps most responsible for Monday night's game being in the Valley will watch at home, comfortable with the distance between his worlds.
"For people wondering, 'Why hasn't John called?' There's a good reason," Junker says. "Hopefully there will be time in the future to do a reunion, at the right time and the right place. These things do happen to people in their lives. You have to deal with it, and own it and digest it. Hopefully I've done O.K. at that."