A Bowl Full Of Trouble

A report on financial misconduct at the Fiesta Bowl reflects a broken BCS system
April 03, 2011

We interrupt March Madness to call your attention once again to the only NCAA team sport that doesn't use a playoff to determine its national champion. That's right, the Bowl Championship Series—whose message to the Butlers and VCUs of the world is "Don't bother"—is back in the news.

Yes, a college football playoff could quadruple revenue to Division I schools at a time when cash-starved athletic departments are cutting sports. True, the BCS uses flawed human polls and debatable computer rankings to determine who plays in its title game. Thus, to better understand why anyone would argue in favor of this broken system, it helps to remember who, precisely, is benefiting from it.

For the past decade the BCS has been very good to John Junker, longtime CEO of the Fiesta Bowl, whose officials confirmed for SI on Monday that after 30 years with the organization, he was scheduled to be fired the next day. Junker, who according to tax returns cited by The Arizona Republic made $673,888 in 2010 (an unusually high figure for the head of a tax-exempt, nonprofit entity), was placed on administrative leave in February while investigators retained by the Fiesta Bowl board looked into allegations that, under his watch and at his insistence, bowl employees:

• Routinely wrote checks to politicians friendly to the Fiesta Bowl and were then reimbursed by it, a practice that is illegal, and was first reported by The Republic in December 2009. (Junker denied the allegations at the time and has not commented publicly since.)

• Racked up excessive expenditures, all charged to the bowl.

• Presided over a hasty investigation in which documents were altered and witnesses coached. (The in-house investigation ended with lead investigator Grant Woods, a former Arizona attorney general, saying that he'd uncovered "no credible evidence" to support the allegations.)

A second, far more comprehensive investigation was initiated last fall, when an employee told Duane Woods, the bowl's board Chairman (and no relation to Grant), that staffers had regularly been asked to write checks to politicians, then been reimbursed with bonuses. Woods called an emergency meeting of the bowl's Executive Committee, which formed a Special Committee that was charged with conducting the new investigation. Working with independent professional investigators, counsel for the Special Committee debriefed 52 individuals over a four-month period. (The previous investigation had taken 10 days and interviewed seven current and two former employees. "Key people," Grant Woods later told The Republic, in explaining his findings, "may have lied to me.")

While the Special Committee's final report was scheduled to be made public on Wednesday, March 30, bowl officials allowed SI to review it over the weekend, with the understanding that its contents would be embargoed until the day of its release. (For a more detailed examination of the Special Committee's report, go to SI.com.) That 276-page document is alternately arid, amusing (as in its categorization of expenses—"Golf: This category includes expenditures related to golf and golf memberships, with the exception of [Fiesta Bowl] Frolic golf, which is included in the Frolic category") and astounding. Here is Junker on page 239, billing his employer, a tax-exempt charity, for $1,241.75 in charges incurred at a Phoenix strip club. On page 210 we find the bowl footing the $33,188.96 bill for Junker's 50th-birthday party in Pebble Beach.

There are junkets to football games with legislators, family trips, golf-course memberships. According to the report, Junker was also generous with the bowl's money, paying $13,086 in connection with an employee's wedding and bestowing on others gifts such as iPads, gift cards and, bizarrely, bullion. He purchased (and billed to the bowl) $31,550 worth of gold and silver coins.

It's important to note that these alleged activities did not take place in a vacuum. Last September a committee called Playoff PAC filed a complaint with the IRS against three of the four bowls that take turns hosting the national championship game. (Only the Rose Bowl was excepted.) The complaint detailed how the bowls abused their favorable tax status, using charitable funds to provide "excessive compensation" for officials. According to an addendum to the complaint, last June the Orange Bowl treated its executives and college athletic directors to Summer Splash, a four-day Royal Caribbean cruise featuring no business meetings. (Spokespeople for each of the bowls deny any impropriety.)

These bowls could be stripped of their tax-exempt status, which could spell their demise. That may sound just dandy to playoff proponents, but it would be a cruel blow to the thousands of volunteers who give countless hours to the bowls, for all the right reasons.

Sherry Henry started at the Fiesta Bowl as a volunteer in 1973. By the '90s, she said last week, she'd worked her way up to chairperson. "I spent 30 to 40 hours a week working for the Fiesta Bowl"—on top of her full-time job. "It makes me sad," she said of the allegations surrounding the bowl, "to think that anything could happen to tarnish it. But this is an extraordinary organization made up of extraordinary people, and it will survive." There was a catch in her voice. After a pause, she continued, "We'll just ... polish the tarnish."

It's going to be a big job.

Now on SI.com

For more news and an in-depth look at the Fiesta Bowl scandal, go to SI.com/cfb

The report has officials expensing a birthday bash, golf outings and A VISIT TO A STRIP CLUB.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY DARROW

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)