Fiesta Forever?

Written by Editorial Staff Category: Hot Topics Issue: December 2011
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In the wake of a massive scandal, the Fiesta Bowl is under new management and feeling better about itself. But is it better?

“I don’t golf,” newly-hired Fiesta Bowl Executive Director Robert Shelton says. He raises an eyebrow and smiles knowingly. No elaboration necessary.
To those unfamiliar with the Fiesta Bowl and its recent troubles, it might seem like a curious statement. Irrelevant, even. But within the context of his job, Shelton’s disclosure of non-golf-love is rigorously on topic.

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Shelton replaces longtime Fiesta Bowl honcho John Junker, who was fired last March following an independent, 276-page report alleging spectacular feats of misconduct during his 21-year tenure as the executive officer of the organization, which includes not only the Fiesta Bowl, but also the smaller Insight Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl Parade and more than 40 statewide events. The report confirmed a 2009 Arizona Republic article that accused Junker and other high-ranking Fiesta Bowl officials of violating campaign finance laws by pressuring employees to make monetary donations to certain Arizona politicians and reimbursing them from Fiesta Bowl coffers. In dispassionate but salacious detail, the report also describes kickbacks, four-figure strip club tabs, off-the-books gifts of gold coins, lavish out-of-state junkets and, yes, excessive and unnecessary golf trips and country club memberships, all expensed to the tax-exempt Fiesta Bowl.

Shelton, a Stanford-educated physics Ph.D. and former president of the University of Arizona, accepted the job and its $455,000 annual base salary in June, but he wisely waived any clause in his contract for a country club membership. Make no mistake: There will be no excessive golfing on his watch.

Of course, the changes at the Fiesta Bowl cut deeper than greens fees. From his Scottsdale Waterfront office, Shelton – a well-maintained 63-year-old who looks a little like Law & Order actor Sam Waterston – describes the “reinvigorated policy of oversight” that he and Fiesta Bowl chairman Duane Woods instituted in the wake of the scandal. Faced with the possibility of losing its lucrative Bowl Championship Series (BCS) membership – a controversial but profitable system that rotates the NCAA championship game between four different bowls and brings untold millions to the Valley in tourist dollars – the Fiesta Bowl went into damage-control mode over the summer.

“When they brought me on board, they also brought on board my relationships and contacts from a career spent in university administration,” Shelton acknowledges. “That runs the gamut from athletic directors to public officials to media. We had to communicate to all of them that the Fiesta Bowl was serious about fixing its problems and going forward.”

Ultimately, the Fiesta Bowl kept its BCS status and de facto standing as one of America’s top four bowl games. It will host its 41st contest on January 2, 2012. Like a gambling addict who successfully emerges from rehab, it’s feeling better about itself. Which leaves the question: How should we feel about the Fiesta Bowl? Did the changes go far enough, or – as some critics suggest – is the bowl feeding an unsustainable machine that prizes profits above competition? And even if that’s true, should we just sit back and enjoy the show?

Few people close to the Fiesta Bowl scandal have a more personal stake in the matter – and more justifiable grounds for outrage – than Don Meyers. In 1968, Meyers was one of nine original “founders” who hatched the idea of a college football bowl game in Tempe, then spent decades nurturing it into one of America’s premier sports events. “I dedicated quite literally 25 years of my existence to the Fiesta Bowl,” the attorney says. “And I never got paid, and I never had an expense account.”

Meyers evinces fatherly pride when he recalls the Fiesta Bowl’s origins. The initial push came from disgruntled boosters of Arizona State University football. In those days, the Frank Kush-coached Sun Devils played in the mid-major Western Athletic Conference (WAC), which they routinely dominated. Just as routinely, the bowls of the era would snub ASU during bid season, owing to the WAC’s lack of national stature.

“That was the motivating factor: getting ASU, or at least the WAC champion, into a bowl game,” Meyers says. “But there were plenty of other good reasons to have a bowl here. We had the best weather in the world – particularly in the winter. And there was only one bowl in the West at the time: the Rose Bowl. There were no other regional bowls until you got to El Paso and their Sun Bowl, which was a good event but not an attractive place to go.”

Meyers and his fellow founders endeavored to use the Valley’s hospitable seasonal weather and emerging reputation as a resort hotbed as a marketing tool for the Fiesta Bowl: “That’s why we picked those yellow jackets to wear. It was all about the sunshine.”

Behind the MVP efforts of standout defensive end Junior Ah You, the Sun Devils won the inaugural Fiesta Bowl in a 45-38 shootout over the Florida State Seminoles on December 27, 1971. Meyers personally negotiated the TV contract for the game, which netted the Fiesta Bowl all of $55,000. (The current TV contract with ESPN pays $22 million annually.) “It was 70 degrees at kickoff and just looked fantastic on television,” he remembers.

ASU and conference-mate U of A left the WAC in 1977 for the Pac-10, effectively terminating the Fiesta Bowl’s conference affiliation with the WAC, but by then the Fiesta Bowl was a rising star in the bowl world. In fact, the Fiesta Bowl became the first bowl game to receive corporate sponsorship when Sunkist agreed to underwrite the game in 1986. The Fiesta Bowl’s TV partner, NBC, was none too happy with this now-commonplace arrangement, Meyers recalls. “I took the deal to (President of NBC Sports) Arthur Watson and he said, ‘We will not show the Sunkist identifier anywhere on our broadcasts.’ That’s what he thought of having a sponsor.”

The next year, Sunkist re-upped as the Fiesta Bowl’s official sponsor, and Meyers once again conferred with his NBC counterpart: “Watson told me again, ‘This is the dumbest idea you’ve ever had.’ Then I told him that Sunkist wanted to buy a full quarter of the advertising for the game, and he told me, ‘Don, this is the smartest idea you’ve ever had.’”

Meanwhile, the Fiesta Bowl was attracting the most dynamic college talent in the nation. The bowl’s coming-of-age moment may have been the unforgettable 1987 game between Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions and the fearsome Miami Hurricanes, led by future Dallas Cowboys head coach and current Fox broadcaster Jimmy Johnson. The game paired the nation’s two top-ranked teams – thus constituting the bowl’s first national championship game – and two of the sport’s great personalities: the genial, steadfast Paterno and the brash, ambitious, helmet-haired Johnson. Dubbed “The Duel in the Desert,” the 14-10 Penn State victory drew the largest television audience in the history of college football and catapulted the Fiesta Bowl into national prominence. 

The Fiesta Bowl – barely 16 years old and a fraction as well-capitalized as the so-called “major” bowls – had arrived. But it wasn’t close to peaking. That would come later, and would largely be the work of a then 31-year-old former publicist named John Junker.

The Fiesta Bowl headquarters’ lobby is not the lobby of a second-tier sporting event.

Located at the Scottsdale Waterfront, a high-dollar mixed-use fortress overlooking Old Town Scottsdale, the lobby occupies a spacious ground-level retail space large enough to accommodate a small department store. It functions both as a reception area – the Fiesta Bowl’s offices are upstairs – and a lavish shrine to the event’s 40-year-history. There are bejeweled trophies under glass, myriad game-day memorabilia and a bank of plasma televisions looping key moments from past Fiesta Bowl games. On the far wall, helmets representing each of the 120 NCAA Division I football programs gleam like freshly waxed sports cars, and framed portraits of the bowl’s nine founders and 30-odd former chairpersons smile down like yellow-coated priests from on high.

Known officially as the Ziegler Fiesta Bowl Museum, the exhibit and its many splendid gewgaws serve as material evidence of the event’s princely standing within the college bowl community. You think the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl rates such luxe digs? Think again.

Charitably, one could think of the museum as a living monument to Junker’s managerial artistry. After all, it was under his watch that the Fiesta Bowl became “one of the four pillars” of modern college football, as his attorney told Sports Illustrated last March. (Through the same attorney, Junker declined to be interviewed for this article.) According to the special committee report that enumerated Junker’s misdeeds, the Fiesta Bowl currently sits on a $20 million nest egg. Clearly, Junker helped turn the Fiesta Bowl into a wildly profitable venture.

But that was also the problem: The Fiesta Bowl is legally a 501(c) nonprofit, and lacked the institutional oversight to prevent its powerful CEO from using it as his personal ATM machine.

Meyers remembers meeting Junker in the mid 1980s, when the latter was a rising star in ASU’s sports information department. Blue-eyed and bulb-nosed, with an infectious smile and excitably ruddy skin, the future Fiesta Bowl CEO was a “very hard worker” who “looked about 17 years old,” Meyers recalls.

Recruited to run the Fiesta Bowl’s PR operations, Junker demonstrated an early, advanced aptitude for diplomacy and the delicate art of ego-soothing. “He was very accommodating and ingratiating with conference commissioners and athletic directors,” Meyers says. “There’d be a number of occasions where we’d have a dilemma as to which team to invite to the bowl. And John would go talk to a particular [athletic director] and say ‘This is why we can’t invite you for this reason.’ He was very good at that. Very good at letting people down easy and salvaging those relationships.”

Junker quickly advanced to the post of assistant executive director – the Fiesta Bowl’s number two man behind longtime Executive Director Bruce Skinner. Not long after that, the rival Sun Bowl snatched him away to be its executive director, but Junker’s sojourn in El Paso was short-lived. When Skinner stepped down from his post at the Fiesta Bowl in 1990, the 34-year-old Junker topped the selection committee’s short list.

According to the Special Committee report, which quotes Junker extensively, the Fiesta Bowl “had only $16,000 in the bank” when Junker took over as executive director. Over the next several years, the bowl’s bottom line would improve significantly. Due in no small part to Junker’s marketing savvy and hosting skills, the Fiesta Bowl was invited to participate in the Bowl Coalition, a precursor to the BCS system that dominates college football today. Essentially, the Bowl Coalition was a contract between five major college athletics conferences and six bowls to foster an annual championship game between the nation’s two top-ranked teams. In 1995, the Bowl Coalition was reconfigured as the Bowl Alliance, a partnership that winnowed the number of participating bowls down to three and essentially consecrated the Fiesta Bowl as a member of college football’s bowl-season royalty.

By the time the Bowl Alliance gave way to the BCS in 1997 – a partnership of four bowls that uses a complex computer-ranking system to determine the top teams – the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl had a rich new endorsement deal with Frito-Lay, a multi-million-dollar TV contract and a large, enthusiastic, full-time staff that revered Junker as the bowl’s all-powerful, all-knowing mullah. In college football circles, the Fiesta Bowl was regarded as an unbeatable host, exemplified by the organization’s wildly popular Fiesta Frolic retreat, an annual wine-and-dine weekend that drew the sport’s most powerful figures to the Valley for golf, alcoholic merriment and deal-making.

In 2002, several members of the bowl’s “executive committee” – a group of high-ranking members from the organization’s unpaid board of directors who insiders say Junker hand-picked himself – recommended that Junker’s title be changed from “executive director” to “president and CEO.”

In retrospect, Meyers believes this trivial semantic tweak was actually a tipping point: “That was when John started thinking of the bowl as his.”

Compiled by former Arizona Supreme Court Justice Ruth McGregor and Fiesta Bowl directors Jim Bruner and Steve Whiteman – who employed the services of two FBI agents and a retired Maricopa County deputy to assist with interviews and fact-finding – the 276-page Special Committee report is a marvel of orderly disclosure. Available for public perusal on the Fiesta Bowl’s website, the report is essentially an exhaustive piece of forensic journalism – mechanical but queasily fascinating, like an early Michael Crichton novel.

The report describes how Junker and high-ranking members of his staff – including since-fired Chief Operating Officer Natalie Wisneski and lobbyist Gary Husk – needled employees for political contributions. It also reveals the mechanism Junker used to reimburse the donors, usually by awarding apocryphal “bonuses” at the end of the pay cycle. And, yes, there’s a list of the well-known beneficiaries, including U.S. Senators John McCain and John Kyl, State Senate President Russell Pearce and Governor Jan Brewer, to name a few. According to the report, the Fiesta Bowl reimbursed employees “at least $46,359 for campaign contributions since 2000.”

The constellation of excesses, falsehoods and cover-ups that comprise the report’s narrative has been rehashed ad nauseum in Sports Illustrated, the Arizona Republic and virtually every major U.S. media source, but it still makes for a fine read. There are embarrassing medicine-cabinet details worthy of a Seinfeld skit (for instance, the $4,000 in human growth hormone supplements that Junker allegedly expensed) and noirish intrigues (like the unidentified member of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, a bowl sponsor, who intermittently called the Fiesta Bowl offices demanding his $50,000 kickback stipend).

Particularly engrossing are the interview excerpts in which the embattled CEO and other officials attempt to rationalize some of his more grotesque excesses. Quizzed about a $65,000 “legislative trip” in 2008 that treated Pearce, Democratic U.S. Representative David Lujan and a large bipartisan political roster to a mostly-free, fun-filled weekend in Boston, Fiesta Bowl public affairs consultant (and well-known GOP insider) Chuck Coughlin explains that the trip was necessary to illustrate the “competitive” nature of the bowl system. Asked about a $1,200 strip-club tab at Bourbon Street in Phoenix, Junker is heroically unrepentant. “We are in the business where big, strong athletes are known to attend these types of establishments,” he told the investigators. “It was important for us to visit, and we certainly conducted business.”

The proper, politically-correct reaction to all this is outrage and indignation. Perhaps the more human reaction is jealousy. After all, the pre-scandal Fiesta Bowl seems to have afforded its 44 employees some rather extraordinary perks. One passage in the report describes how Junker handed out bowl-expensed gold coins to his staff as gifts. When one employee’s husband was hurt in a car accident, the bowl gave her a $5,000 bonus check. There were also “wedding bonuses.” According to the report, the Fiesta Bowl spent at least $13,086.77 on the wedding of Junker’s executive assistant, Kelly Keough, paying not only for guest airfare but also the couple’s multi-night stay at the Four Seasons Resorts in Whistler and Vancouver, British Columbia.

The Fiesta Bowl’s internal culture appears to have combined the lavish, free-spending ways of a Silicon Valley tech giant with the low-pressure socialism of an NGO. Who wouldn’t want to work there?

Ultimately – and somewhat counterintuitively – it was Keough who blew the whistle on the Junker regime’s profligate ways. In the fall of 2010, the 32-year-old met with bowl chairman Duane Woods and confirmed the political-reimbursement allegations. Woods was taken aback. Earlier that year, Woods had absolved Junker of wrongdoing on the basis of a three-day investigation by former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, who was paid $55,000 to determine the merits of the allegations. The ex-AG, who is not related to Duane Woods, gave the bowl a clean bill of health.

“[Keough] came to me and said that she thought I was being misused a bit,” the chairman remembers. “She said that we had a flawed first investigation and there were a lot of things I wasn’t aware of. And she personally felt very emotional about that. She knew in her heart it wasn’t right.”

As a senior vice president and former in-house counsel at Waste Management, Duane Woods had a blueprint for managing the kind of internal crisis Keough described. He told her to keep the information confidential, then summoned an emergency meeting of the bowl’s executive committee, which in turn empowered the Special Committee headed by Justice McGregor. One year later, Junker is out, several complicit board members are banished, the BCS – after levying a million-dollar fine – is back on board and all is well with the Fiesta Bowl. Isn’t it?

Woods knows that it doesn’t look perfectly rosy. Could the transgressions of the last decade really have gone unnoticed by Woods and other board members? And why wasn’t the Special Committee investigation originally ordered, instead of the hasty Grant Woods investigation, which the later report showed was secretly massaged by the lobbyist Husk?

“I know there will be skeptics,” the chairman told Sports Illustrated earlier this year, “but we all lead pretty busy lives.”

Bowl founder Meyers is a believer. Earlier this year, he attended a crisis meeting at Governor Brewer’s office with “some of the biggest egos in Arizona,” several of whom proposed dissolving the bowl’s entire board of directors, including Woods, whose one-year chairmanship was extended in the wake of the scandal. Meyers thought a complete housecleaning went too far: “I was blindsided by this, and I think Duane was, too.”

Fellow bowl founder George Taylor – a former Coca-Cola executive – was an early and vociferous critic of the board’s handling of the scandal. At one time, he supported dissolving the board, a scorched-earth measure he now concedes would have gone too far. “I think Woods has done a tremendous job of rectifying things,” Taylor says. “I know it’s been a tremendous drain on his energy. But he gave us some continuity through a difficult time.”

Moving forward, Meyers believes “it is imperative that the board have a much greater role in managing the bowl.” Originally, the founders limited chairmanship terms to one year, to prevent precisely the kind of power abuses ascribed to Junker. They never anticipated a powerful, well-compensated CEO who would “hand-pick his own executive committee” to rubber-stamp his initiatives. “So that needs to change,” Meyers says.

Done, according to Woods. Recently, the Fiesta Bowl bylaws were “tweaked” to enhance the powers of the bowl’s selection committee, restoring some degree of checks and balances. Similarly, all significant purchase orders and expense reports will be aggressively vetted, Woods says. 

More symbolically, the Fiesta Frolic will henceforth be known as the much less boondoggle-sounding “Valley of the Sun Experience & Fiesta Bowl Seminars.” And Junker’s successor, Robert Shelton, will be known as the bowl’s “executive director” rather than its “CEO.”

The Fiesta Bowl’s founders and upper management seem content to move on, but what of the bowl’s vaunted volunteer staff – the thousands of unpaid boosters who rarely catch a whiff of the material perks enjoyed by Junker and his staff or the access to upper-level functions and game-day locker rooms afforded its board members?

Most will shrug and soldier on, says a longtime volunteer who agreed to speak with PHOENIX magazine on the condition of anonymity. “There’s disappointment, but I wouldn’t say shock,” the volunteer says. “The bowl is based on hospitality and how it treats its guests, so you expect some excessiveness and self-indulgence. I’m sure the CEO of the Make-A-Wish Foundation takes the perks, too, regardless of how altruistic it is.”

Other aggrieved parties might not be so forgiving. For example, there’s the growing anti-BCS crowd – led by Playoff PAC, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying organization – that was quick to seize on the Junker scandal as proof of the BCS’s corrosive, tradition-destroying, payout-centered culture. Playoff PAC and other critics contend that schools often lose money playing in BCS bowls, due to large blocks of game tickets that the schools must contractually purchase. Unable to unload the majority of those tickets, the University of Connecticut reportedly lost $1.8 million by playing in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl last January, despite the $18 million payout that was split by the schools in its conference.

By that standard, maybe the Fiesta Bowl’s most justified critic is the UConn underclassman who can’t make tuition this semester. One of those gold coins would come in handy at the bursar’s office, no?

The U.S. Attorney in Arizona, the Arizona attorney general and the Maricopa County attorney aren’t in the bygones-be-bygones business, either. Each of the three agencies is actively investigating the Fiesta Bowl matter. (All refused to comment on the investigations.) When and if indictments are handed down, the charges could range from misdemeanor campaign violations to felony conspiracy and fraud charges, says former Arizona Attorney General candidate Vince Rabago, an expert in regulatory compliance and election law. “Were any emails used to reimburse or file campaign donations?” Rabago posits. “That could constitute federal wire fraud, in addition to potential federal crimes for defrauding the Federal Election Commission.”

Rabago also says that the Fiesta Bowl – as a legal entity – would be liable for massive taxes if the IRS moved to revoke its tax-exempt status. He also speculates that criminal charges “could touch virtually anybody involved in the scandal – both inside and outside the Fiesta Bowl, depending on their conduct and level of involvement.”

It would be a simple matter to heap the entire Fiesta Bowl fiasco on Junker’s shoulders, but he was hardly an outlier in the landscape of lavish expense accounts and serial gifting that defines today’s BCS community. As critics have noted, nine members of the 11-person BCS task force that evaluated the Fiesta Bowl in the wake of the scandal – and ultimately let the bowl keep its BCS membership after levying a $1 million fine – have themselves attended the Fiesta Frolic. Presumably, much of the profligacy detailed in the Fiesta Bowl report was simply business as usual in the BCS era. Junker was playing the game – perhaps unfairly, but playing it all the same.

Likewise, it’s facile and unrealistic to suggest the Fiesta Bowl simply walk away from the BCS. To do so would instantly evict the bowl from the top-tier of college football events into a ghetto of also-rans. Goodbye, Top 10 powerhouses. Hello, 6-5 bubble teams and mid-major specials. Decades of hard work by Fiesta Bowl boosters both paid and otherwise, undone.

With increased criticism of the BCS both as a profit-vehicle – one journalist called it “The Great Satan of College Sports” – and as a system for determining college football’s national champion, it seems likely that it will ultimately go the way of the Bowl Alliance and Bowl Coalition – which is to say, kaput. Until then, perhaps our best policy is to remember the one fact that Junker evidently forgot: The Fiesta Bowl is bigger than any one man. Or any one scandal.