Utah grad's Playoff PAC working to bust the BCS

By Frederic J. Frommer

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 17 2011 5:40 p.m. MDT

— Calling for a probe into possible wrongdoing at the Fiesta Bowl, based on reporting by The Arizona Republic, which triggered an investigation by the Arizona attorney general's office that is still ongoing. The allegations were also looked at by a special committee established by the bowl, which went on to document apparently illegal campaign contributions and inappropriate spending, leading to the firing of CEO John Junker.

— Using public records requests to show that nine of the 11 members of an NCAA panel voting on whether to revoke the Fiesta Bowl's license had attended a bowl-sponsored retreat that included free meals, resort rooms and golf outings. (The panel let the bowl keep its license, but put it on one year's probation.)

Through these and other revelations, the PAC has been effective in generating media exposure, which has given it a voice even without much money. "We've been successful in attracting press attention, not successful in getting donations," Sanderson said. "We thought it would be the opposite."

BCS executive director Bill Hancock said he thought that the PAC's impact on the discussion of postseason college football has been "little to none."

But Scott McKibben, executive director of the Rose Bowl — the one BCS bowl that has escaped the PAC's criticism — said the group has "stirred up the dust with fans" on the question of whether a playoff would be better than the BCS.

"I don't think there's any question that they have, just from a pure fan awareness and media exposure perspective, brought that up a notch or two," he said.

It didn't start that way. In 2009, ESPN announced the news of the PAC's formation with mockery.

"Forget health care," ESPN anchor Stan Verrett said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Even when they're really really sick, you know all people really want is for their team to get a fair shot at the title."

The reaction wasn't all that different at Sanderson's own law firm. One of his bosses, partner Joe Birkenstock, recalled that some of the other partners were saying, "Look, isn't this just a waste of time? We don't want to start throwing elbows in that corner of the world. You gotta be kidding, the college football system needs a political action committee?"

Birkenstock, a former chief counsel for the Democratic National Committee, said that he and Sanderson argued that it was an important issue that many people cared about. Since then, other lawyers at the firm have contributed their time to the effort: Birkenstock and fellow partner, Marcus Owens, former director of the IRS exempt organizations division, both joined Sanderson in signing an IRS complaint accusing the Sugar, Orange and Fiesta bowls of violating their tax-exempt status.

The PAC has done its own share of mockery, and one target is Hancock, the BCS executive director. A PAC ad on YouTube compared him to "Baghdad Bob," Saddam Hussein's information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who gave reality-defying news briefings. The ad dubbed Hancock "Baghdad Bill," slapped a military beret on his head, and interspersed his audio clips with video clips of al-Sahaf, with Benny Hill music playing in the background. Matthew Martinez, another founder of the PAC, conceded with a laugh that the Baghdad Bill ad was not the group's finest piece of work.

He added that Hancock was lampooned because he's the face of the BCS, but that the group has nothing against Hancock personally.

"We're attacking the BCS," said Martinez. "We're not attacking any one individual."

That's not how Hancock sees it.

"When I took this job, I didn't anticipate the smear tactics and the personal attacks that I've seen," he said. "But I have thick skin. On a broader note, those tactics may be backfiring, because nobody wants to politicize college football. Folks who love this game don't want the kind of political slash-and-burn that you see in Washington, D.C. So I'm not sure their political campaign tactics will work."

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