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Dick Harmon: 5 unsung Utahns played a critical role in the death of the BCS

Published: Friday, Sept. 4 2015 3:28 p.m. MDT

Florida State players celebrate after defeating Auburn University in the 2014 BCS Championship NCAA College Football game on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014 in Pasadena, Calif. Florida State defeated Auburn 34-31. (AP Photo/Doug Benc) (Doug Benc, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Florida State players celebrate after defeating Auburn University in the 2014 BCS Championship NCAA College Football game on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014 in Pasadena, Calif. Florida State defeated Auburn 34-31. (AP Photo/Doug Benc) (Doug Benc, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

On a quiet Sunday morning a few months ago in Orem, I turned and saw Matt Sanderson in the back of the church building.

He was there for the blessing of a newborn baby in the Sanderson clan. Nobody outside of his family knew who he was. He looked just like another Mormon guy in a suit and tie sitting in the back.

But I knew.

The University of Utah graduate is a Washington, D.C., lawyer — a famous one. He helped bring down the BCS, a system that took its last breath Monday night in Pasadena, Calif.

I had to shake his hand.

Sanderson is a guy who simply cared and was unafraid to use his legal skills to do something about an injustice he saw as un-American. In 2011, his Playoff PAC was nominated for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year award for its anti-BCS work.

“I’m glad it’s over,” Sanderson said Wednesday. “I’m happy the BCS is done and I think we proved in a few significant ways a playoff will make a difference, that more championships will be decided on the field rather than by pundits.”

Sandersen helped found Playoff PAC to fight for a college playoff by exposing the failings of the elite BCS and its cronyism. The other co-founders — Matthew Martinez, Chad Pehrson, Bentley Peay and Bryson Morgan — are all Utah natives. Their efforts made the front page of The New York Times and other top media outlets.

In untold thousands of hours devoted to this task, these Utahns played a key role in changing the face of college football from what it was — an unpopular ruse — to something yet to be determined.

Florida State's win over Auburn Monday night was one of the best BCS championship games of all 16. It was exciting, dramatic, filled with heroics and a Heisman Trophy winner who delivered. It was a great finale.

But if you teleport yourself out and look at the big picture, the masses judged the BCS unpopular by a large consensus. It stunk because its foundation was made of well-intentioned greedy rot.

The BCS was always designed to benefit certain conferences, especially the elite SEC. It was specifically designed, with its secret computer formulas, to exclude. By its bylaws, it specifically picked out automatic qualifiers from six conferences — others could go fish until Congress got involved. And that’s when Utah became the first BCS buster in 2004.

The BCS drew the ire of many college coaches and fans over its span of 16 years. But it enriched certain bowl directors and the establishment that created it to make profits and enhance the select blessed.

Led by Roy Kramer, an SEC die-hard elite, the BCS used three computer rating systems when it started and added five more in 1999. To make it more elite, it added a strength of schedule category in 2001. In 2002, margin of victory was cut from the formula after much criticism. It no longer encouraged a potential BCS-ranked team to win 82-10 over a cupcake.

The BCS kept evolving, trying to appear credible. But it was running on a treadmill.

In October 2010, Sanderson, who grew up in Orem, debated Kramer face to face over the BCS issue at Boston College. I had Sanderson winning easily.

The BCS era is over for two reasons. First, there was a cry for a playoff. Second, there is more money to be made.

When Yahoo.com columnist Dan Wetzel co-wrote a book that trumpeted just how massive the financial fleecing of universities by bowls had become, and how out-of-whack the BCS system had operated, public opinion continued to erode.

Sanderson’s group sent 13 legal complaints to the IRS and gathered embarrassing information of questionable bowl practices through 213 public records requests. Playoff PAC brought to light questions about interest-free loans, high salaries, lobbying payments, and perks that included golf outings, trips to strip clubs and even a $33,000 price tag for a birthday party for the executive director of the Fiesta Bowl.

Sanderson and Wetzel helped the public understand that these major bowls were hammering universities with contracts to guarantee ticket sales — used or unused — and pocketing huge profits from public institutions, a river of money.

Today, the BCS era is done.

Many questions remain. Will a four-game playoff give us the best four teams? Will the selection committee care more about competition than regional and conference politics? Will we now disperse with labeling teams BCS and non-BCS when there is no BCS?

“I’d glad it is now a four-game playoff, and in time, I think it will expand,” said Sanderson. “It’s a matter of economics and common sense.”

Another result of Sanderson’s work is that the NCAA is now controlling the oversight of bowl budgets, something that was formerly done by athletic directors and conference commissioners who received expensive perks to “watch” expenditures.

As a result of Playoff PAC, the Fiesta Bowl suffered a $5 million loss in the wake of one of its legal complaints, according to court documents.

Personally, I think the new system will give more opportunities to the Pac-12, Big 12 and Big Ten to get into that playoff. The SEC will always be the nation’s toughest conference. It is also the most penalized by the NCAA for infractions, including providing prohibited benefits to lure recruits.

“The ornery BCS expired loudly, perfectly, kicking and screaming into the chilly darkness,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke. “The loony BCS took its last breath Monday by taking away the breath of a Rose Bowl filled with chants, chops, dancing and grief.”

After 13-1 Michigan State won the Rose Bowl, Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press wrote: “The Big Ten isn’t exactly mourning the death of the BCS. If anything, it’s providing Michigan State champagne to spray over the grave.”

Amen.

And thanks goes to Sanderson, a guy who speaks Mandarin Chinese but made it very clear to the world about the BCS in simple English.

Well done, Mr. Sanderson and the team of other Playoff PAC native Utahns: They stood up when few others would.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company