The new leader of the Fiesta Bowl says he will be the “chief braggart” for the event’s positive aspects as he leads the rehabilitation of one of the premier games in college football.
University of Arizona President Robert Shelton donned the Fiesta Bowl’s traditional yellow sports jacket at a news conference Tuesday to introduce him as the new executive director.
The 62-year-old physicist replaces John Junker, who was fired after an internal investigation uncovered widespread lavish spending, an apparent illegal system of political contributions and an attempt to cover up the problems in a cursory initial probe.
Shelton acknowledged the bowl’s rapid fall from grace and looked forward to leading the climb back to respectability.
“You can fall quickly,” he said, “and it takes a long time to get back up. We’re on that road and we will continue to be on that road, and our actions will demonstrate that.”
Shelton and Fiesta Bowl board chairman Duane Woods said they wanted to replace past waste with an increase in charitable contributions and draw public attention to those activities.
“At the U of A, I billed myself as the chief braggart about the institution,” Shelton said after the news conference, “and I need to be the chief braggart about the Fiesta Bowl.”
Shelton is a member of the presidential oversight committee for the Bowl Championship Series, the system that determines major college football’s national champion. The BCS has ordered the Fiesta Bowl to pay $1 million to charity but allowed the event to remain as one of its four games. The bowls rotate as hosts of the BCS championship. The Fiesta Bowl staged last season’s highly anticipated title game between unbeatens Oregon and Auburn.
“I’m very familiar with college football, with the BCS,” Shelton said. “I have an understanding of the role that presidents should play. The unique background that I bring, I think, has prepared me very well for the challenge that we face going ahead.”
Shelton said he was born in Phoenix when “it was a small community of a little over 150,000.” He paid close attention to the bowl’s climb to one of the nation’s premier college football events. Shelton said that he expressed interest in the Fiesta Bowl job just three weeks ago at the urging of several colleagues. He departs the state’s second-largest university after five years there, knowing that it faces yet another in series of substantial budget cuts.
Shelton becomes the leader of an organization embarrassed by an internal report that uncovered spending $33,000 for a birthday bash for Junker in Pebble Beach, Calif., $13,000 for the wedding of one of his aides, and a $1,200 tab at a Phoenix strip club. The report outlined junkets and free football tickets for many Arizona legislators, who had not revealed the gifts as required by state law.
Most damaging, however, was a system in which employees were reimbursed for donations made to top bowl officials’ favored political candidates. The Arizona state attorney general’s office is investigating the case.
“You always have to get lessons learned out of a situation,” Shelton said. “At its fundamental level, what you found was a very small number of people … felt that they were bigger and more important than the bowl itself. When I say bowl, I mean the whole organization. And that’s a recipe for problems wherever you are.”
Shelton said the Fiesta Bowl “isn’t one individual, isn’t even a group of individuals that work like crazy to make it a success. It’s really an organization that belongs to the people of Arizona.”
While Junker had many extras in his contract, including membership in elite golf clubs in Oklahoma, Oregon and Arizona, Woods said there are “no perks” in Shelton’s contract, which carries an annual salary of $455,000. The four-year contract does, however, have several job performance incentives.
Shelton was asked whether he favors the BCS system over a playoff format.
“It’s demonstrable that the BCS has been extremely successful if you define success as pitting the top two teams,” he said. “If you look pre-BCS that rarely happened. Now it really is happening. It’s also been a system that has preserved the integrity of the bowls, the viability, the strength of the bowls and also the regular season of college football.”
He called college football’s regular season “the most dynamic, highly watched” of any sport.
“That said, I know there is this visceral hunger some people have for a playoff,” Shelton said. “And I think if they’re going to put that forward in any successful way they need to come up with a viable option. A viable option means playoffs that grow and grow and grow and grow and not interfere — now I’m putting my university president’s hat on — with the academics of these young men. So I think there are a lot of unknowns, but the bottom line is you have to acknowledge the great success of the BCS to date.”