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INFLUENCE GAME: Picking a college football champ

A political action committee that wants to change how the national college football champion is crowned had little success with its first strategy, raising money to elect lawmakers friendly to its cause of establishing a playoff system. It's made itself relevant, though, with another tactic — investigating the current bowl-game system and filing complaints about corruption and waste.

By obtaining public records, analyzing tax filings and mounting an aggressive public relations campaign, Playoff PAC has repeatedly put the Bowl Championship Series on the defensive, despite raising less than $20,000 in nearly two years and failing to make a single campaign contribution.

Just last week, the PAC filed complaints against the Fiesta Bowl in nine states, claiming that payments the bowl received from an Arizona visitors bureau for placing teams in hotels, and for other services, amounted to "kickbacks." Bowl officials strongly denounced the accusations as off base, countering that the arrangement was not only legal but advantageous to the schools — and a spokesman at least one school, Connecticut, said that the university was satisfied with the deal it got.

Nonetheless, Playoff PAC had succeeded in putting an anti-BCS item on the agenda of attorneys general across the country.

When it launched in 2009, the PAC said its goal was to help elect members of Congress who would pressure college football to replace the BCS with a playoff. But the money didn't flow in, and the group shifted its tactics: focusing on investigations instead of donations. Several of the PAC's founders and board members are young lawyers, who donate their time and legal expertise to their goal of dethroning the BCS.

The public face of Playoff PAC is Matthew Sanderson, a boyish-looking 30-year-old campaign finance lawyer in Washington who worked for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. He and fellow attorney Trevor Potter teamed up to represent Stephen Colbert before the Federal Election Commission, prompting the comedian to crack that the two lawyers "will go down with the greats of American duos: Lewis and Clark, Sacco and Vanzetti, Harold and Kumar."

Sanderson is a graduate of Utah, which was denied a chance to play for the national championship in 2009 despite going undefeated. That helped motivate him and his friends to start Playoff PAC.

Under the BCS, the champions of the six powerhouse conferences have automatic bids to play in top-tier bowl games, while the other five conferences don't. The teams ranked No. 1and No. 2 under a formula devised by the BCS play in a national title game. Notably, the system is not governed by the NCAA, which stages playoffs for the lower divisions of football. Non-BCS college football rankings, including The Associated Press' Top 25, can select a different champion.

Playoff PAC and other critics call the BCS unfair, and even though Utah is moving into one of the six powerhouse conferences this year, Sanderson hasn't lost his zeal. "By the time Utah committed to the Pac-12, we'd already seen too much," he said. "Misconduct plagues the status quo, and we couldn't in good conscience let that continue."

The BCS doesn't have a political action committee, but it has hardly ceded the political arena to Playoff PAC. Congressional lobbying reports show that the BCS spent about $100,000 in the last three-month reporting period, the second quarter of 2011, on "issues related to college football playoff."

Playoff PAC has filed several complaints and reports that have attacked three of the four BCS bowls. The group's actions include:

— Reviewing tax records to highlight what it calls excessive salaries and perks to the CEOs of the Fiesta, Sugar and Orange Bowls;

— 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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Follow Fred Frommer on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ffrommer