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The Sugar Bowl’s flawed selections this year perfectly underscore the need for change

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Meet Paul Hoolahan, chief executive officer of the Sugar Bowl, and watch him as he goes tee-hee-heeing all the way to the bank. Understand that he is simply operating on the overriding Bowl Championship Series principle that cash trumps competition. Listen to his smooth language as he justifies the larceny that college football has become. Consider him Exhibit A in a government case against the BCS.

Hoolahan is the face of the BCS. He is the longest-serving bowl executive, and the perfect reflection of its values and priorities — the least of which is to name a legitimate national champion. He hides behind bland marketing terms that can be loosely translated to “stick ’em up.” He plays especially adroit games with the word “integrity.”

Hoolahan will rake off something in the neighborhood of $600,000 in salary and bonuses this year for defrauding college football fans who expected the Sugar Bowl to present the best available game. Instead he awarded bids to No. 13 Michigan and No. 17 Virginia Tech based, it appears, purely on debts and favors owed. It mattered not that at least five other teams had stronger competitive claims.

No. 8 Boise State, No. 11 Kansas State and No. 12 Michigan State were all more deserving of a bid than Virginia Tech, which failed to beat a ranked team, and for that matter so were No. 15 Baylor and No. 16 TCU.

None of this mattered to Hoolahan with his mystery criteria. Even Tech Coach Frank Beamer struggled to understand what did matter. The best he could guess was, “Over the years the Virginia Tech name has gotten to be a very good name.”

As if this is Boston, and teams are the Cabots and Lodges.

Remember, it was Hoolahan who last year blatantly lobbied Big Ten and Ohio State officials to back off suspending Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four teammates for pawning items for cash until after the Sugar Bowl game against Arkansas. And then was brazen enough to brag about it in public. “I made the point that anything that could be done to preserve the integrity of this year’s game, we would greatly appreciate it,” Hoolahan told the Columbus Dispatch. “That appeal did not fall on deaf ears, and I’m extremely excited about it, that the Buckeyes are coming in at full strength and with no dilution.”

No dilution. That was the neat phrase Hoolahan substituted for “mockery of the rules.” This year, he used another neat phrase in defense of his indefensible bid to Virginia Tech, which seemed to amount to cronyism. “We obviously had firsthand experience with them,” he said. “It has always been a very effective experience and so we really didn’t have any problems selecting them.”

According to the lobbying group Playoff Pac, which watchdogs the BCS, the top three Sugar Bowl executives received more than $1.2 million of the game’s revenue of $12.7 million in 2009. Now, the Sugar Bowl is supposedly a nonprofit. Yet Hoolahan and two others skimmed almost $1 off of every $10 the bowl brought in. Hoolahan’s bonus in ’08, the year the Sugar hosted the national championship, was $140,000. In ’09 it was $80,000.

“I think he’s managed it as his own personal fiefdom,” says Matt Sanderson, co-founder of the Playoff PAC.

Any attempt to reshape the BCS into something more fair and legitimate is going to run smack into the reluctance of Hoolahan and his fellow bowl executives to surrender their power and positions — not to mention who knows what sort of hold over conference commissioners. There will be no real reforming the BCS until the Hoolahans are forcibly pried away from the banqueting table.

Last spring the Justice Department asked NCAA President Mark Emmert to please justify the BCS, and explain why it isn’t a violation of antitrust law. Emmert replied by acting as if the BCS was a reeking skunk he preferred not to touch. By letter, he explained to the DOJ that all the he does is hand out licenses, and other than that, “the NCAA has no role to play in the BCS or the BCS system,” and any reform would have to come from the BCS members.

In other words, Emmert said, “Don’t look at me.” Which leaves the government.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has a term for Hoolahan to consider. Lawsuit. Shurtleff has long been threatening to file an antitrust case against the BCS, and says that Hoolahan just helped him by passing over Boise State at 11-1, the fourth time the school has finished in the top 10 yet been left out of the elite bowls. Shurtleff seems inclined to investigate the strange basis of the Sugar Bowl bids. “There was some kind of mischief going on,” he told the Arizona Republic on Monday.

Government intervention or lawsuits are never a first choice. But the bowl fiefs have shown that they will only respond to legal threat.

Here’s what needs to happen. At risk of having a new championship structure dictated by a court or Congress, the conference commissioners should seize control of the bowls from CEOs like Hoolahan, and form an NCAA selection committee, just as in basketball. The bowls must become mere tournament sites, stripped of their special status, which they’ve so egregiously abused. The right to host should be dependent on the ability to meet rigorous good governance audits.

Right now there is only one bowl that meets such a standard, according to Sanderson, and it’s ironically the one with the most tradition, the Rose. Reward the Rose Bowl by designating it the host of the first clean, non-BCS national championship.

Do that, and the postseason will become again what it used to be, an ardent, spirited time of year, as opposed to a dour, cynical scheme that excites no one, and breeds apathy, with games drained of vitality, and rankings bled of meaning. It’s time to knock the whole thing down, and start all over again.

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