Fighting influence

T. Boone Pickens won't wait in line for a ticket to the Heart of Dallas Bowl when his beloved Oklahoma State Cowboys play there Jan. 1. Nor will Phil Knight have trouble getting through to Oregon AD Rob Mullens the next time he wants to talk football. College sports feed off big boosters, so programs allow influence in exchange. "Someone might say, 'If I'm going to donate a certain amount of money, I expect to have some power. I expect to get what I want,'" says former Big 12 chief Dan Beebe, now a consultant who helps big-time athletic departments build a culture of honesty.

Yet listen in as Notre Dame grad Kevin Compton -- the lead donor for the Irish's $53 million hockey arena -- reacts to winning seats at the BCS championship game in the school's lottery. "I'm thrilled to have two tickets," says the San Jose Sharks' lead owner.

South Bend's rules on big donors look to be among college athletics' tightest. Want tickets? Enter a lottery like other backers do. Have a complaint? Don't call AD Jack Swarbrick; instead, go through an athletic affairs committee to be referred to the trustees, who can decide to act.

Whether this church-and-state system is a mere novelty or a model for the entire FBS -- or if it even creates a cleaner program -- isn't clear. Either way, the program hasn't been in trouble since 1999, when it was put on probation because "booster" Kim Dunbar, who gave $25 to join the now-disbanded Quarterback Club, embezzled $1.4 million from her employer to support her habit of secretly showering players with gifts.

At times, trustees have thrown their weight around, overriding then-AD Kevin White to fire coach Tyrone Willingham in 2004. When White quit in 2008, Swarbrick, a longtime college sports power broker, agreed to come only if he was protected from boosters and had sway over hiring the football coach. (Notre Dame's president has final
say.) So far, so good: "It's very much a matter of structure," he says. "There's not a misunderstanding that I acted on somebody's advice or counsel because they had access to me."

Which brings us to Compton, who doesn't know where he's sitting on Jan. 7. If the investor minds being treated like a regular Kevin, he doesn't say: "I'm not more special than anyone else out there."

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