Robert Shelton leaves Fiesta Bowl

PHOENIX -- Robert Shelton has resigned as executive director of the Fiesta Bowl, 2½ years after he took the job amid a scandal that rocked the foundation of one of college football's major events.

Shelton said his leaving was a mutual decision by him and the bowl's board of directors.

Shelton left his post as president of the University of Arizona to take over at the Fiesta Bowl on June 13, 2011.

He replaced John Junker, who resigned following a scathing internal report outlining lavish spending and a scheme in which bowl employees were required to make donations to certain political candidates and have the money reimbursed by the bowl.

Junker is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to federal and state felony charges in connection with the campaign finance scheme. This week, a federal judge set Junker's sentencing for March 13. His sentencing on state charges is expected to come after that.

Under Shelton, the Fiesta Bowl repaired its image, expanded charitable contributions, retained its status as a Bowl Championship Series event, then landed future semifinal and championship games in the new college football playoff system.

"I think the community was waiting and they wanted to be behind us but they needed to see that changes had been made," he said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday. "Once we demonstrated that, once we reached out, people could see it was a new era of accountability, openness -- all the buzz words -- transparency."

He praised his Fiesta Bowl staff and the event's 2,900 volunteers and thanked them for their support.

Shelton, 65, called it a good time to make a transition to new leadership and for him to move on.

"The big heavy lifting, we've done," he said. "That's culminated with having a place in the new college football playoffs, culminated by getting the national championship game. From the bowl's perspective, it's a good breaking point."

He said that when he first took the job, he found the challenges he faced "were a little bit bigger than we had envisioned."

The top priority, he said, was to restore the bowl's reputation with the community.

"There's no secret formula," he said. "You just have to be out there. You have to be candid and honest with people and let them know if you've got issues or worries, and trust people will treat you fairly."

Shelton, a physicist by training, will return to Tucson to become president of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

"That's getting me back to a real love of my life," he said. "It gets me back to something I also feel passionate about."

Shelton said that implications by some that he was being forced out were inaccurate, that it truly was a mutual choice.

Fiesta Bowl board Chairman Brian Hall said Shelton was "the ideal person at a crucial time in our history and we are grateful for his contributions."

"He has done a tremendous job setting us up for the new playoff system and it is now the board's job to take the lead in preparing our organization to best meet the future."

After being selected to host a semifinal playoff game in 2017, the Fiesta Bowl recently landed the 2016 national championship game.

Board member Duane Woods will serve as interim executive director while a search for a replacement is conducted.

Shelton served as president of the University of Arizona for five years. Before that, he served as executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of North Carolina.