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It began more than three years ago with fire and brimstone.

By late Friday, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's case against the Bowl Championship Series — a lawsuit that never got launched — was declared suspended, seemingly diminished to embers.

And although Shurtleff promised Monday that if necessary, the investigation into college football's postseason would continue, this much is clear: After he leaves office at the end of the year, the man who threatened to bring down the BCS with an antitrust lawsuit no longer will be involved in what some see as his most notorious case.

"We have a core group of four antitrust experts working in our office, and whether to pursue it will be the decision of the next attorney general," Shurtleff said. "I don't see any other way I'm involved at all. I'll still take a personal interest in it."

The BCS's recent decision to change its format from a championship game based on computer rankings and polls to a four-team playoff was, depending on your perspective, both a victory and a crushing blow to Shurtleff's campaign against a system he felt was inherently unfair.

Since beginning his personal inquiries into the matter in 2005 after an undefeated University of Utah team was left out of the championship game, Shurtleff argued the BCS was a system designed to give power conferences advantages. Teams outside automatic BCS qualifying conferences — such as Boise State, Texas Christian and the Utes — wouldn't get a chance to play for the national championship.

It didn't deter him when Utah announced a move to the Pac-12 Conference, or when his alma mater, Brigham Young University, declared football independence. It didn't much deter him when attorneys general from other states declined to join a potential antitrust suit. A yearlong process to hire outside legal counsel that mired the case in its tracks was frustrating, Shurtleff acknowledged, but he still planned to move ahead.

Then, in June, conference commissioners approved a four-team playoff system that could give more teams a shot to win it all. And although Shurtleff tried to determine if that system presented antitrust issues, he was resigned to end a crusade that took up several years and gained him notoriety.

"At some point, you just have to make a decision with the evidence you have," Shurtleff said. "We just don't have the evidence right now because the playoff system is still in its forming stage."

For the BCS itself, the case ends with barely a ripple. BCS executive director Bill Hancock said he never spoke to Shurtleff personally and only read about his war on the BCS from afar.

Hancock defended the old system, saying it increased exposure for teams such as Utah, the Broncos and the Horned Frogs. And as far as the threat of a lawsuit? Hancock said it never much influenced any change.

"It's hard to comment on something that never happened," Hancock said. "I think the BCS was very good for college football, but we listened to the public and it was time for a change. It was not in any way because of any kinds of threats of legal action. I'm very confident the BCS has always complied with the law of the land."

In retrospect, Shurtleff said he didn't regret his campaign — only that others didn't join in.

Although the Department of Justice did send a letter to the NCAA, Shurtleff blamed a turnover in leadership as the main reason the federal government never juiced up the investigation. Other states, Shurtleff said, declined because they were reluctant to fight a system that kept some of their powerhouse programs in the limelight.

Although his investigation has ended, Shurtleff said his desire to make sure competition is fair has not.

"A lot of my colleagues asked me after Utah moved to the Pac-12 if I was going to stop," Shurtleff said. "It doesn't matter. If it's illegal, it's our job to stop it."

kgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon