Bill Hancock: College Virtuoso

Bill Hancock has directed the Final Four and College Football Playoff, run 15 marathons, written two books, survived tragedy, plays piano passionately, and is one of the nicest guys in sports.

By Michael Smith
Bill Hancock, a former journalist, is detailed, organized and a master storyteller, always ready to weave a tale.Ryan Weaver

When Bill Hancock mounted his bicycle in Huntington Beach, Calif., to embark on a cross-country ride, there was just Bill and his wife, Nicki, who also served as the team photographer, trainer, travel agent, pit crew and director of operations. And a few curious passersby who asked him about the cause he was supporting as he dipped his rear tire into the Pacific Ocean to officially launch the trip.

 

Just as Tom Hanks’ character in “Forrest Gump” famously said, “I just ran,” after he crisscrossed the country on foot, Hancock started pedaling on July 9, 2001, without a charity or a cause, or at least, that’s what he thought at the time. He was in it for the epic adventure. 

It wouldn’t be until sometime later on the cross-country journey that the clarity and purpose came to him, which prompted Hancock, a former journalist, to write about the connection between the bike ride and the loss of his son, Will, in “Riding With The Blue Moth.” 

Hancock, the only executive director the College Football Playoff has ever known, going on eight years, is regarded by his friends and colleagues as one of the most selfless and generous people in college athletics.

“With Bill, it’s never about Bill,” said retired ACC Commissioner John Swofford, who worked with him on NCAA basketball and college football business for three decades. 

The well-deserved reverence comes from both Hancock’s enthusiasm and his sincerity while managing and growing the two biggest events in college athletics — the men’s Final Four from 1989-2002 and the CFP from its inception in 2014.

The Champions

Here is the schedule for each Champions profile. For a video profile go to SBJTV.com.

April — Jean Afterman
May — Tom Wilson
July — Larry Lucchino
August — Bill Hancock
September — Tony Dungy
October — Harlan Stone

But on his bike ride across the country, it was about Bill. It was about learning how to cope with the enormous grief brought on by the Oklahoma State plane crash six months earlier that took Will, who was chief publicist for the Cowboys’ men’s basketball team.

It was about his marvelous lifelong partnership with Nicki — they’ve known each other since their childhood days in Hobart, Okla. — and it was about figuring out how in the hell they would move forward, or if they could, without that relentless blue moth.

“Bill has such incredible grace, and it speaks to what an extraordinary person he is,” said Joe Posnanski, who befriended Hancock in 1996 when he became sports columnist at the Kansas City Star and a frequent lunch companion at the Salty Iguana, a Mexican restaurant in town. “If you look at his career, he’s been in some roles where he’s had to take some shots. He always comes across cool and calm and empathetic. I’ve seen him in some tough situations and he always says, ‘The guy’s got a job to do.’ I suppose when you’ve been through a terrible tragedy, nothing is ever going to be that bad.”

Bill Hancock hands the 2017 championship trophy to Clemson’s Dabo Swinney.Courtesy pf Bill Hancock

■ ■ ■ ■

Riding through his home state of Oklahoma, Hancock entered Purcell, a small town where one of his best childhood friends, John D. Montgomery, was publisher of the Purcell Register. Montgomery had the idea to hang a banner over the town’s main street that acknowledged Hancock’s ride and welcomed him to Purcell. Several people around town inquired of Montgomery: “Who is Bill Hancock?”

Who is Bill Hancock? That’s a question that can’t be easily answered in a sentence or two.

Hancock is a talented musician and director. He’s a historian and author, a wordsmith and world traveler, a cyclist, marathoner and mountain climber. 

While he’s all of those things, Hancock also has distinguished himself as one of the most influential people in college sports over the past 30 years, organizing the two most significant events in the country — the men’s Final Four and college football’s national championship game.

Family time, ship time

High school sweethearts Bill Hancock and his wife, Nicki, have been married 53 years. On their 50th anniversary, they got the whole family together — son, Nate, both daughters-in-law and three grandchildren — for a cruise through the Caribbean. They started each day by meeting in Bill and Nicki’s room and then finished each day with a 7 p.m. dinner.

Most of all, though, he’s a storyteller, a glorious, detail-oriented, compulsive, can’t-stop storyteller. And he knows that great storytellers never make themselves the centerpiece of the story, although there are exceptions.

Hancock was hired by the Bowl Championship Series in 2005, which served as a precursor to the four-team playoff. The commissioners who oversaw the BCS and then the CFP wanted someone who was capable of being out front and taking the arrows when necessary, but wouldn’t steal the show.

“The group was really looking for someone who could get everything done without a huge ego, someone who didn’t think they were being anointed the czar of college football,” Swofford said.

In his 13 years at the NCAA running the Final Four, Hancock established himself as the ultimate go-to guy, whether a coach needed a practice court, another team bus or an extra credential. No job was too big or too small for him.

The mission at the CFP has been markedly different — starting a major new event from scratch to elevate college football and determine a champion of the sport’s first-ever playoff.

“When you think about Bill being at the top level of decision-making for both of the major revenue sports in college athletics, who else has done that?” said recently retired North Carolina men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, a longtime friend of Hancock’s. “And he’s done it while maintaining the reputation for being one of the nicest guys in the business.”

Hancock with the Big Ten’s Jim Delany and SEC’s Mike Slive in 2015.Courtesy pf Bill Hancock

■ ■ ■ ■

After hearing a knock at their Prairie Village, Kan., home, where they’ve lived for more than 30 years, Bill and Nicki appear at the front door, grinning widely and full of Midwestern hospitality as they greet their company for the day.

It takes only a few minutes before the storytelling ensues. Hancock needs no time to warm up.

Former Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram used to live in the house across the street.

The piano in the front room to the left is a keepsake from Bill’s youth, when his mother taught piano lessons to the children in Hobart. Music was a constant for Bill, the youngest of four children. His father, in addition to owning and publishing the daily newspaper, organized a men’s glee club in town as well. Whenever Hancock and Montgomery rode together to a Hobart High School football game, they had to arrive early so that Hancock could watch the opponent’s marching band take the field and play the national anthem.

Never lax on details


One of the chief complaints about the College Football Playoff since Executive Director Bill Hancock helped launch it in 2014 is that the four-team field is too limited. Not enough teams have a legitimate chance of winning when Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma dominate every year, which has led to calls for expansion to as many as 12 teams.
That triggered Hancock’s sense of humor. He told the story of watching Maryland play Virginia in the NCAA men’s lacrosse championship game.
“You know, they’re going to have to change the format,” Hancock said with a straight face. “It’s the same teams every year — Maryland, Virginia, Johns Hopkins.”

“Most of my memories of Bill in high school relate to music,” Montgomery said. “But he also loved sports. He could always rattle off baseball stats. So, when he got to OU, I wasn’t surprised that he fell in love with athletics.”

Still, life was always fuller with music for Hancock, who sings in the choir at Asbury United Methodist Church.

“It’s still weird to think that Bill Hancock is sitting behind me in the choir, doing his thing and enjoying every minute of it, and that the next day he’s going to go work on the national championship game,” said Rev. Lee Johnson, Hancock’s preacher at Asbury.

To the right is Bill’s home office, where he has spent the vast majority of his time in the past 18 months. He built the bookshelves that take up an entire wall by himself.

A partial stack of Hobart High School yearbooks, starting with 1938, lines one of the shelves. He’s on a mission to collect a yearbook from every year since the school opened. He’s got 10 more to go.

“I love history, so I decided to become the historian of my hometown,” Hancock said. “If we don’t write it down, it’ll be gone.”

The framed pictures are year-by-year class photos of Bill and Nicki, which Nicki placed in sequence and framed herself.

The stories go on and on. Most of them have roots, though, in Hobart, a small farming community of fewer than 5,000 people in Southwest Oklahoma.

■ ■ ■ ■

Hancock’s father, Ransom, was owner and publisher of the daily newspaper in town, The Democrat Chief, and his mother, Annie, taught piano and played the organ at church. It was an idyllic childhood, the way Bill describes it.

He had his own newspaper route at age 11. Each week, he’d knock on doors to collect 25 cents from its subscribers. He played tennis and ran track, although he mostly describes himself as a non-athlete.

Bill Hancock loves music, including playing his family’s heirloom piano.Ryan Weaver

“It was a great place to grow up because you got to do everything in a small town,” Hancock said. “You didn’t have to know anything about acting, but you got to be in the play. You didn’t have to be a good football player, but you got to play.”

Every morning started the same way — reading the daily newspaper. As he got older, Hancock took on more jobs, everything from sweeping the back shop to setting type on those old Ludlow Typograph machines.

By his sophomore year in high school, Bill was writing a weekly sports column with predictions on the upcoming events for the weekend. It provided an early lesson on making mistakes, recovering from those mistakes and being held accountable, lessons that still come into play today, he said. 

“Well, you better be organized because you know you’ve got a column every week,” Bill said. “I also learned that every person has value. Every single person from the janitor to the CEO, they all have value. They’re all the same. They’re all human beings who have stories to tell.”

Hancock went on to the University of Oklahoma, where he studied journalism, just like his big brother, Joe. Bill also worked in the Sooners’ sports information department, trying to learn all of the skills he’d need when he returned to Hobart after graduation to help run the family newspaper.

The path ahead was clear. Bill loved newspapers and he’d go back home to take up the family business. He was good with that.

Then, at age 27, Hancock made “the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life.”

Bill Hancock with the staff of the men’s Final Four, which he directed from 1989-2002.Courtesy of Bill Hancock

■ ■ ■ ■

After graduation, Bill spent three more years working full-time in OU athletics. When their father died in 1973, Bill and Joe inherited the newspaper, and Bill returned to Hobart that year as editor.

But in those three years with the Sooners, Bill had made an impression across the Big Eight Conference as an energetic, detail-oriented up-and-comer.

Then-Commissioner Chuck Neinas had interviewed Hancock once already for a job in the conference’s sports information office, only to hire Steve Hatchell instead. A year later, the position opened again at the Big Eight. When Neinas called Hancock this time, it wasn’t for an interview, it was to offer him the job.

Making the rounds

Bill Hancock, as the executive director of the College Football Playoff, is responsible for everything that happens inside the venue when the national championship game is played. The job keeps him especially busy on game day.
But his favorite thing to do while the game is going on is to sneak out to the concourse, where he is rarely recognized, and interact with fans. He also makes a point to respond to the more thoughtful letters and emails from fans.
“If they seem pretty reasonable, I’ll call them,” Hancock said. “When they pick up the phone and I tell them where I’m from, they’re just blown away. One fan asked if he could be on the selection committee.”

Hancock had become enthralled with college athletics and many of his friends had a head start in the business. Hancock was eager to get back into athletics and sold his stake in the newspaper to Joe after accepting the Big Eight job in 1978.

Bill and Nicki, two proud products of Hobart, moved to Kansas City, where the Big Eight was headquartered. She got a job as a high school English teacher and their new life in Kansas City was underway.

“I spent three years working in athletics, and I missed it,” Bill said. “I knew that this would be my chance to do something different. Plus, I knew that I could always go back to Hobart if things didn’t work out.”

Hancock was intimidated at first, working with legendary football coaches like Nebraska’s Tom Osborne and Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer, and Missouri men’s basketball coach Norm Stewart.

Many people around the conference thought that Hancock and Stewart looked alike, so it wasn’t uncommon for Hancock to be on the receiving end of foul-mouthed taunts from fans that were intended for Stewart.

Hancock moved to the NCAA full-time as director of the men’s Final Four in 1989, a year after he had co-chaired the Final Four organizing committee in Kansas City. That’s when the governing body was based in Overland Park, Kan., a neighboring suburb to Prairie Village. Hancock, an avid runner who went on to complet 15 marathons, rode his bike the 4 miles to and from the NCAA headquarters.

■ ■ ■ ■

It wasn’t until Hancock was in his 40s that cycling became such a passion. In the early days of riding, Hancock had a propensity for running into things that were still, like a bridge or a stationary car. It was a love-hate-bruise relationship.

Still, he harbored a desire to one day ride across the country and promised that he’d celebrate his 50th birthday by going coast-to-coast. He rode across Kansas, then later rode from Kansas City to Hobart. A ride across America seemed more doable as he achieved each one of the smaller goals.

Then 20 years ago, on Jan. 27, 2001, when the Oklahoma State basketball plane crashed leaving Colorado, everything stopped, including Bill’s aspirations to ride across the country. His oldest son, Will, the sports information director for the men’s basketball team, was on that plane.

“I gave up those dreams after Will’s death,” Hancock wrote in his book.

Can't run anymore

Bill Hancock hardly ever cries anymore since the 2001 plane crash that killed his son, Will. But one of those times was in 2013 when he and his wife, Nicki, were visiting Italy. They had just bought tickets to visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa when Bill missed a step and fell so hard that he shattered his hip.
At the hospital that day, he was informed that he’d need an artificial hip, a surgery that they’d perform there in Italy. After getting the news, Hancock said, “I have one question. Will I be able to run again?”
The doctor told him no.
Running has been an integral part of Hancock’s life. He’s completed 15 marathons, including Boston and New York. So, when he was told by a doctor with a thick Italian accent that his running days were over, “I cried and cried and cried,” he said.
Bill’s loss was Nicki’s gain. Now, they walk together every day. 

Six months later, Bill and Nicki were in Huntington Beach, about to embark on the ride of a lifetime. Bill had the idea while sitting among Will’s friends at a Kansas City Royals game to go through with the ride after all, not so much as a tribute, but just as an adventure, a cool thing to do.

“It was just a realization that life is short,” Bill said. “You better grab your dreams while you can because tomorrow is not guaranteed. That was it, primarily.”

Hancock’s proclivity for storytelling and his gregarious, outgoing nature created the content for his book that came out in 2005. The origin of the blue moth in the book’s title became a featured part of Hancock’s book tour and his ability to find meaning and symbolism with the blue moth providing the clarity that Hancock lacked when he first pedaled away from Huntington Beach.

“I was looking for a way to describe the grief beyond just, ‘I’m in grief; now I’m sad, now I’m depressed,’” he said. “The blue moth was a creature that I invented to describe grief.”

Blue moth came from Hancock’s childhood. When he was a youngster, he heard his grandmother describe a certain type of weather pattern in the Midwest as a blue norther.

Bill Hancock working on his porch.Courtesy of Bill Hancock

He thought she was saying blue moth. It brought clear blue skies with brutally cold temperatures. Hancock found that the bone-chilling cold represented the waves of grief that hit him.

“Instead of saying, ‘I’m sad now,’ I said, ‘The blue moth is here,’” he said. “’It’s riding on my handlebars, it’s on my shoulder.’ Just having a personification of grief was a helpful way for me to think about it.

“Even metaphorically, I can shoo it away, but it would come back. I always knew it would come back. It still comes. It still comes today, but I know it’ll go away. But then I also know it’ll come back. Part of grief is realizing what grief is and that it’s never going to go away completely.

And that’s one of the biggest steps.

“I learned a lot of that in about six months after the plane crash. I learned a lot about it on the bike ride and, really, I think like any writer, writing things down helps clarify them. Writing about the blue moth helped me to clarify, ‘OK, this is grief. This is the blue moth. I’m sad. It’s ugly.’ It’s going to go away, but he’s here and I have to live with him.”

■ ■ ■ ■

Hancock turns 71 next month and he wants to keep directing the CFP. There’s unfinished business, he said, referring to the deliberations about CFP expansion to 12 teams.

“What keeps me motivated? I love college football. I’m borderline obsessed with it,” Hancock said. “I just feel like I have an obligation to see things through, whatever that entails. You don’t start something unless you intend to finish it. That’s been one of my principles.”

Good Gatorade mileage

Cycling aficionados might be surprised to learn that Bill Hancock crossed the country on his bike using straps across his feet rather than wearing clips. “People look at me like I’m crazy for a ride that far,” he said. “But I knew that I’d be stopping a lot, and I didn’t want to be wearing clips whenever we went into a store.”
During the ride 20 years ago, Hancock averaged 90 miles each day. He usually drank two gallons of Gatorade, so, he reasoned, he was getting 45 miles per gallon.
The most difficult stretch: The most difficult stretch: surprisingly hilly Oklahoma.
Favorite stretch: New Mexico.
Most uncomfortable: Alabama and Georgia because of the summertime humidity.

Jon Steinbrecher, the veteran commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, said Hancock has been the right person to direct the CFP from its infancy.

“In that championship realm, which is where Bill has operated for most of his career, it’s all about details, details and more details,” Steinbrecher said. “It’s the ultimate meeting and planning experience. What Bill brings is the ultimate calm and clear-eyed demeanor. He never gets rattled. Now, he can put his foot down, but Bill’s way is to use honey, not vinegar.”

There are more epic adventures ahead. The man who has climbed Mount Rainier, walked the Great Wall of China, backpacked the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim and searched for the finest chocolate in Torino doesn’t plan to slow down as long as his health permits.

He still wants to see a football game at Michigan and visit the newsroom at The New York Times.

If he can find enough time, Hancock would hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.

“I’m incredibly lucky,” Hancock says as he sits back in his chair with the grin that has become so familiar to so many in college sports. “There’s not much left on my bucket list,” although he wouldn’t rule out another book.

The storyteller isn’t done yet.

Bill Hancock

Executive director of the College Football Playoff
Born: September 9,1950 (Hobart, Okla.)
Education: University of Oklahoma, 1971, B.S. (journalism)
CAREER
1971-74 — University of Oklahoma, assistant sports information director
1974-78 — Hobart Democrat-Chief, editor
1978-83 — Big Eight Conference, service bureau director
1983-89 — Big Eight Conference, assistant commissioner
1989-2002 — NCAA, director, Division I Men’s Basketball Championship
2002-05 — NCAA, media director (consultant), Division I Men’s Basketball Championship
2005–09 — Bowl Championship Series, administrator
2009-12 — Bowl Championship Series, executive director
2012-present — College Football Playoff executive director
FAMILY
Wife: Nicki (nee Perry), married September 19, 1968
Two sons: John Nathan (Nate); William Ransom III (Will) died in 2001 at age 31 in the crash of the Oklahoma State basketball team’s airplane.
Three grandchildren
HONORS
1995 — Distinguished Alumni Award, University of Oklahoma School of Journalism
1999 — Katha Quinn Award, United States Basketball Writers Association
2004 — “Service to Basketball” Award, New England Sports Hall of Fame
2005 — College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame
2010 — All-College Basketball Tournament Hall of Fame
2012 — Regents Alumni Award, University of Oklahoma
2015 — Oklahoma Hall of Fame
2016 — Keith Jackson Eternal Flame Award, College Sports Information Directors of America
2019 — The Hobart (Okla.) Public School gymnasium and event center opens and is named “Hancock Event Center” in honor of Bill and his brother, Joe.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Served on the United States Olympic Committee staff at 14 Olympic Games: 1984 Los Angeles, 1988 Seoul, 1992 Barcelona, 1996 Atlanta, 2000 Sydney, 2004 Athens, 2006 Torino, 2008 Beijing, 2010 Vancouver, 2012 London, 2014 Sochi, 2016 Rio, 2018 Pyeongchang and 2020 (2021) Tokyo.
Served on the USOC staff at Pan American games in 1987 (Indianapolis) and 1991 (Havana)
1977 and 1979, Abby Award winner for best director, Shortgrass Playhouse, Hobart, Okla. (Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music)
15 marathons including Boston once and New York City twice (fastest time is three hours, six minutes)
Two cross-country bicycle rides (Pacific to Atlantic, 2001; Mexico to Canada, 2003)
Two rim-to-rim-to-rim backpacking trips, Grand Canyon
Climbed Mount Rainier, 1994
Co-chair, 1988 Kansas City Final Four Organizing Committee
2005 — “Riding with the Blue Moth” published
2007 — “This One Day in Hobart” published
2015 — College Football Playoff named Sports Event of the Year by Sports Business Journal
— David Broughton

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