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How changing a dirty diaper helped take Bill Hancock from Hobart to executive director of the College Football Playoff

How a Hobart, Oklahoma, native tied at the heart strings to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State became the biggest non-player player in college football.
by Jenni Carlson Modified: August 23, 2014 at 8:08 pm •  Published: August 23, 2014

Somewhere over the farmland of Missouri, Bill Hancock realized he had to do something.

He had boarded the TWA flight at the downtown airport in Kansas City — Oklahoma’s assistant sports information director had been working the Big Eight Holiday Basketball Tournament — and he was on his way to New Orleans. The Sooners were playing in the Sugar Bowl, New Year’s Day 1972, and as half of OU’s two-man sports information staff, Hancock had to be there.

So did Big Eight commissioner Chuck Neinas. He sat a few rows ahead of Hancock with his sons, including baby Toby.

Not long after takeoff, Hancock sensed a problem — Toby needed a diaper change. Worse, it became apparent that the elder Neinas, whose wife was already in New Orleans, couldn’t quite manage it.

Hancock would become one of the most powerful men in sports, overseeing the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the Final Four, then the BCS and now the College Football Playoff. But that day on the plane, he was only 21, a small-town Oklahoma kid in his early days in the college sports world. He was three-and-a-half years out of Hobart High School. He was self-deprecating. He was slight.

Neinas, on the other hand, was big and broad with a booming Wisconsin accent. Even though he was new to the job of Big Eight commissioner, he’d spent a decade working at the NCAA.

Hancock was terrified of him.

But he willed himself out of his seat and walked the few rows to Neinas. Hancock explained that he had a young son, too, and had handled a few dirty diapers.

“Commissioner,” Hancock said to Neinas, “I’ll change the diaper.”

Using his seat and the empty seat next to him, Hancock soon returned a freshly diapered baby to Neinas.

Talk about friendly skies.

“I was glad to help,” Hancock said.

With the inaugural season of the College Football Playoff soon to kick off, Bill Hancock is a name and a face that you will see often. He will be explaining the system. He will be planning details of the semifinals and final. He will be aiding the selection committee, then speaking on its behalf. The Oklahoma native, a man with heartstrings tied not only to OU but also to OSU, is the biggest non-playing player in college football.

How did the small-town kid become a college football bigwig?

Hancock believes his career and his life changed when he changed that diaper.

* * *

Bill Hancock grew up in southwest Oklahoma farm town of Hobart, the son of a church organist and a newspaper man. As a kid, Bill loved spending time at the Hobart Democrat-Chief, reading stories as they came across the UPI teletype machine. But he also loved music. He sang and played piano.

When he went to OU in the fall of 1968, he was a piano performance major.

He soon realized that he didn’t have enough focus or talent. He felt a little like great small-town football players must feel. He was a big fish in a small pond in Hobart. But in a big pond like OU? He wasn’t so special anymore.

Hancock quickly turned to his other passion — journalism.

He had become a fan of Bud Wilkinson and his Sooners, and Hancock eventually hooked on with OU PR man Johnny Keith as a student assistant. After Hancock’s junior year, Keith hired him full time and Hancock finished his final six hours in night school.

That’s how he ended up on that plane with Neinas and the dirty diaper.

But a few years later, Hancock went back to Hobart. His father died, and someone needed to take over the family business. Hancock's brother, Joe, became publisher and Hancock became editor of the Democrat-Chief.

He loved it, too. Writing a column. Covering Hobart’s basketball games. He’d married his high school sweetheart, Nicki Perry, so they were back home, too. They loved that their two young sons, Will and Nate, were growing up where they did.

Then in 1978, Hancock got a most unexpected phone call. The Big Eight had an opening for a media relations director, and he came highly recommended by the commissioner himself. Hancock suspected there were two or three dozen young sports PR types who would kill for that job. Neinas probably had a fistful of applications from candidates qualified for the job.

“But he only knew one that knew how to change his son’s diaper,” Hancock said.

Still, he wasn’t sure he should take the job. What about the newspaper and the legacy? What about this great life that his young family had?

“I think we oughta try this,” Bill finally told Nicki. “I think we’ll probably be back in Hobart in a couple years, but let’s go try this.”

So, Hancock left the newspaper and moved Nicki, Will and Nate to Kansas City.

They never moved back to Hobart.

* * *

Bill Hancock was such a star as the Big Eight’s media relations director that it wasn’t long before he was elevated to assistant commissioner in charge of championships and marketing. As good as he was at making sure media types had the information and interviews they needed, his skills shown even more in his new gig. He was organized. He was even-keeled. He was passionate.

And when the Final Four came to Kansas City in 1988, Hancock put all of those talents to work as the co-chair of the local organizing committee.

The NCAA, then also headquartered in Kansas City, thought that Final Four was a smashing success.

Less than a year later, it called Hancock about a position it had created. The NCAA wanted someone to oversee the administration of the men’s basketball tournament and the Final Four, combining duties that had previously been divided among several staffers.

Would Hancock be interested in being the first director of the Final Four?

This time, there was no hand-wringing. Hancock said yes immediately. He didn’t have to relocate the family — he still jokes that he’s pretty sure he got the job because the NCAA didn’t have to pay his moving expenses — and he would get to oversee one of the greatest sporting events in the world.

It was a dream job.

Hancock was dogged about keeping the focus on the players. Give them the best experience possible. The top-notch hotel. The picture-perfect locker room. The high-caliber arena.

Details were Hancock’s specialty. This water cooler goes here. Those towels go there.

He became not only the gatekeeper of the tournament but also the goodwill ambassador, his small-town Oklahoma friendliness and charm shining. Lose your parking pass? Need some stats? Forget a practice time?

Bill was your guy.

And he always had a smile for everyone, a way of making the team manager or the head coach or the pep band director or the newspaper columnist feel like a friend. No one was beneath him. No one was a waste of his time.

Over his decade-plus on the job, the Final Four grew from a big event to a blockbuster. March Madness became a state of being. The Final Four became must-see TV.

Even though Hancock considered his job a dream, there was one other gig he wanted — director of the college football championship. Hancock grew up in Oklahoma, a football state. He went to OU, a football power. College football was in his DNA.

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by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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