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.
He had no way of knowing it was in his future, too.
* * *
The Bowl Coalition begat the Bowl Alliance begat the Bowl Championship Series.
From college football’s earliest attempts at a championship system in 1992, conference commissioners managed the whole thing. They made the rules, they produced the rankings, they oversaw the championship games, and they acted as the spokesmen. And they still had their day jobs, managing the business of their leagues.
After a few years of the BCS, they decided they couldn’t do it all.
They began planning to hire a full-time administrator, someone who would manage the behind-the-scenes details while also handling the public relations. The former would take more time, but the latter would be more important. The BCS was seen as an evil empire. There were almost annual controversies. Three teams with a legitimate claim to being in the title game. Split championships.
The BCS needed someone to put a happy face on its public image.
They didn’t write the job description for Bill Hancock. It only seemed that way.
As the conference commissioners started talking about potential candidates, Hancock was quickly mentioned. Many of the men in the room had worked with Hancock. Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson was doing media relations at Kansas State when Hancock was with the Big Eight. Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson had been an NCAA co-worker. Mike Slive from the SEC, Jim Delany from the Big Ten and Mike Tranghese from the Big East had been on the basketball selection committee.
They knew how well Hancock handled a room full of high-power, high-ego leaders. He had great patience. He had boundless kindness. And the competency that he’d shown over the years also developed a high level of respect and trust.
The commissioners knew, too, of the strong connections Hancock made with just about everyone with whom he came in contact.
Only a few months after his son and OSU publicist, Will, was killed in the 2001 plane crash that took the lives 10 members of the Cowboy basketball family, Hancock was working the Final Four. Mike Krzyzewski was there with Duke, and before the Blue Devils’ semifinal game, Krzyzewski and Hancock crossed paths on the court as the teams were warming up. When Hancock tried to let Krzyzewski get on about his business, the coach wouldn’t let him go.
“My team can wait,” Krzyzewski told him, a moment that Hancock recounted in his book, “Riding with the Blue Moth.” “This is more important. I want you to remember that all of us are thinking about you and your family. We care. Don’t ever forget that.”
The BCS needed respect and credibility.
Hancock had that in abundance.
Additionally, Hancock had cut back his role at the NCAA after Will’s death. The Hancocks were so gracious after the crash. They helped others heal and became pillars to everyone who bleeds Cowboy orange. Still, their grief was evident.
The entire family had lots of healing to do, and for Bill, working full-time at the NCAA meant spending the weekdays in Indianapolis, where the headquarters had relocated, then flying home to Kansas City every weekend. Bill didn’t want to be that far away that much. So, he asked to become a consultant, keeping many of the same duties but being able to work from home.
Then in the summer of 2005, Slive called Hancock on behalf of the BCS and the conference commissioners. Would he be interested in being the BCS administrator? He could stay in Kansas City. He could work from home.
Hancock’s heart skipped a beat.
“Whoa,” he thought, “my dream is coming true.”
* * *
Bill Hancock always preferred to work behind the scenes, but being the executive director of the BCS forced him to come out and stand front and center. Lead the meetings. Talk to the media.
When he was a kid, he had a newspaper route in Hobart. He loved riding his bike, an activity that he still does, and throwing papers on porches.
Knocking on doors and collecting 25 cents every week?
But that was part of the job. He had to do it, so he did it.
Same with this job at the BCS, and the thing is, he’s been great at some of the parts that he likes least.
A couple years ago after Hancock went from BCS administrator to BCS executive director, he went on Dan Patrick’s radio show. The BCS-hating host grilled him. There were lots of tough but legitimate questions, but Hancock handled all them without getting mad or snippy or frustrated.
When the segment wrapped, Patrick marveled.
“He may be too nice to have that job,” the host said of Hancock.
Patrick still didn’t like the BCS, but how could his stance not be softened a bit by Hancock?
Hancock didn’t just do the national shows and talk to the big-time names. He was as likely to be on the morning radio show in Lubbock as ESPN. He was the pied piper of the BCS, and he played his tune anywhere that anyone would listen.
Hancock fulfilled his job duties and then some.
When the conference commissioners decided in 2012 to replace the BCS with a playoff, they quickly decided Hancock would be one of the things that wouldn’t change. He would be the executive director of the playoff.
Another job that never existed before Hancock held it.
* * *
Bill Hancock sometimes finds himself thinking, “How did a kid from Hobart get here?”
Last March at the Final Four, he and Nicki were invited to sit in Jerry Jones’ suite in Cowboys Stadium, site of the inaugural College Football Playoff title game. That’s a pretty big deal all on its own, but that night, they were joined in the suite by two former presidents. American presidents. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
“You are little Nicki Perry from Hobart, and here you are with Bill Clinton and George Bush,” Hancock whispered to his wife. “How does that make you feel?”
“Oh, my,” she said.
He felt the same way.
Hancock often feels like the luckiest guy in the room.
“Never had a day in my whole career where I thought, ‘I don’t like my job, I don’t want to go to work today,’” he said. “Never a day when I didn’t say, ‘Hey, I’m going to work. This is cool.’”
But Hancock is convinced that he wouldn’t have reached the big time in college sports without his small-town roots. That’s where he learned humility, hard work, honesty and so many other life lessons — the characteristics that made him the right fit for one amazing job after another.
“Where you’re from is such a big part of who you are,” Hancock said. “and I have met so many people over the years who tried to hide where they were from and try to be somebody they’re not. I always felt sorry for those people. Somehow, they were uncomfortable with who they were.
“Man, I’m comfortable. I’m proud to be an Okie.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.
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.