Wednesday, September 19, 2018

College Football Playoff: The guy who will hand Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney the trophy is 'the nicest guy in college sports'

He likes to walk around before the games, take things in. You might see him Monday night at Raymond James Stadium before Alabama and Clemson play for the national championship. Of course, you won't know who he is. That's fine. Unassuming fits him.

"I really get a kick out of going on the concourse, looking at the fans," Bill Hancock said. "I love to see the kids in their jerseys. I just want to feel the energy. I also like to be on the field for the bands in pregame. You can't have college football without the bands. I'm just a fan."

Hancock, 66, a band guy from way back, is also the executive director of the College Football Playoff, now in its third year. He's one of the most powerful people in sports, has been for decades, having overseen the NCAA men's basketball tournament Final Four for 13 years and then as executive director of the Bowl Championship Series, the first attempt at playoffs at college football's highest level.

Some people hated the BCS. Nobody hated Bill Hancock.

He's your first-ballot Hall of Fame next-door neighbor.

That's why the soft-spoken Oklahoman, with a mountain of can-do experience in sports administration and just as much at connecting with journalists (he was one himself), was the man college presidents and conference commissioners hired when they became tired of being pounded for a BCS system that everyone despised. Hancock became the front man, defending the BCS in the media, not an easy thing, but his charm never left.

Special to the Times

College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock is responsible for guiding discussions of the 12-person selection committee that chooses the CFP's four semifinalists.

He's the guy who helped forge the College Football Playoff, which produced one thing that everyone loves about basketball — a Final Four. He soothed major talents and egos and helped work it out. Then he helped put together a selection committee, an eclectic mix of leaders, coaches, administrators, media and, oh, yes, quite famously, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He helps conduct and steer the conversation each week as they huddle in Dallas to divine: Who's in?

"I've worked with top-notch diplomats around the world — and Bill is among the best," Rice said.

And Monday, he'll smile and hand the winning coach the trophy and then quietly, comfortably blend backing back into the crowd.

That's Bill Hancock.

Everyone in college athletics reveres him, the self-deprecating humor, the honesty, the humility. Agenda-less Bill. Ego-less Bill. Master Planner Bill, no detail too small. Hancock has been a friend maker all his days.

"He's the nicest man in college sports," College Football Playoff committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said.

"One of finest, warmest, most gentle souls I've ever met," CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz said.

The nicest man in college sports had his pick of the best college football games. Any weekend, anywhere he wants to go. More often than not, Hancock heads for home in Prairie Village, Kan., a Kansas City suburb, to attend Friday night high school football games with his grandsons, Will and Jack.

"I'm the luckiest guy I know," Bill Hancock said.

Precious moments.

Like every time he sees his 16-year-old granddaughter, Andrea — Andie.

"I thought I knew how to cherish every moment in life before.

"Little did I know how little I knew."

Special to the Times

College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock and his wife, Nicki, at a Hobart (Okla.) High School football game. Hobart is where the two met, and they were high school sweethearts.

• • •

The nicest man in college sports, the one behind the rounded glasses, was born in Hobart, a small farm town in the southwest corner of Oklahoma. His father was a newspaper man and a church choir director. Hancock's mother played the church organ.

Hobart is where Hancock met his wife, the former Nicki Perry. They were high school sweethearts.

"My best friend. My hero," Hancock said. "Toughest, sweetest person I know."

Nicki and Bill have traveled the world. Nicki, who taught high school English for 30 years, is a huge sports fan. She agonizes when someone misses a free throw or field goal late in a game.

Bill will say, "They're not your son."

Nicki will say, "They're all our sons."

They did everything with their boys, Will and Nate. A lot of outdoors, a lot of camping. Bill, Nate and Will hiked the Grand Canyon, rim to rim. The boys worked the basketball Final Four when their father ran it. After the championship, they would stand on the court for CBS' iconic One Shining Moment finale. Bill, Will and Nate. It was their time.

Associated Press

College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock, pictured during a publicity appearance in Tampa Bay in January.

• • •

Bill Hancock's father, William Ransom Hancock (Bill is a junior) owned the Hobart Democrat-Chief. Growing up, Bill rode his bicycle and delivered the paper. Then he was promoted.

"To janitor," he said. "Best promotion I ever had. I learned the printer's trade. If you clean up under those Linotype machines, and if you're half curious, you learn how those things works. They let me write headlines. I learned the trade. I learned to be organized. Comes in handy."

He was writing a sports column when he was 16. Loved that, too. When his father died in 1974, Bill Hancock spent time helping his brother Joe run the newspaper.

"The problem is who do you write about?" Hancock said. "Everybody has a story. All these stories. I love listening to them. I'm a better listener than I am a talker. I'm pretty boring. I don't dominate a room telling a story. I want to hear people's stories."

The nicest man in college sports, a University of Oklahoma graduate, began as a student assistant in the Oklahoma sports information department. Eventually he became a football publicity assistant and worked for the wildly successful and wildly wild Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer.

Anything people needed, Bill Hancock tried to make happen. Any complaint and Bill would listen. No one ever felt small around Bill Hancock. People mattered.

"He's one of those guys who, every person he meets, he makes them feel good, and important. Just a few people who have that innate ability," said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, who has worked with Hancock before. "No moment is too big. He can see things from every angle. He can get you to the right solution a hundred times out of a hundred."

"There are a lot of people in power positions who are 'A' personalities," said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who served on the CFP committee. "A lot of alpha animals. But nice guys can survive. You don't have to be a cutthroat. There's room for Bill."

Egos have never stood against Hancock's small-town way.

"There were a lot of issues that had to be fought over on the way to making a playoff system," said former SEC commissioner Mike Slive. "Bill was the conductor. Sometimes the violins conflicted with the horns, but Bill made music."

Special to the Times

Long before he became executive director of the College Football Playoff, Bill Hancock served as a volunteer for the United States Olympic Committee communications department at the Olympics. Last summer's Games in Rio marked Hancock's 12th Olympics in that role. In this photo, Hancock displays his Hobart, Okla., hometown pride at the Great Wall of China during the 2008 Beijing Games.

• • •

The nicest man in college sports owns partial season tickets to the Kansas City Symphony and the Kansas City Royals baseball team. He dreamed of being a concert pianist. He still plays. Hancock is a tenor in the choir at Asbury United Methodist Church, "proudly the worst member of the choir."

He loves the classical warhorses, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin. And Broadway musicals. He performs in community theater. He played Mayor Shinn in The Music Man and John Hancock in 1776. Sometimes at the house, Nicki hears, Oh, What a Beautiful Morning, from Oklahoma blaring from her husband's computer. It's his favorite.

"I'm proud," Hancock said. "My parents were both musicians. And then our boys were both musicians. That's three generations. And now a fourth. Our grandkids are musicians."

And strike up the college fight songs.

The nicest man in college sports loves them.

"Dad used to wake us up that way a lot," Nate said. "When my children were born, he'd sit rocking them to sleep and go through the college conferences, 'Okay, now I'm going to tell you about the schools in the MAC.' He'd name the schools, the mascots and sometimes he'd say, 'And they're fight songs go like this,' and he'd sing them softly."

The nicest man in college sports loves holidays. Faith, family and friends. A Christmas never goes by without It's a Wonderful Life playing in the Hancock home, often more than once. Bill cries every time. He can never get enough of Zuzu's petals. Will loved it, too. It was a favorite of theirs.

"Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."

Will Hancock, who attended Kansas, followed his father into college sports, eventually becoming an assistant sports information director in charge of men's basketball at Oklahoma State in 1996.

Steve Buzzard, once sports information director at Oklahoma State, is the man who hired Will. He called Bill one of the nicest men who ever walked.

"I would say Will could give him a run for his money," Buzzard said.

To this day, Bill treasures what Will once told him.

"Dad, you're the happiest guy I know."

Special to the Times

College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock, left, is shown here during a 1993 hiking trip through the Grand Canyon with his sons Nate, left, and Will, center. Will Hancock died on Jan. 27, 2001 when a plane carrying a basketball traveling party from Oklahoma State crashed in a snowstorm east of Denver, killing all 10 people aboard.

• • •

On Jan. 27, 2001, a plane went down in a snowstorm 40 miles east of Denver, killing all 10 people aboard. It was a basketball traveling party from Oklahoma State. William Ransom Hancock III was among the passengers.

Will was 31. He left behind his wife, Karen, coach of the Oklahoma State women's soccer team, and their newborn child. Andie was 10 weeks old.

At the funeral, everyone held their breath when Bill rose to speak. They wondered how he would get through it.

"Hi, I'm Bill," he began.

He told stories about a son he loved, about his friend. He wanted people to never forget Will. And to smile.

At one point, Bill told the more than 1,000 mourners that Will had scored 1400 on his SAT.

"Which would have qualified him to play football for OU twice," he said.

The church filled with laughter. Bill Hancock looked out. He spotted Barry Switzer, smiling.

"Barry held up three fingers," Hancock said.

Three times.

And that is how it began, the road back, one foot in front of another, strength and more strength.

As part of the comeback, Hancock undertook a trip he had planned, a cross-country bicycle ride, California to Georgia, ocean to ocean. Nicki went along for support, driving ahead, setting up and breaking down camp, always there for Bill. The journey eventually became a best-selling book, spun by the old newspaper man, Riding With The Blue Moth. It touched lives. And it helped Bill and Nicki.

"The book, really, is the story of the two of them making it through," Nate said.

"In some ways we've never recovered," Nicki said. "There's a part of us that still hurts all the time, missing Will. The only way to move we move forward from something so tragic is to count the blessings. We have so many."

Bill knows he'll see Will again. He still speaks to him.

"I talk to him a lot. All the time. Hey, how you doing? This is what happened today. I have dreams where he talks. Mostly about Andie. Something she did, how wonderful she is."

Hancock thought of his granddaughter.

"The same wit, off the chart. Andie laughs like Will."

Andie is a happy soul.

Special to the Times

College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock, left, is shown here with his wife Nicki and granddaughter Andie at a College Sports Information Directors of America convention in Dallas last year. Andie is the daughter of the Hancocks' son, Will, who died on Jan. 27, 2001 when a plane carrying a basketball traveling party from Oklahoma State crashed in a snowstorm east of Denver, killing all 10 people aboard.

• • •

A few years ago at the basketball Final Four at Cowboys Stadium, the Hancocks were invited to sit in Cowboys owner Jerry Jones' suite. They joined former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

"What is little Nicki Perry from Hobart doing here?" Bill whispered to Nicki. "What am I doing here?"

They counted their blessings again.

Bill Hancock neared the end of an interview at a downtown Tampa hotel. His cell phone rang. He noted the number. A few minutes later, he returned the call. Ah, the life of one of the most powerful men in sports.

"This is Bill. Hey, Matt, great to talk to you. I'm sorry. But could you do me a big favor? Could you call me back in 15 minutes? I would appreciate it so much. Okay, Matt, thanks."

Hancock smiled after he got off the phone.

"He's a student at the University of Virginia. He wants to talk to me about leadership. I don't ever turn down a student. We were students once, and who would want to be turned down? A lot of them are really scared and intimidated to talk to me. That cracks me up … me — intimidating. I talk to them. How hard is that? How hard is it to be nice?"

Special to the Times

College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock is shown here after the first CFP National Championship Game on Jan. 12, 2015 in Arlington, Texas with grandsons Jack, left, and William, right. Hancock will be in Tampa on Monday for the third CFP title game when Alabama plays Clemson at Raymond James Stadium.

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