Most people involved in college athletics know Bill Hancock. He’s the first and current executive director of the College Football Playoff (CFP), which had its first go-round last season. He was also the first full-time director of the NCAA’s Final Four men’s basketball tournament and the first executive director of the Bowl Subdivision Series (BCS).
But while Hancock is well known, he would prefer you know about Will Hancock, his late son who was one of 10 members of the Oklahoma State University (OSU) men’s basketball program who died in a plane crash returning to OSU after a game at Colorado on Jan. 27, 2001. The younger Hancock was the Cowboys’ sports information director.
To help him deal with the grief of losing his son, Hancock would embark on a cross-country bike trip from Huntington Beach, California, to Tybee Island, Georgia, dipping the rear wheel of his bike in the Pacific Ocean to start the 36-day, 2,747-mile journey that ended with him dipping the front wheel of his bike in the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way, he and his wife, Nicki, who made the trip with him in a support vehicle, learned about themselves, how grief affects everyone and they celebrated the life of their son through memories and speaking with others who had lost children.
The trip led to a book, “Riding With the Blue Moth,” which Hancock published in 2005 and has recently been re-released in paperback by Nautilus Publishing of Oxford, Mississippi. To promote the book’s re-release and to talk about the CFP, Hancock will speak at the Athelstan Club, located at 170 St. Francis St. in Mobile, on Wednesday, June 10, at 5:30 p.m. The public is invited to attend.
“My whole reason for this [bike trip and book] was to try and help people in a grieving situation. Having the book out there again to help more people is awesome,” Hancock said in a telephone interview with Lagniappe. “The author usually only hears from people who really like the book. The best thing for me has been strangers either calling or sending me emails. I ran into a person in a national park in Texas and my name came up and he said, ‘You’re the guy who wrote the book.’ For me, that’s been the best part … So many of them would say, ‘Bill, your book gave me hope, this changed my life; I lost my son and I didn’t think I could survive and I read your book and I realized maybe I can.’”
Hancock said the bike ride was simply him “just trying to figure out how to get back to my normal life and also to do a bucket-list adventure,” he added. “The book helping people, I never anticipated this would happen. I went from a student to a teacher because of the book. I know the vast majority of people knew me from the playoffs and the BCS and had no idea about the book or Will Hancock or the bike ride.
“The thing for me, other than helping people, is for people to get to know Will. Oklahoma State’s motto (for the tragedy) was ‘We Will Remember.’ I had the craziest thought that people would not remember Will … That’s another reason why the book helped me. I know that those who read the book will certainly know Will.”
As executive director of the CFP, Hancock oversees all aspects of the four-team, three-game event that crowns the college football national champion in the game’s highest division. He said he and everyone else associated with the CFP were happy with how the first year unfolded and are looking forward to seeing how this year’s playoffs unfold.
“From our perspective, it could not have gone better,” Hancock said. “And that’s everything from the selection committee to creating our protocol and the meetings and down to the games. We knew we only had one chance to get the first one right and we really felt like we did. It really went well and we couldn’t have been happier.”
Last week, the CFP was named sporting event of the year by Sports Business Journal.
“I think all the people weighing in on it [suggesting adding more teams to the playoffs and other possible changes to the format] just shows how popular college football is,” Hancock said. “Everybody wants to talk about it and have an opinion about it and they just want more of it. We get that. But the fact is we have a 12-year contract for a four-team tournament and it’s going to stay. More is not always better. It keeps the focus on the regular season and it keeps the other bowls.
“A lot of people ask me about [Alabama head coach] Nick Saban’s comments about his concerns about the other bowls, and I totally get that. But we didn’t see any decline in interest in the other bowls this year. Yes, they’re great for those of us who stay at home and watch them on TV, but they’re even better for the athletes who go and participate in them,” Hancock said.
So, what kind of encore can people expect this season?
“We made some notes of things to improve, especially at the championship game itself,” Hancock said. “ … What everybody learns is that every year is going to be different. That’s the fun of it. I wouldn’t trade that part for anything. I think a lot of people who want more, they just want more college football.”
Whatever his role — administrator or father who lost a son — Hancock said each experience, both pleasant and difficult, has helped shape the person he is today and how he approaches all the decisions he makes in his life.
“I’ll tell you, I’m the luckiest guy I know,” Hancock said. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself to realize that I have gotten to do what I’ve had a chance to do in my career. I loved the [NCAA basketball] tournament; those 16 years were great. But when I went over to college football, I was blown away with the pageantry and just the festival nature of college football. I was proud of the BCS, but it was time to move on. The BCS did great things and we couldn’t have had a playoff without it. I’m very happy with the playoffs.
“But the thing I want most in my life I can’t have, which is to have my son back. But I’ve been very, very lucky in a lot of ways.”