Bill Hancock lifted the gleaming golden trophy off its perch and handed it to Jim Harbaugh.
As the Michigan coach hoisted college football’s ultimate prize, Hancock applauded politely and smiled warmly. As the maize-and-blue celebration bubbled around him Monday night in Houston, Hancock slowly disappeared into the crowd, eventually making his way off the stage.
On the night the Oklahoma native fulfilled many of his final public duties as executive director of the College Football Playoff, his fade into the background was fitting.
The background is where Hancock has spent much of his career. A behind-the-scenes guy.
But the impact he made during nearly six decades in college sports is front and center, even if most sports fans aren’t aware of it. Hancock helped to make two of our biggest sporting events into what they are today — the Men’s Final Four and the College Football Playoff.
Richard Clark, who will take over as the playoff’s executive director, told the Associated Press when his hiring was announced that Hancock was leaving “big shoes to fill.”
Did we mention that Clark is a Lieutenant General who has been superintendent of the Air Force Academy since 2020 and that his military service before that included time as Deputy Air Force Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration?
A three-star general thinks the 73-year-old who grew up in the tiny southwest Oklahoma town of Hobart is leaving behind big shoes to fill.
Hancock would be the first person to joke about such a thing, but his impact on college sports has been as profound as anyone. He was the first full-time director of the Men’s Final Four, the first administrator of the Bowl Championship Series and the first executive director of the College Football Playoff. He took jobs no one had ever held before and not only did them well but also helped to transform the events he oversaw.
Take the Final Four, for example.
Hancock took over as director after the 1988 Final Four. That was the 50th anniversary of the event, and by all accounts, it had gone well for five decades. But back then, the Final Four was being held mostly at smaller basketball venues. It was starting to dabble in bigger venues, including the Superdome in New Orleans, but there were way more years at places like The Pit in Albuquerque, Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky and Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri.
But by the mid-1990s, the shift to stadiums was on. The RCA Dome in Indianapolis. The Metrodome in Minneapolis. The Alamodome in San Antonio.
Hancock didn’t decide to play in those bigger venues, but it was his job as director to make sure the event was successful there. Details were his specialty. He knew where the towels in the locker room and the water coolers near the team benches were supposed to go. He could help you with a misplaced parking pass or a forgotten practice time.
He helped the Final Four run like a well-oiled machine.
And it took off like a rocket ship.
By the time Hancock left the NCAA in 2002, the Final Four had become must-see TV, March Madness a state of being. Hancock was so good at his job that he was asked to take perhaps the toughest job in college athletics.
Executive director of the Bowl Championship Series.
Now, for anyone who needs a refresher course, the BCS was college football’s bridge between pollsters selecting national champions and the College Football Playoff. Computer polls were involved in determining who played for the national title, and while it was an improvement over the polls, BCS quickly became a bad word (bad acronym?) in sports.
Fans threatened the lives of the computer pollsters.
A group of well-respected sportswriters even wrote a book, “Death to the BCS.”
From its outset, the BCS was run by conference commissioners, and after a few years, they decided they needed someone to oversee the operations while also giving the operation a public face. They needed an administrator who could manage a big event and improve the BCS’s public image.
Put a happy face on it, if possible.
Hancock’s kindness and humor — he really is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet — made him a perfect fit for the BCS. And while he couldn’t win over everyone, he smoothed some rough edges.
Hancock once went on Dan Patrick’s radio show. The popular national host hated the BCS, and he grilled Hancock. The questions were legitimate but tough, and Hancock answered all of them without getting angry or even a wee bit snippy.
After Patrick wrapped the interview, he said of Hancock, “He may be too nice to have that job.”
Hancock did such a good job with the BCS that when the College Football Playoff launched in 2014, the conference commissioners again asked him to be in charge. They asked him to build a staff, create procedures and develop a plan for the playoff. Much of the playoff as we know it is because of Hancock.
The past decade hasn’t been without controversy — heck, the past month or so has been without it — but look at what the playoff has become. Packed stadiums. Huge TV viewership. Tons of buzz throughout the season.
Next season, the playoff expands to 12 teams.
That growth hasn’t been entirely because of Hancock, but his leadership and guidance should not be overlooked or underappreciated.
He’s so valuable that the playoff is keeping him on the payroll as a consultant for the next year. He’ll help Clark in transitioning to executive director and assist the playoff in moving to the 12-team format.
“Everyone who is blessed to work with Bill knows he is a highly skilled administrator, strong leader and truly good person,” Mississippi State president and CFP Board of Managers chairman Mark Keenum said when Hancock announced his retirement. “He’s a legend in college sports.”
Those who work with Hancock do know that.
Those who don’t might not be aware.
So, take a moment to appreciate all that Bill Hancock has done for the Men’s Final Four and the College Football Playoff, for college basketball and college football, for the entirety of college athletics. Give him a hand before he makes his way off the big stage and into a well-deserved retirement.