Countdown to the Big Ten: Q&A with BCS Leader Bill Hancock
Editor's note: This is the first in a series of 10 N-Sider columns that will count down Nebraska's journey to become an official member of the Big Ten Conference on July 1, 2011. This column focuses on Bill Hancock, the executive director of the BCS, the selection system that creates five bowl match-ups, including the annual national championship game. The Countdown to the Big Ten series will culminate with an N-Sider on Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany on July 1.
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Q: You were the first full-time director of the NCAA Final Four. Now, you're the first executive director of the BCS (Bowl Championship Series). Be honest now. Do you love football more than you love basketball?
A: (after laughter) That's like asking which one of my grandchildren I love the most. Being from Oklahoma, I'm sure you understand that I grew up a football guy. But I fell in love with basketball, too, clear back when I was working in the athletic department at OU. It opened so many doors for me. I will probably never spend as much time in football as I did in basketball. With 16 years at the NCAA, well, that's a long time. I'll be retired before I reach 16 years in football. But I have to say I'm the luckiest guy I know. Just think about it; I was director of the best event in college basketball and now the director of the best event in college football.
Q: The only NCAA sport that does not have a playoff to determine a national champion is football. It is also the only NCAA sport where every single regular-season game is absolutely critical. Is that true?
A: That's true.
Q: Why is that simple fact so darned important every time you're asked to discuss the relative merits of the BCS and why a national football playoff would be the end to the bowls as we know them.
A: I think fans don't take time to realize how important bowls are to student-athletes. When I explain it to people, generally they say: "Oh my, I haven't thought about that." A playoff would be a whole series of one-night business trips. The athletes would fly into Tuscaloosa, say, on Friday, play Saturday, then fly back home that night. If they win, they would go back to practice and get ready to do the same thing the next week. If they lose, they would pack up their gear. Now the football season ends with the athletes enjoying a multi-day experience, usually in a different culture, that they will remember forever. To me, that's the most important thing about the BCS. It allows the bowl system to continue and gives those athletes that experience. There are many reasons why the BCS is better than a playoff, but to me, that's the primary one.
Q: Why do certain people still want the Justice Department to bully your organization into a playoff when you've been repeatedly successful in defending that right?
A: Oh, I wouldn't use the term "bully," but you certainly can. We are confident that the BCS complies with the law. When the BCS was created, our folks found the best attorneys they could and said: "Please structure this, so it complies with the law." And that's what they did. The reason that it is not in violation of anti-trust laws is because those laws protect access and competition for consumers, and the BCS delivers both of those in spades. The consumers are not harmed by the BCS. In fact, the consumers are better under the BCS than they've ever been before because there's more postseason football to watch. There's a game between No. 1 and No. 2 that was never guaranteed before the creation of the BCS. I just think people who want to raise the anti-trust flag are looking for some way to create a mini-NFL, and that's not what's best for the college students.
Q: You know that Nebraska is one of the few BCS schools that has never won a Men's NCAA Basketball Tournament game. Now that Nebraska is joining the Big Ten, getting a new practice facility and a new downtown arena and has a coach that players and fans seem to love, do you think the time is coming when Nebraska cracks that barrier?
A: Absolutely, it'll happen. Of course, I'm still mad at Nebraska for moving out of the Coliseum. (more laughter). But again, it will happen.
Q: We believe Nebraska is one of the more powerful schools in any BCS discussion. Do you buy that statement and if so, why?
A: Absolutely! Nebraska football ... well, just say those two words anywhere in the country and watch the reaction of fans. Nebraska football is a brand that's known universally. It's a brand that's respected. It's respected because of its success and the first-class manner in which the program has been conducted. When you say Nebraska football, people think CLASS! I've been going to Lincoln for 40 years, and every time I've been there I've found the Nebraska experience - in football, basketball, baseball, track and field, you name it - to be first-class in every way. Just think for a minute about those 48 years of football sellouts. Nobody will ever top that.
Q: Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman has held the top position on the presidential oversight committee of the BCS. Now that honor belongs to Penn State President Graham Spanier, a former Nebraska chancellor. Why are these leaders so important to the BCS cause?
A: (More laughter ...) It's because ... well, Randy, it's because of Lee's Chicken. That's why I like Lincoln so much. People always like to talk to me about Misty's and Valentino's. But for me, there was only one place, and that was Lee's Chicken. I hope the organ is still there. Seriously, Chancellor Perlman and President Spanier are two of the most respected gentlemen in higher education, and I am honored to have been able to work closely with both of them.
Q: You artfully changed the subject from Nebraska leadership to Lee's Chicken. What about Jo Potuto, a Nebraska law professor and our Faculty Athletic Rep (FAC). Didn't she chair the committee for all NCAA Division I faculty athletic reps? What's going on here in Lincoln? I mean, we're more than Lee's Chicken and football.
A: Well, I have a lot of respect for Jo, but you have messed with my brain, and I really can't think of anything else right now besides Lee's Chicken and football. Nebraska is......(five-second pause) ...I don't know how else to say it: "There is No Place Like Nebraska!" You know I love Nebraska. I have ever since my days at OU, and I continued that when I was in the (Big Eight) conference office. What you may not know is I rode my bicycle from McCook up to Valentine and then out into South Dakota, and I loved every minute that I spent in Nebraska. I had never visited the Sandhills before and to go there on a bicycle and to experience the quiet, the smells and the beautiful days in July was memorable. Of course, the hills were grueling on a bike. I wasn't prepared for that, and I was quite happy to get to Valentine. People in Nebraska were so nice to me. I should confess that even though I graduated from the University of Oklahoma, I'm a closet Cornhusker.
Q: As a closet Nebraska guy, what do you remember most about Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne?
A: I was fortunate enough to work with Bob when I was in the Big Eight Office. I learned as much from him as I have from anybody else - not only about football, but how to work with people. To Bob, the lowest reporter from the smallest paper was as important as the Omaha World-Herald columnist. And the lowest little assistant SID was as important as the president of the NCAA. That's the main thing I got from Bob - cherish every relationship. Of course, Tom is brilliant and remarkably was able to enhance the Nebraska tradition when he followed Bob, something most people following legends have been unable to do. Some would even say Tom outdid his predecessor, but, of course, Tom would never say that, so I wouldn't either. That would be a great hot-stove discussion sometime, though: Name someone else who followed a legend as successfully as Tom Osborne did.
Q: I'm glad you made a point of talking about the importance of every relationship. Anyone who goes from the Hobart (Okla.) Democrat Chief to the two most powerful positions in college football and college basketball appreciates what you learn at that level. It's really a matter of working with people and gaining their respect, isn't it?
A: In a small town, you learn that every person is important, and when you work in a newspaper, you learn to listen. If you're in the newspaper business and can't listen, you're doomed to failure. If you're in the college football business and can't listen, you're doomed to failure. I also learned in the newspaper business to admit my mistakes and not blame anybody else. When you misspell the school superintendent's name in the paper, you can't say: "Well, my secretary did it." I learned right off to say: "I messed up. I'm so sorry." I don't like the lame excuse that too many people use: "I'm sorry if I offended anyone." Good grief, that is SO lame. Just come out and say "I'm sorry" and mean it.
Q: You know how big the Nebraska-Oklahoma game was. That annual rivalry disappeared with the launch of the Big 12 and now it will be a very rare occurrence, if at all. Is that sad?
A: Oh, I think we old people need to be careful about being sad about change. Nebraska-Oklahoma was the hottest rivalry with the most respect of any in the country. To me, it died when the Big Eight died. In the Big 12, it was different not playing every year. When the Big Eight went away, I had that nod in my head about progress and hope for the best. There were people who were sad when the Big Six took in Colorado to make the Big Seven. Conferences have changed forever, and they're going to continue to change - although I believe we've seen the last seismic changes at the top tier for a while. Nebraska is going to be a great success in the Big Ten. The Big Ten is going to be great for Nebraska, and Nebraska is going to be great for the Big Ten.
Q: The Big Ten seems to have opened its arms and welcomed Nebraska in. It has made Nebraska feel very special and humbled. But with that schedule this fall, that could end quickly, don't you think?
A: (genuine laughter here). Anytime you do anything ...well, let's just say the honeymoon is always short. The wedding was great, but after the short honeymoon, then you get down to the business of living together. Good people can make living together be a joy, and I think that's going to happen not only with Nebraska and the Big Ten, but with all of these conferences.
Q: Do you see Nebraska fans enjoying going to Chicago, Minneapolis, Ann Arbor and every other new site, and what about those fans wanting to come to Lincoln?
A: It will be great for everyone. It really will. Look at Nebraska-Minnesota. Think about everything the two states have in common, going back all those years ... well, rekindling that rivalry alone makes the new Big Ten fun.
Q: I know you've spent a lot of time in Lincoln over the years. What are your favorite memories?
A: First, the people. Randy York - yes, remember the good times we had - and Tom Simons, Don Bryant, Mark Kostek, Gary Pepin, Virgil Parker, Ken Hambleton ... I could go on and on. I enjoyed running the Lincoln half-marathon and administering the Big Eight Indoor Track Championship in the Devaney Center, which was the finest campus arena of its time. My first football trip to Lincoln was in 1972; the Sooners won, but my special memory is the grace that the Nebraska fans showed. The old Big Eight Skywriters Tour was another highlight. So was Misty's in Havelock. We had the Big Eight Cross-Country Championship at Pioneers Park, and I ran the course all by myself early that Saturday morning. It was frosty, and I loved the cold silence. I fell in love with Lincoln that morning.
Q: Changing gears here, how much does it hurt a guy like you having to respond to national media requests about what happened at the Fiesta Bowl?
A: It's been really difficult. The whole Fiesta Bowl matter was extremely disappointing and troubling for me personally and professionally. We were pleased that their Board of Directors took control with the motto of "Reveal and Reform". If the board hadn't taken drastic steps to improve the governance, I'm almost certain our BCS group would have separated itself from the Fiesta Bowl. Now, that bowl is going to be better off because of the reforms that the bowl itself instituted in addition to the ones that we put in place. I believe the entire bowl industry is going to be better because I think the NCAA will become more involved in oversight of the bowls. The BCS group is in the process of creating a set of standards for responsible governance and ethical conduct for all of the BCS games that will benefit everyone. There certainly has been short-term pain, but the long-term gain will be terrific. I do want to say something else. The critics of the bowl system are wrong to paint innocent people with that same brush. I've heard responsible people say: "Well, surely, the same thing has happened at the other bowl games." Well, my goodness, how do they know that? We've looked at the other bowls, and there's just no evidence of anything remotely similar to what happened at the Fiesta Bowl. Having said that, and I'm going to be careful not to paint innocent people with the same brush myself, we will not do business with people who behaved in the way the Fiesta Bowl people behaved. And the other bowls know it. And the Fiesta Bowl took the right step by hiring Robert Shelton as its new executive director. He is a highly respected leader in higher education, and very soon, he will earn everyone's trust as head of the Fiesta Bowl.
Q: What do you tell all the sportscasters, sportswriters, senators and fans who want to tell the world why the BCS needs a national playoff? Why don't they ever mention what the student-athletes want? Aren't they the ones who would put on the pads and play while others would just watch?
A: A year ago, ESPN The Magazine polled the student-athletes, and 70 percent favored the current system. The FCA (Football Coaches Association) polled the coaches about the same time, and over 90 percent of the coaches favored the current system. The facts lead me to believe the critics are trying to make the participants do something they don't want to do.
Q: Why don't Joe Fan and Jane Fan grasp the essence of why college football keeps getting bigger and better by doing what you're doing? The presidents get it. The coaches get it, and the vast majority of the players get it. Why do the fans want to apply the same playoff principles to the most unique sport in the universe?
A: I don't sense any groundswell among the leaders of higher education to create a playoff. The regular season is too important for all of college sports, and the bowl experience is too important for the athletes. The single most important event in college athletics is a football Saturday afternoon. Why would anyone want to put that at risk? Athletic directors, coaches and presidents have to be accountable for the well being of the athletes. You know, I understand that many fans would love to be able to sit at home for four straight weekends and watch a 16-team playoff. I understand and respect that feeling, but those of us who are responsible for the athletes have to see a little bigger picture.
Q: One more question, and it's personal from someone you've known a long time. Not all of our readers will know that Will Hancock, your late son, died in that tragic Oklahoma State basketball team plane crash in Denver 10 years ago. You wrote a book about Will called Riding with the Blue Moth. Your perspective on life inspires many, including me. I also know Will still lives in your heart and mind. If you're willing, please tell us how you continue to honor Will's memory in everything you do, whether you're running, biking, traveling or meeting with college presidents and coaches.
A: (obvious emotion before answering) You know, I think about Will every day and in a very good way. As a dad, I learned a lot from my son. It makes me sad when I see people who fail to pay attention to the only thing in life that really matters, which is ... relationships. I thought I had a good handle on life before Will died, but I realized after that, that I had much to learn. The message is simple ... just cherish every moment and every person that you're with. Once you understand that, life becomes pretty darn simple.
Voices from Husker Nation
All I can say is WOW after reading the article on Bill Hancock. I'm a long time Husker fan. I've been a part of the sellout record since day one. Even watched Johnny Rodgers play in the Shrine Bowl Game in Lincoln. I just appreciated Mr. Hancock's keen understanding of our Husker culture. He gets why everyone loves this state so much. When I read bloggers say stupid things like ... "The Huskers travel well because there's nothing to do in Nebraska when the team is on the road" ... I honestly feel sorry for them for not understanding. I won't even say the name of a certain Denver sportswriter who could not find enough ugly things to say about Nebraska. So, for an OKLAHOMA guy to say that he LOVES the Husker culture, I say he gets the essence of our passion and understands why we all enjoy the quality of - and the quantity of - great football and life here. I read a comment a few nights ago that sums it up nicely. "If you want to be considered better than the Cornhuskers, all you have to do is beat us consistently. We respect that!" Ron Lukesh, Grand Island, Nebraska
I know someone who has lost a child in their prime, and I can't tell you how much I respect Bill Hancock for his courage to honor his son and the family he left behind. He sounds not only like a great leader in college football, but a devoted husband, father and grandfather. I've really never paid much attention to the college playoff argument, but the next time I hear people discussing it, I have some pretty solid information to help me jump into the debate. And you don't have to guess where I'm coming from - the side of the university presidents, administrators, coaches and, most importantly, the student-athletes themselves. Thanks for a simply awesome article all the way around. Linda Anderson, Omaha, Nebraska
Thanks for the great read on Bill Hancock and a special thank you for including the link to the book he wrote. I am ordering a couple of them - one for a dear friend and one for myself. What an amazing guy. He should join the Oklahomans for Nebraska Club. I'm sure they would welcome his leadership. Steve Sorenson, Palm Desert, California
Thanks for another great article! I am referring to the Q&A with Bill Hancock. Steve Hatcher