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Bill Hancock’s Final Drive: Inside the CFP Executive Director’s Eventful Farewell

From the dying Pac-12 and 12-team playoff complications to unsettled media contracts and the amateurism debate, much of Hancock’s final year has been a roller coaster.
Bill Hancock (left) has spent decades running some of college sports' premier properties. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Hancock’s office, 10 stories up in the sky overlooking State Highway 114 in Irving, is riddled with collegiate memorabilia. Team-issued helmets. Commemorative footballs. Trophies. Newspaper clippings. This tracks, given four decades in college athletics that includes leading the NCAA’s Men’s Final Four as the first full-time director from 1989 to 2002, to being in charge of the Bowl Championship Series from 2009 to 2012 to, finally, the College Football Playoff from its 2012 inception.

But it won’t be his office much longer. Hancock is on the five-yard line of his illustrious career—lining up to punch it into the paint. Come the end of the 2023–2024 college football season, Hancock will step down from his executive director post. He’ll stay on through the 2024–2025 season advising his successor. Then, it’s into retirement. 

As early as mid-December of this year, the College Football Playoff could have its successor to Hancock. The plan is for the new executive director to shadow Hancock through the final season of a four-team playoff before hitting the ground running following the national championship game. Daniel Parker of Parker Executive Search is working with the CFP board to spearhead the hiring process. Fr. John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, is the chairman of the search committee. 

Their goal isn’t to find another executive director. No, insists Mark Keenum, the president of Mississippi State University and board chairman of the 11-person CFP board of managers, “We’re looking for another Bill Hancock.”

‘Grief is a roller coaster’

On January 27, 2001, an airplane carrying two Oklahoma State Cowboys men’s basketball players and six staffers crashed as it was flying through a snowstorm. The two crew members on board the plane also died. Will Hancock, the media relations coordinator for the basketball program and Bill’s son, was aboard the plane. Nine days prior to the crash, Bill had a dream that his son died in an accident.  “We all have crazy dreams, but this was a spiritual happening,” Bill says. “I called him the next morning and we just talked all about life.” Bill never told Will about the dream. The same night of the crash, Bill and his wife Nicki were shopping for groceries, when Nicki was overcome with sadness to the point where Bill put all the groceries back on the shelf and helped her out of the store. Three hours later, the couple received the phone call that Will passed away in a plane crash. “Later, we determined that it was at the exact time of the crash when Nicki got sad,” Bill says.

In honor of Will, Bill embarked on a 36-day bike ride from Huntington Beach, California, to Tybee Island, Georgia, a short time after Will’s passing. Born from that ride was Bill’s book Riding With the Blue Moth. On the ride, Bill had visions of a blue moth coming down and landing on his handle bars—to him it represented the sadness and grief. “I talked to Will a lot on that ride about his wife, his mother, and his recently born baby. He never responded, but I would just say, ‘Hey, your mom’s really sad. And Andie, your daughter, is beautiful. But you already know that so what am I saying?’ I’d shoo off the moth, but it always came back. “Grief is a roller coaster.”

Hancock was born and raised in Hobart, Oklahoma. His father owned the daily newspaper in town, and by the time Hancock was 12, he was the paper boy. One of his biggest lessons was getting things right the first time.

“I learned that if I don’t just put the paper on the porch, they’d bother me with a phone call later asking where the paper was, and I’d have to go back and dig it out of their bushes for them,” he says. 

At age 15, Hancock was promoted to become the paper’s janitor in what he calls “the best promotion I’ve ever had.” He would enjoy many more in the ensuing decades. His first big break came with the Big Eight Conference, when he was elevated from the service bureau director to the conference’s assistant commissioner. That opened the door to the Final Four, which opened up the door to the BCS, then the CFP. None of them, he insists, mean more than the first one. “I really didn’t want to go out in that Oklahoma heat anymore,” he cracks.

But while there’s humor in there, former Big XII commissioner Bob Bowlsby, whom Hancock calls a mentor and friend of more than 40 years, says there’s truth to it, too. “He is a hard-working, humble, and caring individual, and it’s reflected in everything he does,” Bowlsby says. 

The college football landscape is Hancock’s new heat, not in the sense that he no longer wants to deal with it but that he’s earned his departure. There are also, Hancock says, “so many questions swirling about college football. And ultimately, those questions will have to be resolved in the generations ahead.”

Those questions begin with the neverending matter of conference realignment and the fact that the Pac-12, a 108-year-old conference dissolved, in the matter of weeks. To that, Hancock says, “The recent departures of the teams from the Pac-12 makes me sad. But schools can determine what conferences they want to be in. I frankly don’t know anyone who’s happy about it—including the schools who are deciding to leave.

“But conference realignment is not new; it’s been happening forever. In 1928, Oklahoma led five other schools—Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Missouri, and Nebraska—out of the Missouri Valley Conference to create a new conference called the Big Six. Well, Oklahoma A&M was part of the Missouri Valley Conference. And they were just left behind. For 100 years there has been conference realignment, and college football has always proved resilient.”

Bowlsby, who worked on the subcommittee that ultimately decided to expand the playoff from four to 12 teams, takes a more emphatic stand. “Realignment, in a word, is unnecessary,” he says. “I just don’t think we needed to do those things. I think the athletics ecosystem is better with the Pac-12.”

There are also questions about media contracts and which network will broadcast the College Football Playoff come 2026, when its current deal with ESPN and ABC expires. To that, Hancock insists “We don’t know who will broadcast the playoff starting in 2026.” In response to Disney looking to sell ESPN to an Apple or a Nexstar Media Group—which, by the way, houses its corporate HQ three floors below the CFP’s HQ in Irving—Hancock says, “No one likes uncertainty. We had certainty two years ago when we were first looking to expand. But times change.”

Keenum is open to all avenues of broadcasting—streaming, multiple media partners, “whatever is going to allow our fans to access the games,” he says. To prove his point, he says, “In late September we had various media companies come in to meet with our commissioners to talk about various proposals and ideas.” (One thing he does sound certain about? “I don’t envision Disney selling ESPN,” Keenum says.)

Finally, there are questions about the future of NIL, amateurism, and the transfer portal. To that, Hancock says: “The NIL and the transfer portal, to me, are just reflective of the pendulum swinging back toward more empowerment for the athletes. But the fact is, they’re college students. And if we ever let anyone drag us into anything other than that, we will have lost the essence of college athletics … the NFL would give anything to have college football’s pageantry.”

And more pageantry is what Hancock and company are trying to capture in the 12-team playoff slated to launch under the CFP’s new executive director next season. As initially agreed upon in 2022, the 12-team setup will bring in the six best conference champions and six at-large bids. Not everyone was in favor of it: Keenum, for instance, was against automatic bids entirely, arguing that “a conference champion could very well be unranked” and therefore unfit to be recognized as one of the 12 best teams in the country.

Ultimately, Keenum compromised and the 6+6 model was adopted. But that was before 10 of the Pac-12’s member schools bolted to other conferences. There are ongoing discussions around a switch to a 5+7 model due to the Pac-12’s uncertain future, although a discussion slated for late September to settle on what to do was punted due to the two remaining teams in the Pac-12, Washington State and Oregon State, staking their claim to operate as an unprecedented two-team conference.

Hancock, in his final months at the helm, is left to deal with one of the most perplexing situations in his career. 

“Weird. Unthinkable.” Hancock says. “It’s totally weird, and everybody knows it … Until we know for sure how many conferences we’ll have, we can’t say how many conference champions will be in the playoff.”

For now, though, the 2024 playoff, as initially agreed upon, will operate as such: byes in the first round of the playoff will go to the top four conference champions. After that, the fifth seed with play the 12th, the sixth takes on the 11th, and so on. Higher seeds will host those initial matchups on their campuses, and Hancock boasts “those first-round games have the potential to be the biggest thing that ever happened on those campuses.” 

From there, it will operate in a format similar to another event Hancock knows well—March Madness, where the higher seeds will take on the winner of the first-round matchups rather than reseeding to give the No. 1 team a more favorable matchup.

“We had the discussion of re-seeding teams after the first round, but ultimately our fans probably need to know where their teams are going to go play,” Hancock says. 

In 2024, the quarterfinals will feature the Peach Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, the Rose Bowl, and the Sugar Bowl, with the selection committee assigning game sites to the teams. The committee will try to assign teams to their traditional bowls. Next year’s semifinals will be held at the Orange Bowl and the Cotton Bowl, although the CFP will rotate bowl games around just like it has in the four-team playoff era. 

According to Hancock, all bowl games under the CFP brand will be playoff games. The payouts for 2024 and 2025 are as follows: $4 million for each team in the field; $4 million for each team in the quarterfinals; $6 million for each team in the semifinals; and $6 million for each team in the championship game.

“An expanded playoff keeps more teams close to the flame—I believed that when I was helping work on expansion and I believe it now,” Bowlsby says. “With 6 weeks to go in the season and a 12-team playoff looming, there’ll be 30 or 40 teams that have a legitimate claim at being in the playoff, and that will be good for in-stadium attendance and it’ll be good for TV ratings.”

Hancock will watch most of that play out from afar—very afar, if all goes according to plan. His first priority after stepping down will be to travel the world with his wife, Nicki. Bucket-list items include a trip to Israel, a Canadian train adventure, and trips in an RV he plans on purchasing. That’s only the beginning of his retirement activities. Hancock also wants to learn how to use Photoshop. He picked up some piano skills in high school, but he says it’s high time he gets good again. And the former journalist and author desires to do some more writing, too. 

Nothing too fancy, which tracks for someone who insists he’s “just a regular guy who has a wonderful job.” No matter how high he’s climbed, Hancock has done his best to put the paper on the porch just like he did on hot summer days in Oklahoma—to do his job the way it was meant to be done. The mandate remains the same in his final months on the job. There’s no better way to close out decades in the college sports world—and to make sure nobody bothers him with a phone call in retirement.


Ben Swanger

Ben Swanger

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Ben Swanger is the managing editor for D CEO, the business title for D Magazine. Ben manages the Dallas 500, monthly…

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