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Bill Hancock and the college football playoffs

Bill Hancock presents trophy to Nick Saban
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Bill Hancock might be the most powerful man in college athletics, but you might decline an opportunity to switch places with him if ever given the chance. He began his career working in the sports information department of his alma mater Oklahoma and later with the Big Eight Conference before transitioning into an assistant commissioner. In 1989, he got a break that would carve out his path and place him in charge of the biggest spectacles in college, and by accepting that position to become the first director of the Final Four, he cemented his role in determining how championships would be decided.

His responsibility eventually expanded in 2009 when he was named the first executive director of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) in college football. And now, as the sport tries to break a long-standing tradition and join the rest of sports world in crowning champions through a playoff system, Hancock finds himself at the forefront once again. This time he’s inherits another first – executive director of the new college football playoffs.

The 1972 graduate of the University of Oklahoma joined The Game on Thursday to discuss the state of the college football and where he sees the playoff system going. For you to understand his direction, you first have to grasp where he’s brought the sport.

“A lot of people don’t remember what it was like before the BCS, when there was almost no chance for number one and number two to play each other in a bowl game,” Hancock explained. “The BCS took us down a great path, and it really changed the game from a regional game into a national game. People in the southeast had to watch Boise State and TCU last year because it had a bearing on the championship.”

And he’s absolutely correct. As much as fans wanted to destroy the BCS’ credibility, it got the sport closer to a true champion and made fans care about games they would have ignored previously. The system has run its course since crowning Tennessee the national champion in 1998 and finishing with seven straight SEC winners, but the powers that be are ready to move forward.

“The BCS did great things for college football, but we’re all ready to get going on the playoffs.”

And the playoffs have been a hot-button topic since they were officially announced eight months ago. Discussions have run the gamut, but the elephant in the room has been the make-up of the selection committee. The concerns are reasonable – politicking, grandstanding, and especially SEC fatigue. Hancock elaborated a little on who he envisions in those positions of power.

“We don’t know for sure who will be a part of it, but (there will be) somewhere in the 14 to 20 range (for committee members). They will be football experts. I bet you guys will know every one of them when the first list comes out. We envision some people that have a connection with every conference, and then a second group that are well-known football experts. We may have a former media person or two on the committee.

“Media people know a lot about the game, but I don’t think we can have any current media because I think their bosses would frown on them being involved in the process.”

Hancock referenced his days in charge the NCAA basketball tournament when discussing how his committee members wouldn’t be swayed by personal biases or allegiances.

“This (process) will be transparent. These (members) will be people that you know, trust, and have confidence in. This will be a really good process. Having said that, all of us went to college somewhere so we all have some kind of connection, and that’s okay. We’re not going to find a bunch of people that don’t have some kind of connection.”

He never missed an chance to re-assure those that listening, which was important considering that town might get the feeling that winning three out of four national championships will expedite a change in any system. 

“We need to get the selection committee and the selection process right because if we don’t do that, we don’t have anything. But I’m confident we will.”

Listening to Hancock speak will wash a sense of comfort over you because he says all of the right things. It’s not a coincidence that he’s been in charge of the biggest events in collegiate sports, but with prestige comes criticism. And being a fan of college football carries with it a sense of tradition and pride, especially when you talk about preserving the importance of the regular season, but he has an answer for that as well.

“We’ve got to keep the regular season relevant, and the best way to do that is to keep the playoffs small. In these other sports that have gone to the giant playoff fields, the regular season loses something – it’s inevitable.

“Obviously, we listen to the fans. It’s interesting to think about the constituencies that we have – we certainly have the fans, we also have to do what’s best for the student athlete, we have to listen to the coaches, and of course we are governed by the university presidents.

“They are all very important to us. The important thing is to find a balance and I think we’ve done that.”

Only time will tell as to whether or not they succeed with that goal. A four-team playoff maintains the excitement of the regular season - at least in theory - but the question will always linger about future expansion. With millions of dollars at stake and a ”what have you done for me lately” attitdue regarding coaches, the outcries from the team that gets left out of a four-team playoff will deafen those from the 69th team in college basketball.

“We didn’t do this to eliminate contention. We did this because we thought it would be good for the game, because the fans wanted a bracket, and because we wanted to protect the regular season. We have the best regular season going and we don’t want to monkey with it.

“The reason we extended this arrangement for 12 years is so people would realize this is here. (The four-team playoff) is what it’s going to be for 12 years.”

That’s all well and good 23 months removed from the first championship game under the new system, but does 12 years really mean 12 years? We’ve seen television contracts of 10+ years get ripped up and renegotiated with conference realignment. With the dollars in play, there isn’t a single party involved that will lock itself into a 12-year contract without some type of out clause.

What do you think will happen when the four-team playoff consists of three SEC teams. Okay, maybe that won’t happen if the selection committee never allows three SEC teams to make the playoff in the same year. But will fans of other conferences still be satisfied with a four-team playoff if the national championship game consists of two SEC teams for two or three consecutive years?

It’s easy to brush off those hypotheticals as absurd, but they seem more likely than the alternative at this point. After seven BCS titles in a row and recruiting classes throughout the conference that continue to widen the gap with the rest of the country, the scenarios don’t seem too far-fetched. But Hancock also pointed out health concerns of longer season paired with the student-athlete defense for why they’ll keep it at four teams. But from the perspective of many, nothing said now will completely erase the skepticism. We’ll have to see it to believe it.

It’s not competely negative, however. This system will inject fresh excitement into the sport, and that shouldn’t be overlooked. Hancock said he’s really looking forward to the effect the playoffs will have on our persepcei.

“I think you’ll see a couple things in the country of the next five years. I think the whole nature of New Year’s Eve in this country will change because two out of three years in the playoffs, the semifinals will be on New Year’s Eve. So at 5:00 and 8:30pm Eastern Time on New Year’s Eve, there’s going to be two games that everybody has to watch.

“I think we’ll look back and say, ‘Wow, New Year’s Eve isn’t what it used to be.’”

One of the committee’s biggest priorities will be to avoid hindering the experience of the bowl games. Hancock explained that college football has the unique quality of being able to celebrate the game at the end of the season.

“The bowl tradition and the bowl experience for the athlete’s will continue. If it doesn’t continue, we’ve made a big mistake. But we’re going to make sure that it will continue.”

The discussion is far from over and that’s to be expected. College football has peaked in popularity and as a result of that, a lot is riding on the decisions Hancock and his team have to make over the next year. It’s not a position I would want take on.

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