For the first time in the College Football Playoff era, a new chairman will lead the selection committee. On Jan. 14 the playoff announced Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt would serve as chairman of the committee for the 2016 season. Hocutt takes over for Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, who rotates out of the role after two seasons.
SI.com caught up with Hocutt to discuss his new role, being the public face of the playoff, selection criteria, the Big 12’s stability and much more.
Zac Ellis: How did the process unfold that ultimately led to you being named chairmen of the selection committee?
Kirby Hocutt: Well, first of all, I am excited about serving as the chairman of the College Football Playoff selection committee. It is an honor to do so. I’m flattered that the management committee asked me to serve in this role. It’s a big job. And it’s one I obviously look forward to. I thoroughly enjoyed my first year on the selection committee—the people, the process and the opportunity to give back to the game of college football that has been so important to my life, and continues to be.
So Bill Hancock called me the afternoon of this year’s national championship game on Jan. 11. We were in Phoenix. I believe he called around 1:30 or 2 o’clock that afternoon, and he said the management committee had met and had endorsed my candidacy to serve in this role. He asked, would I be willing to do it? Diane, my wife, was with me, so I had a chance to visit with her about the opportunity. And then I said, absolutely. It then expedited pretty quickly from that point forward to the announcement last Thursday.
ZE: Jeff Long served as chairman for the first two seasons of the playoff. Has he offered any advice about taking on the role?
KH: Jeff is probably one of my closest counterparts in this profession. Jeff and I worked together at the University of Oklahoma, and he’s become a dear friend, somebody I talk to on a consistent basis. I have a great admiration for Jeff, and I don’t think there’s anybody that could’ve done a better job serving in this role the first two years of the playoff process.
After I accepted the new role, Jeff came up, congratulated me and gave me a hug that night at the championship game. But he and I haven’t had a chance to talk in great detail since then. Obviously watching him for two years, I thought he did a tremendous job, and I know he will continue to be a resource for me as I transition into this job.
ZE: Fair or not, Long dealt with a lot of criticism as the public face of the selection committee. Now it’s your job to face ESPN’s cameras for six straight weeks. How much did that weigh on your decision to accept the role?
KH: The way I look at that is, this is college football. I believe it’s the greatest game in our country. And I believe that the passion our society and our fan bases have for the game, that commitment that everybody shares with the sport, makes this a great opportunity to be involved and engaged in this role. I played college football for five years, and when you’re a part of the Bill Snyder system, when you play defense for five years under Bob Stoops and Jim Leavitt as co-defensive coordinators, you develop some pretty thick skin. So I’m passionate about the game, and I look forward to serving in this chair position. I won’t take criticism personally. I know people love the game and are passionate about it, and that’s a great thing.
ZE: You were able to watch the first year of the playoff as an athletic director in 2014 before serving on the selection committee in 2015. After watching from afar, what did you learn about the playoff process once you participated in it last season?
KH: Watching it unfold from afar, it was really fascinating how the semifinals captivated the entire country, and the added attention and focus that it brought to the regular season, which I think is one of the best regular seasons in all sports in our country. But what a tremendous success it was in year one. And then having the opportunity to sit in the room and be a part of the process and the rankings every week in year two, I just gained so much appreciation for the committee and the protocol and how the commissioners and the management council committee have put the process together. It’s obviously shown that it works. It works in identifying the best teams in college football. I’m so appreciative of the committee members, the professional demeanor, the preparation and unique perspective everybody brings to the table.
ZE: Speaking of perspective, you are one of the youngest members of the committee at 44 years old. What have you learned from committee members who have been around the game longer?
KH: That’s the thing that you enjoy so much. You’re spending six or seven weeks together as a group, and in the amount of time you spend together, you get to know the committee members. You just value the relationships. I value so much the perspective and the experiences everybody in that room has had in college football. Having the opportunity to sit and talk with some of the greatest coaches ever to be in the game, what an awesome opportunity that is each and every week. Just gained so much appreciation for everybody’s perspective and what they hold important in ranking the top 25 teams in the country.
ZE: In your opinion, how important is it to have coaches in the room to help evaluate teams?
KH: I personally place tremendous value in the coaches’ voice and what they bring to the table. I think that’s extremely important for this committee to have some well-represented coaches voices around that table.
ZE: Most of us aren’t able to set foot in that room while the committee evaluates teams. What don’t we know about the process?
KH: There’s a lot that’s been written about, with the process and the protocol. I just appreciate everybody’s effort to stay consistent to what the purpose of the selection committee is. I personally believe the protocol that’s been set up works quite well.
ZE: That official Selection Committee Protocol lists a handful of key criteria used to evaluate teams. Did any one criteria stand out more than others during your first year on the committee?
KH: We remain very consistent to that criteria in all of our discussions and conversations. As we’re in there ranking teams, the margins are razor-thin. When those margins are razor-thin, then the protocol that’s been established gives us an opportunity to try to rank which teams belong where. When you get into those conversations, the playoff has done a tremendous job of making sure we have all the statistical data we could every want. We have access to all the games live and game tape that we could ever want. And then obviously, as has been talked about, the criteria that’s so important when circumstances at the margin are so razor-thin are strength of schedule, head-to-head competition, comparative outcomes of common opponents—those are all things that are in our protocol and continue to drive our conversation and the analysis of the rankings.
ZE: You hired Kliff Kingsbury as Texas Tech’s football coach in 2012. What is more difficult, handling the pressure of a coaching search or picking the playoff teams?
KH: [laughs] That’s a good question. That’s the first time I’ve gotten that question. I would say this: Whether it was the hiring of Kliff Kingsbury or shortly after that we went through a basketball hire and hired Tubby Smith as our basketball coach, no two coaching searches are ever the same. I would say that’s comparable to our weekly rankings because the teams in front of us to discuss as a committee each week remain fluid. Every team either strengthens their résumé or weakens their résumé on a given Saturday. So both processes can be different from time to time.
ZE: Baylor coach Art Briles once said the playoff should add more southerners to the selection committee. Now that a Big 12 athletic director sits in the chairman’s seat, has Briles reached out to you to voice his approval?
KH: [laughs] Well, I haven’t talked to coach Briles since I was selected as chairmen. Coach Briles has obviously done a tremendous job at Baylor and has had tremendous success there. So no, but he’s passionate and cares a great deal about the game of college football.
ZE: I have to ask you about the Big 12. Last week the NCAA voted to allow conferences with fewer than 12 teams to hold a championship game as long as the conference plays a round-robin schedule. Obviously, that news sparked plenty of chatter about the Big 12’s future with regards to potential expansion, a title game, etc. How would you describe the Big 12’s current stability?
KH: Well, I’m going to talk with my Big 12 athletic director hat on now, as opposed to committee chairmen. I believe we have great stability within our conference membership. The competiveness and strength of our league on the field, on the court, is as strong as any league out there. From top to bottom, I think we are as competitive as any league you’ll find.
I’m excited and pleased that we have the championship opportunity in front of us now. That’s an option that we previously have not had, and I know that will be an important topic of conversation as we get together as athletics directors to meet in the coming months, as well as our spring meetings in May.
We, as a league, recognize that we’re different than the four others that have been called “high visibility” leagues. We’re different in our size, we’re different in the fact that we do not have a championship game and we’re different in the fact that we don’t have a conference network. All of those things continue to be talked about and analyzed. Obviously it’s no secret that we have a conference composition committee, which is studying the current makeup and structure of the Big 12. That committee is made up of three presidents, and we’ve got to continue to have a discussion and make decisions on what is best for us and the future of the Big 12 conference. I think that’s all a timely discussion and one that there’s another piece on the table now with the championship game opportunity. So I think we’ve got to put them all on the table and collectively move forward. I’m confident that with the leadership of Bob Bowlsby, who I think is one of the best leaders in college athletics, we’ll do just that as a league together.
ZE: We’ve seen examples in which the Big 12’s lack of a championship game seemed to help  and hurt  its shot at a national title. Now that you’ve seen both sides of the coin, how much does that play into discussions of the Big 12’s future?
KH: I think that’s something we definitely recognize and we have to consider. We have seen both scenarios play out. We fully recognize there could be years in which not having a championship game is a disadvantage for us. We’ve got to recognize that if we ultimately decide to stay where we are as a league, that risk is there.
At the same time, I think there’s tremendous value to be had in playing the full round-robin schedule that we play in football. There’s tremendous strength that comes with that. In many ways, that builds those rivalries and those traditions that are so important, I believe, in college football. I think there’s strength with where we are right now. There certainly could be some disadvantages, and we just have to weigh both of those and decide what ultimately is best for our future moving forward.