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Shaped by tragedy, Bill Hancock right man for impossible job

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Bill Hancock pulled off the highway, sought refuge inside. But the guy behind the counter wasn't providing much. Why, he wondered, would anyone be riding a bicycle in the midsummer heat? And what, he wanted to know, did Hancock do for a living?

When Hancock told him -- "You're not gonna believe this, but I'm the director of the Final Four" -- the guy asked to take his picture. And then the interrogation stopped, and the harangue began. The gist was how the NCAA needed to stop protecting Duke and North Carolina and start treating them like every other team. The lasting impression was of incongruity.

"It was pretty funny," Hancock recalled. "There I was in the middle of southeastern Oklahoma, getting chewed out about the NCAA tournament format."

We bring you this eight-year-old memory from a cross-country bicycle journey because a lot of people Hancock has never met have been chewing him out once again, this time over his new job as executive director of the BCS. And a lot of people he knows can't believe he took the gig, because the BCS format seems to be the antithesis of March Madness.

One friend, a former basketball coach, told him: "You've gone over to the dark side." They both laughed, but Hancock knows many others think that. His reaction is about the same as it was all those years ago at that roadside store.

He just chuckles and keeps pedaling.

It didn't cause much of a ripple six weeks back when the BCS announced Hancock would fill the new position of executive director. Despite his longtime involvement in college sports, most fans had never heard of him. He'd been a behind-the-scenes guy, and content with his role.

Still, at first glance, Hancock seemed an odd choice to become the BCS' main spokesperson, replacing the conference commissioners who had taken turns as the face and voice of the controversial system. He is unassuming, affable and earnest in a way that seems rooted in small-town Oklahoma, where he was raised.

"I believe in this," Hancock said, and there's no doubting his sincerity.

So this is the guy charged, as colleague Andy Staplesrecently put it, with defending an indefensible system. (Aside: Unlike Andy, I find the BCS perfectly defensible, though I'd favor a "plus-one" format involving the bowls.) He might just be the right man for an impossible job.

The BCS just keeps lurching along. Although five teams finished the regular season undefeated, and despite Boise State's win over TCU in the Fiesta Bowl in a battle of unbeatens, there hasn't been much hue and cry over the matchup between Alabama and Texas in the BCS Championship Game. But the system remains as controversial as ever. And according to the many, vocal critics, it remains as fundamentally unfair.

Hancock's promotion -- he'd spent the last few years as the BCS' administrator, in much the same role as he'd filled with the NCAA tournament -- is part of an occasionally clumsy effort to put out a different message. The BCS has hired a public relations firm -- Ari Fleischer Communications, led by the former press secretary for George W. Bush. There's a Web site, www.playoffproblem.com, and even a Twitter account: @INSIDEtheBCS (where Hancock claims he often tweets himself).

"The critics had the field to themselves for too long," Hancock said. "I believe (the BCS system) is every bit as good for the universities as the Final Four is. I'm astounded at the untruths that the critics say about it, the use of words like 'corrupt,' 'cartel,' 'criminal.' It's just silly. It's none of these things."

From there, he can expound at length on the virtues of the BCS and the vices a playoff would bring. There's no need to get into them here, because we've all argued the points. The idea of Hancock winning the p.r. game seems unlikely, even if the methods get refined. But that's why he might be the best choice for the job of chief advocate and public defender.

To understand why, we need to go beyond Hancock's years of experience behind the scenes at the highest level of college sports, his time as the self-described, "helpful NCAA tournament guy." We need to see Hancock Riding with the Blue Moth. That's the title of his book, published in 2005, which chronicles his journey across the country on a bicycle.

And we need to know why he decided to take that journey, too.

On January 27, 2001, Hancock's 31-year-old son, Will, a media relations staffer at Oklahoma State, died along with nine other members of the Oklahoma State basketball traveling party in a plane crash on the plains of eastern Colorado. Will left behind a wife and a two-month-old daughter. And his death ripped a huge hole in the heart of his family, especially his father.

The blue moth is Bill Hancock's term for despair. When he was a child, his grandmother would sometimes refer to "blue northers," referring to the winter cold fronts that regularly swept the Oklahoma plains on which Hancock was raised. He heard it as "blue moth," and after his son's death, he likened despair to one of those cold fronts. The blue moth came often, and settled in for long stays.

"I could not predict when the blue moth might attack, dousing me with a napalm that destroyed all hope," Hancock wrote. "I despised the agony that came with those waves of sadness. I hated the savage blue moth."

The bicycle journey was Hancock's attempt to get rid of that blue moth. On a warm July morning, he dipped his rear wheel into the Pacific surf at Huntington Beach, Calif. (coincidentally, just a few miles from where the media and teams are headquartered this week for the BCS National Championship). Five weeks and 2,747 miles later, he rode into the Atlantic Ocean at Tybee Island, Ga.

He didn't experience an epiphany, and he didn't shake the blue moth. Even now, Hancock says it still comes around. But the journey, recorded in daily journal entries, was cathartic, and he said the chief result was a reawakened appreciation for people, and for simple kindness. He's learned not to let little things bother him.

"I know what's important," he said. "That's more a result of the accident than the bike ride. But I know what's important."

And the most important lesson is one he'll apply to his current challenge. Countering the critics and converting the vast masses of college football fans isn't easy, Hancock said, but it isn't necessarily insurmountable.

"You start somewhere," he said, "and all you do is keep pedaling. Pretty soon you're gonna get there. That's what I thought about this: Just keep pedaling. And there are hills, the people who don't understand, or don't want to understand, or those who never will understand.

"But the downhills are when I connect with a university president who says, 'Bill, we feel very strongly about this position. We love this game, and we love that it's such an important part of higher education. You're doing the right thing.'"

Just so you know, Hancock doesn't really expect to complete the journey.

"I don't know that we can reach the other ocean," he said. "I think we can reach the Mississippi River."

Optimistic, sure. Maybe even impossible. But Hancock will keep pedaling.

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