For six years, he was a part-time resident of our city. Believe me when I say Indianapolis was full-time better for it. Not many folks here know this fellow named Bill Hancock, or the integral behindthe-scenes role he has played in the NCAA’s staging of its showcase event, the men’s basketball tournament and the Final Four.
I’ll sum it up this way: The NCAA’s tournament manual is about 4 inches thick.
Hancock, who served as the tournament director, could quote it chapter and verse. Shoot, he wrote much of it.
I’ve known Bill since I can’t remember when, a friendship forged during my years of covering college basketball and, in particular, the Final Four. Once a sportswriter himself before he moved into college sports information work and eventually to the NCAA, Hancock defines “nice.” His easygoing, genuine manner-augmented by a twang from his native Oklahoma-make him a guy you want to know better as soon as you meet him.
I’m privileged to say we shared some special experiences. Because he volunteered his services to the U.S. Olympic Committee, Bill and I watched basketball in Cuba during the Pan Am Games and ventured to a bullfight in Barcelona during the Olympics.
He was, and is, a fun guy to be around, quick with a quip, and we delighted in bantering back and forth when our paths crossed, which wasn’t often enough. While Bill made the move when the NCAA headquarters came here, he commuted to Kansas City every weekend to be with his wife, Nicki, an award-winning schoolteacher. Now he’s back in K.C. full time, having just left the NCAA to go to work for the Bowl Championship Series.
Getting to know Bill meant getting to know his son, Will, and Bill couldn’t have been more proud of his firstborn (later followed by son Nate), who shared his dad’s personality as well as his passion for sports. Bill was ecstatic, to say the least, when Will followed his father into college sports. One of Will’s stops was a stint here in Indy as communications director for the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now the Horizon League). Will eventually ended up at Oklahoma State University, where he was publicist for the Cowboys basketball team. He married the women’s soccer coach there, and they had a baby girl. Life was good for Will … and the grandparents.
Then tragedy struck. The day before the 2001 Super Bowl, Will was with the OSU basketball team for a game at Colorado. Afterward, three small planes took off with the team’s entourage bound for the OSU campus in Stillwater. Only two of the aircraft arrived. The plane carrying Will and nine others-including two players-went down in a snowstorm and crashed in eastern Colorado. All on board perished.
Back in Indiana, my task the next day was to write the local angle on this national story. I set aside my feelings, did the reporting, and filed the piece. But then I wondered: How would my friend Bill ever cope?
This is how. A few months later, in the heat of summer, Hancock embarked on a cross-country, Pacific-to-Atlantic, 2,700-mile bicycle ride from Huntington Beach, Calif., to Tybee Island, Ga. He kept a journal of the details, including the people he encountered, the places he visited and-most important-the thoughts and emotions that accompanied him as he put one foot in front of the other.
That journal now has turned into a book, titled “Riding With The Blue Moth.” I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I would say that if I didn’t know Bill Hancock from John Hancock.
The blue moth is a metaphor for the grief and despair that fluttered in and out of Bill’s psyche during his ride. He’s not able to escape the blue moth, but ultimately comes to terms with it, understanding that the hole in his heart will never be healed.
“I will miss my son every day for the rest of my life,” he writes. But he also concludes he is an instrument of God, with a mission of ministering to others.
His interactions with the people he meets, his keen observations of the places he visits, and the American history he weaves into his journey make this both a slice of American life and a slice of a life that’s been forever altered. Included, too, are messages to his granddaughter, Andie-Will’s daughter-that are life lessons for us all.
I finished “Riding With The Blue Moth” at 3:30 in the morning with tears in my eyes and a sense of shared triumph, as if Bill had taken me along for that incredible ride.
Come to think of it, he did.
Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column,go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to email@example.com.