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A Father Copes

Director of NCAA Tournament Lost His Oldest Son in Oklahoma State Plane Crash


MINNEAPOLIS — The busiest days of the year are over for Bill Hancock.

Now come some of the hardest.

"I'm a little worried about what will happen next week," said Hancock, director of the men's basketball tournament for the NCAA. "I've always thought work was a good antidote for any kind of pain."

Hancock's oldest son and namesake, Will, was one of 10 people killed Jan. 27 when a small plane carrying passengers associated with the Oklahoma State basketball program crashed in Colorado. He was 31, had a wife and baby daughter, and was just starting his career as the school's basketball publicist in the sports information department.

"He was gentle and kind and brilliant--and an underachiever," his father said Sunday, sitting in the bleacher seats in a far corner of the Metrodome. "His dad thought he should have been the secretary to the president [of the United States], and what he wanted to do was be a basketball SID at Oklahoma State. He wanted to do what his dad did."

That, of course, made Bill Hancock proud. For the most part, he can talk about his son without crying. His voice wavers sometimes, but he's able to clear his throat and continue. He's strong for his wife, Nicki, and his younger son, Nate, 27, who lives in Connecticut. He's strong for his daughter-in-law, Karen, and granddaughter, Andie, both of whom are at the Final Four.

"[Nate] called or e-mailed his brother every day," Hancock said. "He's having trouble sleeping. And I said, 'Nate, you've got to call me. I've got to be your brother and your dad.' He says, 'OK, Dad.' So he's staying it touch. He doesn't like to be half a country away. I think he'll move back."

Only once last week did Hancock's emotions overflow. It happened Saturday just before the Arizona-Michigan State tipoff, when he would normally look for both his sons. Each year, Nate worked with photographers under one basket, Will did the same under the other.

"I had to cry," Bill said.

Since the accident, there have been more tears than Hancock ever thought possible. On the night of the crash, he and Nicki were asleep when the call came, from Nicki's mother, who lives in Oklahoma and had heard about the crash on the late-night news. They let the answering machine pick up.

"We heard it through the recorder," Hancock said. "It woke us up. She said, 'Will was on the plane. Will's plane crashed in Colorado.' Absolutely surreal. Oh, my wife collapsed into a fetal position and I said, 'This can't be right.' She was screaming, 'No! Not Will! Not Will!' It was just awful.

"People say they can't believe how calm I was. I was just very calm because I just couldn't believe it. In my business, you don't believe anything if you just hear it from one person, with very few exceptions. So I called Oklahoma State people and they said it was true."

The hours that followed were a blur. The Hancocks drove from Kansas City, Mo., where they live, to Stillwater, Okla., in the middle of the night. The trip took 6 1/2 hours--two hours longer than usual--because of a snowstorm.

"I remember bits and pieces of the drive," said Hancock, a gentle man who looks and sounds a bit like actor John Lithgow. "I remember my wife crying hard, and us just talking to each other about it, 'Is this for real?' And then about dawn--I don't know if I've ever been gladder to see a dawn arrive--the cell phone started ringing and people that began to hear about it began to call us."

The calls haven't stopped. Hancock, in his 12th year of running the tournament, is immensely popular among the people who work for him and with him. He oversees everything, ranging from security to media relations to ticket distribution. He has touched a lot of people, and he's reminded of that now.

"It's amazing how many people have gone through this," he said. "People I don't even know will say, 'My brother was killed in so and so,' or, 'My son had leukemia and we went through three years, then he died.' I think everybody has a burden of some kind, even when you don't realize it."

But this is a burden he never anticipated.

"You never, ever imagine that this could happen," he said. "I never dreamed it. Never conceived it. I gave thought to my wife getting sick or something, but never conceived of losing one of my boys."

Ten days before the crash, Bill was awakened by a dream that Will was killed in an accident. He called his son that morning and left a message--Oklahoma State was on the road--telling him he loved him and he missed talking to him. When Will got home, he returned the call and they talked for an hour. Bill never mentioned the dream because, "You can't react to every dream you have. You can't think that there will be pink giant birds chasing you tomorrow because you dreamed it."

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