The Pac-12 has hired longtime NFL and college football executive Merton Hanks as its new senior associate commissioner for football operations, marking the first time the conference has had a leader devoted entirely to the sport.
Hanks will report directly to Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. Hanks will be responsible for all aspects of Pac-12 football administration, including scheduling, officiating, replay command center, operations, the conference title game and the league's bowl relationships.
He will also serve as the primary contact for the Pac-12's athletic directors and football coaches, bowl partners and NCAA administrators on football matters.
"In the simplest terms, if it touches football, I'm going to be involved with it regarding the Pac-12," Hanks told ESPN. "And hopefully we will be in position in working with Larry to continue to provide first-class experiences for our student-athletes and then be innovative in how we move forward. This COVID-19 world of sports, you have to be flexible, you have to be innovative. You have to mitigate risk, but at the same time, we're going to provide that first-class experience for our student-athletes."
Hanks, an Iowa graduate, played nine seasons in the NFL and was a starting safety for the San Francisco 49ers when they won Super Bowl XXIX in 1995. He was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time All-Pro member, and he was nominated for the 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame class.
He will move from Dallas to be based out of the league's headquarters in San Francisco, and he begins the job on Sept. 8 during a historic and challenging time. The Pac-12 postponed its fall sports because of the coronavirus pandemic, with the hopes of playing in the spring.
"The Pac-12 has done a fabulous job of following the science," Hanks said. "... It's not an easy decision to say we're going to move our football season to the spring, something that quite frankly to my knowledge has not been done before. We'll take a strong look at what we need to do to be able to move forward in mitigating risk, certainly following the science and the lead of our medical advisers."
While Pac-12 officials have begun to discuss spring concepts, Hanks said it's difficult to cement any plans before the NCAA's football oversight committee determines what makes sense as a start date.
"Then you can really lay out your calendar at that point," Hanks said. "Any date that we go with, we're going to have to count six weeks back to give our student-athletes and coaches and administration an opportunity to prepare. There's a lot of moving parts."
Hanks said there are "tremendous possibilities" for playing in the spring, starting with a better understanding of COVID-19 and its impact on the student-athletes. He said there is time to put together "a schedule that makes sense," but it's a reality for every conference that some of the athletes will choose not to play.
"Everything we do will be precedent-setting, and we need to deliberate carefully about how we address a spring season," Hanks said. "There are many, many questions that will take a tremendous amount of deliberation, and I for one would hope that college football in its entirety, for those conferences moving to the spring along with the PAC, can get to a situation where starting dates have some continuity in respect to what spring football looks like, so we can be on as level a playing field as possible given the unprecedented nature of playing in the spring."
Hanks comes to the Pac-12 from Conference USA, where he had served as senior associate commissioner since 2016 and was responsible for football and baseball operations, including scheduling, officiating, game operations, and player conduct and safety, among other duties.
He was credited with achieving a nationally recognized level of training for C-USA officials, along with ethnic and gender diversity among officials. Entering the 2020 season, C-USA retained the highest percentage of officials in service with the NFL, including the first female official for the NFL.
Before joining Conference USA, Hanks spent 13 years with the NFL, where he held the position of vice president, football operations and compliance, starting in 2011. In that role, he served as the NFL compliance appeals officer, instituted safety and equipment upgrades, and coordinated departmental business strategy. Hanks served as the co-chair of the NFL College Relations and Campus Visitation Committee and served as the lead liaison to the American Football Coaches Association, NFL Players Association, NCAA and NFL club administration.
Before his promotion to vice president in 2011, Hanks served in the NFL's football operations and consumer products areas for eight years.
Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson worked alongside Hanks in the NFL for eight years and described himself as "giddy" about Hanks' move to the Pac-12 because he knows "how much value" Hanks will bring the league as "the absolute perfect candidate for us."
"I couldn't be more pleased for him personally, but also the Pac-12 just got significantly better in terms of having someone with his breadth of skills, and most importantly relationships across football, college level and pro level -- players, coaches, administrators, commissioners, union folks," Anderson said. "... He's just got it all for us."
Anderson said he believes the position is unique among the Power 5 conferences, with one person dedicated entirely to football operations.
"The football matters are so critically important, and at some point you're going to need more coordination and the ability to work across conferences to get some uniformity and standards, that we can do better if we just upgrade and have someone specifically assigned to look after all the details and move the industry forward," Anderson said. "I think others, very frankly, if they don't have it, will very soon follow this model, because it just makes too much sense."
As part of his role, Hanks will serve on the College Football Officiating board of managers, the CFO competition committee and the NCAA Football Rules Committee.
"Head coaches will say, 'This guy, he played in the league. He played in college. He's been around all this coaching community at the college level and the pro level,'" Anderson said. "These coaches will have a great respect for Merton because of what he's done and where he's been. So will the officials at the collegiate level. ... Everybody knows Merton."
Since his retirement as a player, Hanks has also served in a number of radio and television roles, while also conducting speaking engagements around the country.
A Dallas native, Hanks graduated from Lake Highlands High School. He played college football at Iowa, earning a degree in liberal arts in 1990. Hanks also completed the sports administration master's program at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.