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2018 Silver Anniversary Award: Jim Hansen

Navy’s top meteorological scientist has roots in college football

Jim Hansen won the 1992 Campbell Trophy, which is awarded annually to the college football player who displayed the best combination of athletic, academic and community service achievement. National Football Foundation photo

Jim Hansen grew up in the flight path of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and remembers, as a 3-year-old, watching planes take off and land outside his living room window. The son of an aeronautical engineer, Hansen always believed he would design airplanes, which led him to study aerospace engineering at Colorado.

Hansen will receive an NCAA Silver Anniversary Award at the NCAA Honors Celebration on Wednesday, Jan. 17, in Indianapolis. The annual award recognizes six distinguished former student-athletes on the 25th anniversary of the end of their intercollegiate athletics eligibility.

There, Hansen also played as an offensive lineman under coach Bill McCartney, who’s in the College Football Hall of Fame. Hansen was an All-Big Eight Conference first team offensive tackle, a three-time CoSIDA Academic All-American, a National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete and winner of the William V. Campbell Trophy (known as the “academic Heisman”). Yet, for all the accolades, the quiet conversations proved more impactful than what transpired in front of roaring crowds.

“I don’t remember much about games; I remember more about feelings,” he said. “What I remember are my teammates and the relationships I had with them.”

Now the superintendent of the United States Naval Research Laboratory Marine Meteorology Division in Monterey, California, Hansen directs a team of 120 scientists, engineers and technical personnel and hopes to capture the same level of camaraderie.

“I feel like I’ve been spending my entire life trying to recreate what we had at Colorado,” he said.

Tragic beginnings

Hansen’s and his Colorado teammates’ successes share a tragic origin. Quarterback Sal Aunese was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer in February 1989 and died seven months later, only 21.

“Like all of us, he (seemed) indestructible and immortal,” Hansen said. “To watch him get sick with cancer and wither away and die in front of our eyes, it makes me emotional just to talk about it.”

Hansen said the tragedy brought the team closer — success on the gridiron was a byproduct of those bonds. The Buffaloes amassed a record of 39-7-3 in his four seasons, played in two Orange Bowls and claimed the 1990 national championship.

“That core group who went through that together,” he said, “played for each other.”

Across the pond

Hansen earned his bachelor’s degree with a 3.94 GPA before completing graduate course work in the field of fluid dynamics. Rather than pursue an NFL career, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and attended the University of Oxford. He was drawn to atmospheric physics and dynamics, and eventually received a Ph.D. in the field from Oxford.

His 6-foot-6 frame stood out in the science lab, but Hansen assimilated into the English culture, happy to learn the intricacies of cricket while sipping a warm beer. And he didn’t mention his athletic exploits to his peers. Hansen assumed he would build a career in Europe, but a last-minute decision to attend a presentation by MIT professors, and a lengthy subsequent conversation with them, changed his course.

 “If you go to MIT to work in the sciences, the perception is you can’t do any better than that,” he said. “You’ve kind of made it.”  

Hansen climbed the tenure-track ladder at MIT. He published papers and taught, but couldn’t shake the sense that something was missing. So he took a sabbatical and joined some colleagues he admired who worked at the Naval Research Laboratory Marine Meteorology Division in Monterey.

Within two weeks of his visit, his plans had changed yet again.

Finding a home

After joining the Navy lab, Hansen rose from founding lead scientist of the probabilistic-prediction research office in 2008 to head of the meteorological applications development branch in 2012. He  received the Navy Meritorious Civilian Service Award for work in identifying areas of the globe subject to the greatest risk of pirate attack. The division develops numerical analysis and prediction systems to support Navy and Department of Defense operations and advances understanding of the environmental impacts on Naval platforms, sensors and systems.

In 2016, seeking the challenge of a leadership position, Hansen set aside his white lab coat and polycarbonate safety glasses for a stone-colored blazer and Windsor-knotted necktie, accepting the role as the division’s superintendent. Hansen’s new job requires forging relationships within his staff, the Navy and the community. Beyond time in his office or an adjacent lab, Hansen frequently can be found at the Pentagon or on the deck of a Naval warship, searching for ways that he and his team can improve technology to keep sailors informed and safe.

“This business is being part of something that’s bigger than itself, which of course, as a football player, gets ingrained into you,” he said. “I’ll go to bed at night saying I helped people today or I helped the country today. I’m fortunate that I’m in a position where I get to do that all the time.”