Why Condoleezza Rice was a natural choice for CFP committee

STANFORD, Calif. -- Condoleezza Rice stepped out of the Hoover Building and into the spring sunshine looking all business in dark sunglasses, a black suit and shiny black heels.

As the former secretary of state walked briskly to a sports innovation seminar at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, casually discussing Russian President Vladimir Putin along the way, Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn and a few members of his staff approached her, one step from starstruck.

They wanted to meet her.

"You have a tight end from Stanford," Rice said, not missing a beat and referring to Levine Toilolo.

This is how it goes for Rice, arguably the most interesting member of the College Football Playoff selection committee. She can talk about the national championship or national security. She can discuss the Middle East or middle linebacker.

Rice can turn conversations from politics to playoff as smoothly as Ezekiel Elliott makes cuts on the field, maneuvering both languages with the ease and confidence of someone invested in both.

"Just like she could speak Russian to the Russians, she could talk football to the football players," said Colby J. Cooper, her former chief of staff.

Rice is best known for her expertise in foreign policy, national security, and Russian politics and history; her work with the Bush administration; and her distinguished academic career at Stanford. Now she's also recognized as one of 13 people tasked with choosing the top four college football teams in the country.

In what was a historic announcement of the sport's first selection committee, playoff officials shocked many last year with their decision to put a scholarly female politician in a room full of men that includes two Hall of Fame coaches, five sitting athletic directors and the former NCAA executive vice president. One year later, as Rice heads into her second season on the selection committee, her role and influence on the group remains somewhat of a mystery to fans and coaches outside of the meeting room.

So why her? Why is Condoleezza Rice on the College Football Playoff selection committee?

Those who know her best say, why not?

Stanford coach David Shaw has heard the warning from Rice more than once.

"If she ever sees us play a prevent defense," he said, "she's going to be in my office. She hates prevent defense. She wants to be aggressive." (Maybe Stanford should think about blitzing more.)

The longtime friends were chatting one day early in Shaw's career, when Rice somehow steered the conversation toward Stanford's tight ends. She wanted to know how Shaw was going to use former standouts Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Toilolo.

"It wasn't a cursory conversation," Shaw said. "It was about taking over the middle of the field, watching Coby Fleener go up the seams, and Toilolo being so big and being able to run 10- to 12-yard cross routes and being able to find the quarterback because of his size, and Zach Ertz's knack in the red zone to double move. These are conversations you have with football coaches, not with secretaries of state."

Football or golf -- not politics -- is usually the topic of conversation between Rice and former Stanford coach Tyrone Willingham, who is on the selection committee with Rice and whom she hired when she was provost. The two are longtime friends and often golf together.

"We never talk politics," he said. "That's a no-no, and that's on my behalf."

Willingham remembered one of his games against Wisconsin, which was tied at 21. It looked as though the Badgers might take control of the game, but Stanford converted a fourth down deep in its own territory, depriving Wisconsin of field position.

Willingham was walking to the football facility after the game when Rice drove by.

"She stopped and took a moment and just laid out all of the scenarios in that situation, and it was just wonderful to hear your provost at that time have a greater understanding than just the average fan," Willingham said. "I knew I not only had the right friend but the right provost at that time."

Willingham said Rice was Stanford's best recruiter because of her sharp sense for people. He said he was surprised she wasn't appointed chairwoman of the selection committee last year.

"I know she's that talented and that good and has that kind of depth," he said. "That's not an indictment of Jeff Long. Jeff Long is a great chairman. When she was named to the committee I just thought, 'Oh gosh, she'll probably be the chairman.'"

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said he was the one who reached out to Rice about being on the committee. She was receptive to it, Scott said, but very inquisitive. Ultimately, they concluded it was happening at a good point in her career, when she had the time to devote to it. Rice is now a professor of political economy and political science at Stanford.

"When I was talking to the commissioners about the committee and what we're striving for, we were looking for a cross-section of people of different perspectives and experience, but above all else, people that will have integrity and bring credibility and relevant experience," Scott said. "We knew there'd be a lot of pressure on this committee, and we wanted to get the processes right. "She has a very unique combination of someone with a lot of knowledge and expertise when it comes to football but has obviously been through some very significant processes and under a lot of pressure and scrutiny that would make college football pale in comparison."

One of the requisite categories of committee members -- along with former coaches and players -- is university administrators, and Rice fit into that group as former provost of Stanford. Each of the 10 FBS conferences had a chance to nominate 10 people, and Rice's name appeared on several lists, according to CFP executive director Bill Hancock.

"Here she is, one of the most powerful women on the planet, and yet she was perfectly satisfied to be just one member of this 12-person team," Hancock said of last year's group, which Archie Manning had departed for the season. "She did not seek the limelight; she did not dominate the conversation. She was perfectly happy to slide into the role as team member. I think that is very impressive."

Stanford is shaded out in gray on Rice's computer in the selection committee meeting room in Dallas, making it impossible for her to vote for the Cardinal in her top 25. Rice is recused from voting for or discussing Stanford because she is a professor at the university, but she's also a big fan -- huge.

Rice goes to every home game (a "done deal," according to her best friend, Randy Bean), but the former national security adviser also knows how to host a party.

On Saturdays when the Cardinal are away, Rice's closest friends and family are invited to her three-level townhouse in Stanford, where they gather in front of the 50-inch flatscreen TV in her den. It's a modest room -- there's one big couch -- so it's usually a close-knit group that includes Bean, Rice's cousin Lativia Ray-Alston, and sometimes 79-year-old Genoa McPhatter, best known as "Aunt Gee." Rice will make chicken wings and gumbo (if she has time), along with salad and corn and other sides.

Woe be to any guests who try to get food during the first or second half. The spread is for haltime only, "because you've gotta watch," said Bean, who has known Rice since 1982 and lives about a mile down the hill.

Anyone invited to Rice's house to watch the game knows the rules: Watch the game.

"She's more into the X's and O's than I am," said Bean, who has seen Stanford in the Liberty Bowl, the Sun Bowl and three Rose Bowls, and has been to four Super Bowls with Rice. "I think because of her civil military relations background and writing on that stuff, she really got into it as a tactical and strategic issue."

McPhatter is Rice's aunt, and she flies to California every Thanksgiving and talks to Rice on the phone every week. Rice typically spends Christmas in Birmingham, Alabama, with McPhatter (who says, yes, Rice has a place in her heart for the Crimson Tide -- right behind Stanford).

This fall, McPhatter was in Rice's den on Nov. 15 to celebrate her birthday that Friday, but it was also a big weekend of games that included No. 1 Mississippi State at No. 5 Alabama, and No. 8 Ohio State at No. 25 Minnesota.

"I've been out there on Saturdays. She's into that football," McPhatter said. "She's going through those tapes or whatever she's looking at. She's evaluating those games. She's a person who sticks to it. I've seen her do that.

"When guests came into her house, we were all downstairs looking at a game, she politely excused herself and went upstairs so she could get back to the business of her work," McPhatter said. "Whatever she's in, she's really interested in. She is all into the game. She does not want conversation."

Unless, of course, she's talking about football.

Stanford offensive lineman Brendon Austin has spent the past three summers as a research assistant in Rice's office. He was one of four football players placed there through the team's program to help the athletes find summer jobs and internships. Every year he's been invited to the office holiday party.

"It's always a lot of fun talking with her," Austin said. "She gets pretty detailed. It's pretty impressive. Not getting into technique type stuff, but ... she's a student of the game herself, always wanting to learn."

It's not uncommon, though, for the players to learn a thing or two from Rice -- even in the NFL.

In October 2004, Rice and Cooper, her former chief of staff, went to watch the Browns practice in Cleveland. The daughter of a high school football coach, Rice grew up in Birmingham listening to Alabama games on the radio with her father, and the Browns became her favorite NFL team.

Cooper, who is now the chief of staff for the city of Mobile, Alabama, was also a fullback at Bucknell University and said Rice "knew more about football than I ever did."

After watching the Browns' drills, Cooper and Rice went inside so she could chat with some of the players.

"And then you watch these behemoth athletes start to surround her," Cooper said. "She had them captivated. She's not talking about foreign policy; she's not talking about the president; she's talking about strategy, and she's breaking down for them their offensive strategy in a hurry-up two-minute offense, and then she's breaking down for them your defense and how you don't give ground, and you don't settle for just running the clock, you've got to move the ball, and you have to have a balance in the run game and the pass game.

"I mean, you're looking at some of these 6-foot-10 tackles, 380 pounds, and their jaws are just dropped," Cooper said. "She totally had them captivated."

To those who know her best, Rice wasn't a surprise on the committee -- she was an obvious choice.

"I thought it was a really smart call," Bean said. "Anything in the world of sports administration or coaching, or a committee like this that holds real power, where you can include women in such a male sphere, is a great thing. It's a wonderful thing and should happen. Talk about a boys' club -- the NCAA, and coaches and football itself -- I was very pleased they could see beyond that a bit to invite one woman. Insofar as that one woman, she's the perfect choice. As much as anyone in that room, she knows that sport."

That's why she's in the room.