Condoleezza Rice says College Football Playoff selection committee shouldn't change a thing

TAMPA, Fla. -- Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who just finished her third and final season as one of 12 members on the College Football Playoff selection committee, told ESPN that the CFP process works and she wouldn't change anything about the current system.

"I've been on a lot of committees -- government, corporate, university -- and I've said many times, I think it's the best committee I've ever served on," Rice said Monday. "We had this thing of checking our hats at the door. Everybody really did. Everybody was there for a common goal and really working really hard toward it. There weren't agendas in the room, and I really enjoyed it tremendously."

Rice, the lone woman on the committee, is one of four members whose terms have officially expired, along with committee chair Kirby Hocutt, Barry Alvarez and Bobby Johnson. The CFP hasn't officially decided or announced yet if it will extend Hocutt's term so he could chair the group again.

New committee members are expected to be named in mid-February, but Rice's role in the room was easily the most high-profile and could be the most difficult to replace. She said the sense of common purpose, especially for the historic inaugural committee in 2014, was important in building trust in the system.

"There was a real sense we were trying to set a high bar, and a bar where people could have trust in the decisions, even if they didn't agree," she said. "That sense of joint purpose, it's really inspiring and I've really enjoyed it."

Rice, who hasn't been available to the media as a member of the CFP since October 2014, reflected on her time with the committee in her suite at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina before watching No. 2 Clemson upset No. 1-ranked Alabama 35-31 in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game presented by AT&T on Monday night.

She was discreetly escorted by her staff members into Raymond James Stadium, where she joined her fellow committee members in a suite to watch the game -- a moment she described as "bittersweet," because it culminated the end of a "very intense" commitment.

When asked if this was the most difficult decision for the committee because of the debate surrounding No. 3 Ohio State, which was the first team to finish in the committee's top four without winning its conference championship, Rice called this season "the year with the greatest number of possibilities."

"I actually think that in some ways, a first year is always complex because you're setting the tone, you're setting the ground rules, you're starting to think about the games in different ways than you've ever thought about them," she said. "We were all rookies the first year."

Rice said the playoff works because of the subjective nature of it.

The committee's protocol stresses the importance of conference championships, head-to-head results, strength of schedule and results against common opponents, but it doesn't place a greater emphasis on any particular criteria. This year, Ohio State was chosen ahead of No. 5 Penn State in spite of the Nittany Lions' regular-season win over the Buckeyes and PSU's Big Ten title.

Rice said one thing people outside the room don't understand is that even when teams are comparable, those tiebreakers still aren't weighted.

"If you just had a straightjacket of it has to be a conference champion, or it has to be head-to-head, you wouldn't see all of the multiple factors that are really playing out," Rice said. "... It's all of those in a kind of mosaic to understand how to break ties between what might be otherwise comparable teams. That's been a hard point to get across to people because they don't understand we're really dealing with multiple factors, not single factors."

As far as looking back on how Penn State and Ohio State fared in their respective bowls -- Penn State lost on a last-second field goal to USC in an instant-classic Rose Bowl, while Ohio State got drubbed by Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl -- Rice said the committee made the best decision it could in its final meeting on Dec. 4.

"We were up until 1:30 in the morning," Rice said when asked if Ohio State's loss might give future committee members more pause to include a nonconference champion. "You do the best you can and then you turn it over to the teams. I think people understand the process we went through and why we did what we did. Kirby explained that in great deal and the most important thing is tonight, we've got two outstanding football teams in Clemson and Alabama. I think they showed in the semifinals they are the two best teams."

As a committee member, Rice laughed when she said she had "a greater interest" in how the group's teams fared in their bowl games.

"I've found that watching the semifinals and championship games, what I do is I sit there and say, 'Well, do I see things that confirm what we thought?'" she said. "It's more like that."

Rice was the conference liaison this season for the ACC and the MAC, and she has also been the committee's point person for the Big Ten, Big 12, C-USA and AAC over the span of her tenure.

"There's nothing wrong with debate and questions," she said. "In fact, I would've been concerned if you hadn't had debate because that means you're getting into group-think, which is really bad. What was great about the committee was the level of discourse and the civility of debate. I don't think I ever heard a raised voice in the room. It simply didn't happen."

Rice said college football fans and others outside the room don't understand how thorough the process is.

"People come into that room hyperprepared," she said. "Everybody has watched multiple, multiple games over the weekend. Everybody has gone back to the coaches' cut ... everybody has done the statistical packages. So everybody comes in with such a level of preparation that you can now really spend the time trying to understand are there differences in how I see it and somebody else sees it and why might that be? Nobody is coming in there having to be coached up on what's going on."

The selection committee comprises five categories of people, including former coaches, players, administrators, sitting athletic directors and journalists. Rice, a former Stanford provost and current professor of political economy and political science in the graduate school of business, fell into the category of administrator, but her role in politics also helped her navigate the world of college football.

"Everybody when I was appointed said, 'Well, former secretary of state,' and it's true, that I think I'm good in a group environment helping people refine issues, but I had also been a university administrator who had responsibility for college athletics. I think I understand the dynamics of a football team and a football program and what it means to be playing at home and what it means to be playing on the road and all of those things that are part of understanding the backstory of what's going on."

Rice lauded the diversity on the committee.

"What's important about the diversity is that people really do come at it from very different perspectives, and different experiences," she said. "The coaches had a kind of special role because -- and Kirby very often said we relied on the coaches -- and we did, but everybody came with different perspectives, with different stripes and different skill sets and different ways of looking at whatever question was on the table. There was so much respect for everyone around that table, that I think we got the best out of everybody."

Rice said she has been wanting a playoff since she was a little girl and No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State finished in a 10-10 tie in 1966.

"My father, who taught me the sport, said, 'That's why you need a championship game,'" she said, laughing. "I've wanted to have a true championship game. So having had a chance to be a part of the process that went through a whole season to find four teams that would contest for that championship, I think that's what college football needed. I think the process works really, really well."