Why Chris Howard won't be stressed by his CFP duties

MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- It was January 1995, and Dr. Chris Howard was flying solo in a T-37 jet trainer.

He was practicing a maneuver called a Cuban Eight when his jet began to nosedive and he couldn't recover.

The young pilot raised his arm handles about 6 inches and squeezed the triggers. Within seconds, his entire seat was ejected, and the parachute opened.

"Had I not punched out," said Howard, now 48, "I would have died."

Eight weeks later, Howard was back in the cockpit -- one of many remarkable stories that make his new responsibility as a College Football Playoff selection committee member pale in comparison to the lofty decisions he has already made.

Howard, who played running back at Air Force, was named president of Robert Morris University in 2016, having been a Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in politics from Oxford, and having earned an MBA with distinction from the Harvard Business School. He is a retired Air Force reserve lieutenant colonel and was a human intelligence officer for the elite Joint Special Operations Command. In 2003, Howard served for more than six months in Afghanistan, where he earned the Bronze Star.

His job?

"Find out where the bad guys are, " he said. "We found a lot of them, and we handled a lot of them. I won't go into extraordinary detail because the mission is not -- it's -- ma'am, it's classified."

Howard spent his military career working with policymakers, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, airborne troops and some of the most elite fighters in the world.

He can handle the likes of Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and USC.

"I've dealt with some pretty intense situations in corporate America and higher education and in the military," Howard said. "I'm not going downrange to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. I'm choosing the best football teams to be represented when we get to that CFP."

This is a man who is good friends with filmmaker Ken Burns, quotes Otto von Bismarck and George Will and Aristotle during the course of one conversation, and also vividly remembers his first touchdown.

Howard was in seventh grade at Haggard Middle School in Plano, Texas, and was in position to return a kickoff.

"The ball comes to me," he said, "I bobbled it like three times and then I caught it, I looked up, hit the middle about 10, 15 yards, then I cut off to the right, went down the sideline for an 80-yard touchdown."

He scored three touchdowns that game. "Each of them were, like, over 50 yards, by the way," he adds.

A year later, Howard realized he could make straight A's on his report card -- and score touchdowns -- "if I really tried." His mother, Caroline, would give Chris and his older brother, Reggie, a dollar for every A, 50 cents for each B and a quarter for a C.

"Chris would bring his card in with all A's, and I'd give him, like, seven dollars," Caroline Howard said. "I can remember him saying in high school, 'Mom, do you know if some kids brought this home, they would get a car?' I said, 'Give me my money back.'"

His mother said Chris would "read everything on every black person who ever accomplished anything." The meaningful photos that decorate every wall and shelf in his sprawling Robert Morris office, just minutes from downtown Pittsburgh, are evidence of it. He points to the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black fighter unit from World War II, and Benjamin O. Davis Jr., while he quotes Sir Isaac Newton about "standing on the shoulders of giants," saying "these are my giants, men and women of color who have served in the military."

Chris became a giant in Plano. The city honored him with Chris Howard Day when he was a senior in high school.

"As an African-American kid in a predominantly white community, where people are suspect of you, of your abilities -- less so of your athletic abilities, more so of your intellectual abilities -- all of a sudden ... it was a convergence of the pursuit of excellence in the classroom, on the playing field. And I kept having --, thanks to parents, God, friends, and the right structure -- kept having success," Chris said. "Couple that with a bunch of really tough situations -- having to punch out of an airplane later on, having to go downrange into combat and be away from your family -- I've had about as many highs as I've had lows. It makes for a pretty resilient, grounded person."

As he sits in his campus office on a dreary March Tuesday, dressed in a navy pinstripe suit, Howard is surrounded by books. Much of the knowledge that defines him, though, comes from the intertwined experiences of football and the military, and the tight-knit relationships he developed through both.

Growing up, one such friendship was with James Malone, who went to a rival high school and would go on to play linebacker at UCLA.

"There weren't a lot of people who looked like us," said Malone, who works in commercial real estate in Los Angeles, "so there was an instant bond there."

They remain close to this day, and Howard is quick to point out that his school won state.

At Air Force, teammates Rodney Lewis and Brian Hill became close friends. In their final college game, the overachieving Falcons were 17-point underdogs to Ohio State in the 1990 Liberty Bowl.

"I remember the first play of the game, the first play we were on offense, and as we were on the field and ran our play, there was a look in our eyes without communicating that we were going to win this game," said Lewis, who was Howard's roommate and went on to fly C-17s.

Air Force did win, 23-11.

"There is a picture on the front page of the paper of me bawling on [Howard's] shoulder, with his arm around me," Hill said. "I tell that story whenever recruits come in my office, that's what the brotherhood is all about."

Hill, now a vice athletic director for the Falcons, said when they arrived as freshmen in 1987, 120 players came out for football, but only 19 made it through their senior seasons, forging an extremely tight bond between those who lasted.

"To me, that and sports, that's the reason I am here today," Howard said. "It's that whole twin training of military and athletics that teaches resiliency, dealing with deprivation, endurance, just dealing with it all the time and finding a way to be effective, finding a way to move your way through it and keep your head up."

The first night Howard was in Afghanistan, he settled into his tent at Bagram Air Base with about 12 other soldiers, sailors and marines. He heard a whistling sound that woke him up. He looked around the tent, and everyone else was still asleep.

"I was like, there are some brave people in here, man," he said.

The next morning, Howard asked why nobody ran to the shelter, and learned that the noise was from tracer rounds illuminating their area. About a week and a half later, the noise started coming toward them.

"Then it was like, 'Oh, this is what happens when you get shot at,'" he said. "Everybody goes and grabs their Kevlar, grabs their weapon, runs out to the bunker and holds tight.

"When it starts coming in, your heart starts racing."

Howard isn't the only CFP selection committee member with global experiences. Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, the former superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice also served terms.

"It doesn't matter if we're picking the top four football teams or doing any other important process where integrity and openness is the key," Gould said. "Chris will be good at that because of his past experiences and the fact he's been in positions where he's had to make decisions."

Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, the superintendent of the Air Force Academy, can vouch for that.

Johnson, a record-setting women's basketball player for Air Force and a fellow Rhodes Scholar, was Howard's academic advisor in the political science department and his mentor when he was a student at the academy. Johnson said Howard's "sophisticated way" of looking at the sport will benefit the selection committee.

"It's more than just the X's and O's on the field," she said. "It's about the teams and the intangibles. Because of Chris' truly broad vision and grasp of nuance and the intangibles, I think his eye will contribute to the discussions on the committee to get the best teams on the field, but to do it in a broad way, in ways that schedules and numbers and scores don't capture."

Many people would have stopped at the straight A's. Or the Rhodes Scholarship. Or the Campbell Trophy, which is like the academic Heisman of college football.

Howard, though, said he came from "some tough folk."

His great-great-grandfather was a slave. His grandparents were sharecroppers until they were hired at the Lone Star Steel plant. His parents, Caroline and Marvin, spent their teenage summers picking cotton and putting it in bales in East Texas.

"We really didn't have any other choice," Caroline said. "The few jobs they had in the stores, a five-and-ten, they always went to the white kids. My mom always said money is money. We had no shame in pulling cotton all summer. It was an honest living. No shame in your game."

While raising her family, Caroline went to school when she could, getting her college degree 20 years after finishing high school. Her oldest son, Reggie, played football at Baylor. Years later, Chris joined Baylor's board of regents in 2012 before resigning in last September to focus on his job at Robert Morris. (Through a Robert Morris spokesman, Howard declined to answer questions about the sexual assault scandal at Baylor, continuing to refer questions to the chair of the Baylor Board of Regents.)

Howard's father, Marvin, who served in Vietnam and was the disciplinarian of the family, suffers from Alzheimer's. His picture is also in Howard's office.

"At the end of the day, if all you thought of me was, 'Geez, what a great resume but what a jerk,' what would Caroline Howard and Marvin Howard say about that?" he said. "They'd have choice words with their son."

That's why, for as high as Howard has flown in his career, he has managed to stay grounded.