By Alan Grant
Special to Page 2

On those occasions when the emperor is caught without his clothes, he needs solid representation. He needs someone to go out and tell the people that what they've seen is not the king's pimpled hindquarters, but some flimsy mirage.

Condoleeza Rice
Condoleeza Rice could definitely handle the NFL gig.

Condoleeza Rice has proven herself to be such a person.

That said, Rice should take her show from the Pentagon to pro football as the next commissioner of the NFL. While reigning commissioner Paul Tagliabue celebrates his recently signed three-year contract extension, we should consider his successor. I think Condoleeza Rice would be an excellent choice.

Rice already is practiced in the art of protecting the interests of a few, powerful souls. Seriously, what's the difference between the Jerry Jones-Dan Snyder-Robert Kraft crowd and Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the boys? Not a whole lot, really. Just a few cats whose private interests affect millions in the public sector. In both cases.

(Of course, I'm well aware that there is no comparison between the loss of life in Iraq and what takes place on a football field. We're just discussing the business part of things here, okay?)

So what does the league's commissioner actually do? Seems to me he protects the NFL brand and maintains a peaceful co-existence with the Players Association. And certain job descriptions in the Pentagon bear more than a semblance to that.

The NFL commissioner represents a small cartel of bosses whose business runs a little on the violent side. When things get too hot, he comes center stage to smooth things out -- as in 2002, when Tagliabue issued memos to all 32 head coaches, instructing them to reinforce to players the rules regarding helmet-to-helmet hits and other "dangerous or violent tactics."

That's pretty much Rice's job description as National Security Advisor, isn't it? To advise on matters of "dangerous or violent tactics"?

As for her recent appearance at the 9/11 Commission hearings, I think Rice handled herself pretty well. She stayed cool, even when former senator Bob Kerrey got so worked up that he couldn't remember her name and called her "Dr. Clark" a few times. After the third time, Rice replied with a laugh, "I don't look like Dick Clark."

Thought that was funny. It reminded me of something a long time ago. It reminded me of the first time I saw Rice work a room.

It was the winter of 1988. Along with two of my Stanford teammates, I had the pleasure of participating in the hiring of a new football coach. The late Jack Elway had been fired, and then-athletic director Andy Geiger put together a task force to interview and hire a replacement. Some faculty members and other coaches were involved; but from the very start, Rice took control of the proceedings.

I was so impressed by the political science professor that I made a point of sitting next to her in our meetings. Not only did she recognize each coach's talent, she also all but predicted their futures.

First was a young, enthusiastic cat named Pete Carroll. During his interview, he regaled us with a story about a last-second win while he was an assistant coach at the University of Pacific. After his exit, Dr. Rice commented on how much she loved his energy and said that he "would make a fantastic college coach." The most recent resurgence at USC is testimony to this, of course.

Next was then-University of Miami defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. When asked what disciplinary action he would take if one of his players had been skipping class, Wannstedt offered a terse "bench him." Later, Rice said, "He was telling us only what he thought we wanted to hear. But I think he's a good coach. A pro coach." After a stint as the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator, Wannstedt became coach of the Chicago Bears, and is presently the Miami Dolphins' head man.

The next candidate was a special teams coach named Al Roberts. Can't remember all the details of his interview, but I do remember the somewhat tense conclusion. He not only forgot her name; he did something worse. As I recall it, he ended a question directed to her with the word "sweetheart." The room went silent. Rice's jaw tightened ever so slightly, but she remained cool; and the tension was broken by another question.

After Roberts was safely out of the room, Rice let escape an audible, disbelieving gasp.

Dennis Green
Dennis Green is clad in red again -- as the new coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

"Sweetheart?" she said

Mr. Roberts' candidacy was not given further consideration.

The final candidate was then-49ers' receivers coach Dennis Green. After his solid interview, Green left the room.

"Well," said Rice. "I think we have our new coach."

Green was named coach the following afternoon. Two years later, a team that had been 3-8 went to a bowl game; and three years after that, Green was named coach of the Minnesota Vikings.

After Bill Walsh retired in 1995, Stanford was looking for another coach. Dr. Rice stepped in again. This time, I heard she influenced the committee to hire a guy named Willingham. He became the longest-tenured football coach in school history, and took the Cardinal to its first Rose Bowl in 28 years.

What does it all prove? To me, plenty. It proves she recognizes talent -- a most valuable tool for any executive. And it proves she knows how to maintain her dignity while navigating the minefield of the good ol' boy network. And with the appointments of Green and Willingham at Stanford, she knows how to address that pesky black coach issue.

Most men pretend to know more about football than they really do, and I understand the societal pressures that cause this. Football is a man's game. The average American male sometimes feels the need to exhibit some level of expertise. But the reality is that few men, and perhaps even fewer women, really grasp football's culture in its entirety. I've told many a man that the fact I once played football for a living "doesn't make me more of a man; it just means I know more about the game."

That said, in the spring of 2008, when it's time for a new commissioner to stroll to the podium to announce the first draft pick, I know a woman who will be the right man for the job.

Alan Grant is a former NFL defensive back and the author of "Return to Glory: Inside Tyrone Willingham's Amazing First Season at Notre Dame"