On Wednesday, organizers of the forthcoming College Football Playoff officially announced the 13 members of the new selection committee, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Word of Rice's appointment leaked a couple of weeks earlier and was met by a wave of backlash. On the Oct. 5 broadcast of ESPN's College GameDay, host Chris Fowler asked analyst David Pollack, "So no woman belongs on the committee, then?" Pollack answered, "You said that ... I'll say it, yeah. Yeah." Former Auburn coach Pat Dye said on a radio show, "All [Rice] knows about football is what somebody told her. ... To understand football, you've got to play with your hand in the dirt." Birmingham columnist Kevin Scarbinksy wrote that Rice had "no business" being on the committee because "college football has never been how she's made a living."
On a conference call announcing her selection, Rice, 58, a Birmingham, Ala., native and daughter of a football coach, described herself as "a student of the game." I conducted this interview with her shortly after the call.
SI.com: Most of the public knows you primarily from your time in the White House. Can you describe what you do now?
Condoleezza Rice: Of course. After I left government, I came back to Stanford [in 2009] and I'm a professor in the business school and in political science and a fellow at the Hoover Institution. I continue to be a rabid college football fan. I'd just like to remind everyone that I came back to Stanford, but I've been at Stanford for almost 30 years, including a six-year stint as Stanford's provost [from 1993-99]. That position -- the administrative part of it -- was very important in understanding why this committee is something I'd like to serve on.
SI.com: What role did you play in athletics during your time as provost?
Rice: At Stanford, athletics actually reports for its operations to the provost -- so athletic facilities, athletic budgets, issues of compliance. I actually hired Ty Willingham to be Stanford's football coach after Bill Walsh stepped down [in 1994]. It was actually not the first time I'd been involved in the hiring of a football coach. Back in 1988, I sat on a committee with a very small number of people that hired Denny Green, including doing interviews with all the major finalists, among whom was Pete Carroll, for instance. He was one of the people we had serious interviews with in 1988.
So I've been at this for a long time from the inside administration of the game, but I'm also someone who is a student of the game and loves the game, and I'm so excited to be a part of college football ... I'll do everything I can to put in the work to be as fair as humanly possible.
SI.com: You've said you grew up as a huge college football fan. On the conference call on Wednesday, you referenced the 1966 Michigan State-Notre Dame game [a controversial 10-10 tie]. Was that game a formative experience for you?
Note: Alabama was the only team that season to win all its games, but remained No. 3 in the AP Poll behind the Fighting Irish and the Spartans.
Rice: It was a formative experience because my dad was a football coach when I was born. Most of my really great football memories were opportunities to be around my dad in football. We were in Alabama. The game was actually not televised, it was on the radio. Notre Dame decided to go for a tie, and even though they would go on to beat USC later on, there was a lot of [debate] about Notre Dame's being crowned the national champion. So I remember all the way back then, issues about how it was appropriate to crown a national champion. I remember split polls about who would be national champion, and of course we've been through the BCS experience. So I'm really excited to be part of this College Football Playoff because this is the best opportunity for more head-to-head competition among the four teams that will ultimately produce the national champion.
SI.com: When you were approached and offered this position, did you anticipate there would be controversy?
Rice: I'm no stranger to controversy (laughs). Of course, I knew there would be people that said, 'Well, you didn't play football.' That would be true, but not everybody that's been associated with this game played football. With all due respect to my good friend Roger Goodell, and Paul Tagliabue, I think the most influential commissioner in the history of the NFL was Pete Rozelle. He never played football. And so you can be a student of the game, you can love the game and never have experienced playing the game.
You also want people with a diversity of experiences, people that have had to make decisions and assess information from a wide variety of perspectives. That's why the different experiences and backgrounds people will bring on this committee are also important.
SI.com: You're also no stranger to being the first or only woman in a room. What is your reaction when a prominent analyst goes on a show like College GameDay and suggests women should not serve on the committee?
Rice: Look, people are entitled to their opinions. I'm not going to deny anyone the possibility of being entitled to an opinion with which I don't happen to agree. I don't see myself as a standard bearer for women in this -- though I will note an awful lot of fans of football in general and college football in particular are women. But people are entitled to their opinion. I don't happen to think it's right.
SI.com: Whether it was the intent or not, do you think it is important to have a woman on the first committee?
Rice: What's important is that you have a committee that is going to be responsible and dedicated to make the very best set of decisions possible and that they come from a diversity of backgrounds. I think my diversity in athletics is an important experience to add to that committee. I'm delighted to be a part of the committee, and I'm female, and if people want to take note of that, that's great.
SI.com: You've been in rooms where some very important decisions were made. We know people take college football very seriously, so even though it's hardly an exact parallel -- nor should it be -- how will your experiences making critical decisions at the highest levels of our country shape the way you deliberate and interact with this committee?
Rice: Well, I know the importance of looking at data, looking at the information presented to you, really working hard to see things from as many angles as you can, knowing you don't have an eternity to make decisions ... I also know the value of having colleagues who can question you, and you can question them, and you get better quality decisions if you have that collaborative process. Everything I know about the people on this committee is they are people that are going to do the very best job, and they're going to do the very best job as a team. And I've learned the importance of that in high-pressure decision-making.
SI.com: Speaking of data, do you have certain statistical categories or ratings systems that you use now as a football fan?
Rice: Well, I read a lot of them. The criteria that's already been talked about -- particularly strength of schedule and head-to-head [results] -- are very important. Since you don't have a single league where everyone plays off against each other, like in professional leagues, I think it's important to find surrogates for that, and strength of schedule among conferences will be a very important element. I have some ideas about it, but I really want to get in the room with the other members of the committee and have a very deep discussion about what kinds of data we want to look at it.
SI.com: There have been numerous controversies surrounding the end of seasons in the BCS era. Have there been any situations recently where you thought, if I were voting on this, I would have done things differently?
Rice: Oh, sure, like every fan I've thought that from time to time. Now I guess it will come around that I'll have to make those decisions. But I just want to say something: The system's done a pretty good job over the years. I have a lot of admiration for those teams that have been crowned [BCS] champions. They've been deserving. I think the new playoff system adds a new and important element to that, and I'm looking forward to being part of that.