By Mark Soltau
Stanford professor Condoleezza Rice knew college football needed a playoff system in 1966, when as a little girl, she and her late father John listened to a Michigan State-Notre Dame game on the radio. The contest ended in a 10-10 tie, both teams finished 9-0-1, and shared a controversial national title.
"We've been trying to get this right for a long time," Rice said Wednesday during a national conference call with reporters.
While some have questioned why the former Secretary of State was named to the 13-member College Football Playoff selection committee, a group that includes former Stanford head coach Tyrone Willingham, and Oliver Luck, the athletic director at West Virginia, and father of former Cardinal All-American Andrew Luck, Professor Rice is more than up for the challenge.
"I've been a college football fan all my life," she said. "I think the opportunity for a college football playoff that properly balances all of the factors, including academic schedule, the need for head-to-head competition, and the bowl traditions is exactly the right step, and I'm just delighted to try and make it work."
Willingham coached at Stanford from 1995-2001 and compiled a 44-36-1 record. He was a two-time Pac-10 Conference Coach of the Year, and led the Cardinal to the Rose Bowl in 1999, its first appearance since 1971.
The selection committee will pick four teams to compete in the College Football Playoff following the 2014 regular season.
Rice was first approached about serving on the committee by Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott. Later, she had a conversation with Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 Commissioner and former athletic director at Stanford.
"When I was approached, I said, 'Well, tell me what you think I can bring to this committee?' '' Rice said. "First of all, people thought that it was important to have diversity of experience. There's a reason that corporate boards are not all CEOs. You want people who have diversity of experience.
"Secondly, they said we want people who will make critical judgments and do that under pressure. But they also said they want people who love college football, and I absolutely fit into that category.
"As Provost at Stanford, athletics reported to me for six years, so I understand the game from the administrative side, too. I hired Ty Willingham, and indeed, all the way back in 1988, served on the committee that brought Denny Green to Stanford as coach. So I've been in and around the game quite a lot. But I think what I can hopefully bring to this committee is critical judgment, a willingness to work hard with some very fine people to put the best four teams on the playing field to try and decide the national champion."
Rice knows some have questioned her credentials to serve on the committee, but is unfazed.
"I've been in enough positions to respect people who have different views," she said. "You could say, 'You should have played football to be on this committee.' But of course, not everyone on this committee, including me, played football. I'm a student of the game and I believe I will work very, very hard reviewing as much film as I possibly can to try and make a good judgment."
Rice was also asked if she was selected to give women a voice.
"I don't feel that I'm carrying a banner for anyone except those of us who love college football," said Rice. "And by the way, that includes a lot of women, too. But for me, this is trying to get the college football playoff system right."
Not that she will need a sounding board, but Rice can always consult with close friend Gene Washington, a standout wide receiver at Stanford (1966-68) and with the San Francisco 49ers. When he was enshrined in the 2012 Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, she was his presenter.
One thing seems certain: If the committee has to make tough choices narrowing the College Football Playoff to four teams, she can handle the pressure.
"I think I've experienced plenty of heat in my life," she said.
And her father would be proud.
"I suspect that my father would be awfully glad that this college playoff system is going to head-to-head competition," said Rice. "He was always frustrated as a fan that we didn't have head-to-head competition. I think a lot of fans have felt that way. And now, through a semifinal and ultimately a final, you enhance the possibility for the best teams selected to go head-to-head. That's gotta be good for college football and I think he would have appreciated that."