Condoleezza Rice: A Journey From Coach’s Daughter To The College Football Playoff Selection Committee

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com SportsMoney (December 8, 2014)

Dr. John Wesley Rice Jr.’s first born was supposed to be a boy. His son would carry on the family name, values, traditions, and most importantly – love football. Instead, he and his wife, Angelena Ray Rice, brought a girl, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, into the world.

In 1954, it wasn’t just any world; Birmingham, AL was a racially charged community where equal opportunities for African Americans did not exist. The sports landscape for women was also far from equal, as it was decades before female athletes would experience the benefits of Title IX. However, those circumstances did not matter; Rice Jr. consciously raised his daughter no differently than he would raise a son.

In Rice’s memoir, Extraordinary Ordinary People, she describes her father as a “feminist” from day one – there wasn’t anything his little girl could not do.

Stanford, CA – June 2014. Dr. Condoleezza Rice (l) and Donna de Varona (r) discuss how a connection to sport helps women get ahead (Photo By: Rob Thomas/EY Images)
Stanford, CA – June 2014. Dr. Condoleezza Rice (l) and Donna de Varona (r) discuss how a connection to sport helps women get ahead (Photo By: Rob Thomas/EY Images)

As a child, she was molded into a classical pianist, as well as a competitive figure skater. Professionally, she was taught to be a fearless leader and pursue her goals with limitless horizons. Following in her father’s footsteps, a career in academia came calling. In 1993, Stanford University appointed her as its provost; making Rice the youngest person ever and first African American to hold that prestigious position. By 2001, her highly-regarded foreign policy expertise propelled her into the White House, where she served as the first female National Security Advisor and subsequently the 66th U.S. Secretary of State.

Although, it was Rice’s deep passion for her father’s favorite pastime that ultimately created their strong bond and set the stage for her barrier-breaking roles in sports.

As the daughter of a football coach, she naturally developed into a student of the game. Together, they analyzed offenses and defenses, and each NFL season began by studying Street & Smith’s pro football report. The Cleveland Browns was their chosen team, which they faithfully followed after he ministered on Sundays. Meanwhile, an eventual move to Tuscaloosa resulted in a fond family affinity for the Crimson Tide. While she would never become John the all-American linebacker, her taste of the gridiron came by way of the “Rice Bowl” – the annual family touch football game played the day after Thanksgiving at “Rice Stadium” (also known as their front yard).

Football has and will always be in her blood.

It is a fact not known to many, save for Pac-12 Commissioner, Larry Scott, who in 2013 invited Rice to join the inaugural College Football Playoff Selection Committee. In an interview with ESPN, Rice explained that her selection derived from having diverse perspectives and an ability to make decisions under pressure; plus, her vast knowledge of the college football system, which stems from Stanford Athletics reporting to Rice during her Provost tenure.

No stranger to controversy, her addition to the who’s who group of college football experts reignited the long-standing debate of women’s roles sports. A handful of football fans and analysts publicly questioned whether it is possible for a woman to be an expert in America’s male dominated past-time without having played on the field; while others noted her inclusion as an opportunity to advance the conversation of gender equality.

Publicly, Rice took the criticism in stride, noting that it is possible to know something from following it and studying it. Moreover, she respectfully pointed out that the former and perhaps most influential NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle, did not play football; including, other members of the playoff selection committee – namely former Big East commissioner, Mike Tranghese, and former college football writer, Steve Wieberg.

Ironically, what critics believe Rice doesn’t know about football are in fact the very same lessons she learned from her father while growing up in the segregated South – how to spot when your talent is being underestimated, what it means work twice as hard and do everything better, and prove every naysayer in your path wrong. Rice didn’t become one of the world’s most influential leaders without tenacity. Additionally, she has the added skill of being able to identify grit on the football field.

She never set out to make history; adding the title “first female” to her long list of credentials was never a goal. But in a strange twist of fate that has been her calling.

In recognition of her historic contribution to sports, EY’s Women Athletes Business Network – an organization committed to building a better working world where more women leaders with talent such as Rice’s emerge – sat down with Rice to learn more about her unimaginable journey, how she defied insurmountable odds, and what it takes to continually challenge society to think differently about race and gender.

Forbes.com was given exclusive access to the interviewconducted by Olympic gold medalist and EY Women Athlete Business Network advisor, Donna de Varona. Here are selected highlights from their conversation.

On the role of sport and transitioning from big dreams…

Rice: I really did believe with all my heart that I could make it as a musician, but at some point you have to face a certain reality that there are people who are twelve years old who can play from sight, and maybe you should just find another course. Skating was somewhat easier to leave behind because I loved skating but I always knew that my options were limited there. I loved the training and to this day I think I probably learned more from the discipline of working hard to be a skater than I did from anything else in my life.

On discipline and performing at high level…

Rice: From the physical side of it, I have remained committed to being fit my entire life. When I was Secretary of State and had to be at my desk at 6:30 am, I got up at 4:30 am in the morning to exercise and I would remind myself “you used to do this as a kid.” I also think it gave me a sense, and all athletes have this, there are days when you perform gloriously and there are days when you just don’t have it. You learn how to deal with both, you learn how to deal with the highs of doing really, really well and you learn how to deal with the lows of being terribly disappointed in a performance after having worked really, really hard. Life is like that; you have to get accustomed to highs and lows.

On Title IX…

Rice: I know what it was like before Title IX. I went to college in 1971 and I started very young, but I graduated in 1974, so I was just at the edge of the beginning of Title IX. Being very active with intercollegiate athletics and with women’s athletics in particular, here at Stanford I now see the confidence of these young women. They’ve come up through elementary school, high school, and now into college expecting to play at a high level, competing at a high level, and having the benefits of excellent coaching and excellent training. Title IX has made a huge difference and it’s made a difference in the way that people view women.

On affirmative action and opportunities on the basis of gender…

Rice: I’ve been a proponent of what I call “soft affirmative action.” I don’t believe in quotas. I came to Stanford from the University of Denver. Stanford didn’t normally get its faculty from the University of Denver, but I was here on a one-year fellowship. They thought I was smart, they liked what I did and they found a way to hire me because they wanted to diversify the faculty, so in that sense it was affirmative action. I think it has worked well for Stanford, certainly worked well for me, and so I think if we just say, “instead of affirmative action we’re going to make efforts, affirmative efforts to diversify” and that might mean taking some unusual steps, most people would agree that that’s important.

On the value of mentors…

Rice: I really do think it’s wonderful if you can find a role model who looks like you, but you know if I’d been waiting for a black female Soviet specialist for a role model, I’d still be waiting.  I think you find your role models and mentors with people who advocate for you and are willing to help you.

On the importance of networks…

Rice: A network is really important. We have this conceit that, “I want do it on my own.” Nobody does it on their own.  For all of us there’s somebody that says “you know there’s a good opportunity there you ought to pursue it” or somebody says to someone, “I know just the right person for the fellowship you’re looking for or the job that you’re trying to fill” and so those networks are absolutely critical.

On football and the benefits of understanding sport…

Rice: I’ll tell you a funny little story. I worked for a year for the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a fellow. I was female, I was black, I was a civilian, three strikes; and so I show up at the Joint Chiefs of Staff that deals with strategic nuclear policy.  They did the deployment of nuclear weapons, a very male environment. So I arrive and they say, “The rookie makes the coffee” and I said, “fine, I’ll make the coffee!”  I’m not going to get on my high horse about that. But that week I won the football pool and from there on out, I was in. It is a language that transcends gender, and by the way, I have an awful lot of women friends who are football fanatics. So it’s not just something that helps you bridge the gap with men, sometimes you find that there are these women who have the same passion that you do for football and for all sports.

On a future away from politics…

Rice: I never much cared for politics. I got to be Secretary of State; it really doesn’t get much better than that. I love what I do, I love being a professor, I love working with all of my students, athletes and non-athletes.  I tell them all the time and I would say this to the young women who will eventually make the transition that you’re talking about “don’t ever think of yourself as a ‘former.’ Move on to the next chapter. Be glad and delighted and grateful and thankful that you were blessed to have that moment when you were at the height of your athletic prowess or the chance to be a high ranking government official, but don’t spend the rest of your life relating only to that. You take what that taught you, your ability to perform under pressure, your ability to focus, your ability to work hard, to take your weaknesses and turn them into strengths.

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