You've probably heard the latest kerfuffle about the College Football Playoff selection committee. While a lot of the reported names have generally followed conventional wisdom, one curveball has apparently caused a bit of a controversy in former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Ms. Rice obviously has a very accomplished resume, but her formal background in football might be a bit lacking, something that was pointed out by former Auburn coach Pat Dye.
"All she knows about football is what somebody told her," Dye said. "Or what she read in a book, or what she saw on television. To understand football, you've got to play with your hand in the dirt."
"I love Condoleezza Rice and she's probably a good statesman and all of that but how in the hell does she know what it's like out there when you can't get your breath and it's 110 degrees and the coach asks you to go some more?"
Given that Dye didn't rail about any of the other committee members who never played or coached football, his meaning seems pretty transparent. What are they doing putting a LADY on a MAN'S GAME committee? It isn't difficult to imagine Dye as some sort of Matt Christopher book villain, or maybe the bad guy from Little Giants. They said she didn't belong with the boys, but Icebox would show them; Icebox would show EVERYBODY.
Dye's apparent misogyny aside, a compelling point can be teased out of this whole mess. What exactly should be the required skills and background of a selection committee member? How important are "outside the box" thinkers? As Ohio State fans near another collective panic as the specter of an undefeated season outside the national title game raises its head again, concern over who exactly picks the playoff teams, and how, may never be higher.
We have a pretty good idea who many of the committee members are now. Our friends at the mothership have collected a list, which includes many of the names we initially suggested the first time we talked about this (note: based on the criteria I thought the committee would use to pick, I also recommended Pat Dye, because I'm not a smart man). It's full of highly respected current athletic directors (Jeff Long from Arkansas, Oliver Luck from West Virginia, Barry Alvarez of Wisconsin, USD AD and Stone Cold Assassin Pat Haden and Dan Radakovich of Clemson), a few BCS league "outsiders (former Air Force Superintendent Michael Gould, former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese, March Madness Tom Jernstedt and former reporter Steve Wieberg)...and also Ty Willingham was invited.
Everybody on the list has a long history with football, either as a player, coach, reporter or administrator. Everybody, that is, except for Rice. Should that matter?
For what it's worth, we've been using BCS computers as a component to select teams for the championship game for past several years, none of which have experience playing or coaching football. These computer run algorithms designed by individuals who, to the best of my knowledge, have not played or coached high level college football. Previously, the BCS was directly influenced by the Associated Press, which are full of people who have not played or coached football. Whether this development caused the world to collapse, well, you be the judge. At any rate, starting next year, the computers will be gone, and the new committee's entire job is to watch a ton of football, synthesize data, compare the teams, and pick four of them to comprise the playoff.
Even though it probably isn't rocket surgery to figure out who the best team is each season, picking a four team playoff isn't that easy of a job. For starters, it's going to require watching a lot of football. I get paid to write about college football, and I probably watch five games a week. That includes every Ohio State game (ok, I lied; I didn't watch the FAMU game because my religious faith asks me to avoid R-rated media), a few Big Ten games, and the big national game that week. I'll admit that I watch less Pac-12 games than Big Ten games because I live in Chicago, and I'm 26 going on 70, so many of them are on past my bedtime. I also don't record very many of them to watch later because I have another job. My best insights are probably biased towards games in the Midwest and the Central Time Zone.
These guys aren't any different. Just about all of them have day jobs, and serious, important day jobs at that. There is no question in my mind that say, Barry Alvarez knows the game of football. Is Barry Alvarez watching the late Arizona at Cal game? No, at least, probably not every week. You hope that you can balance out those biases by geographically distributing the committee, but it's a real concern.
Because of that, you need people who are smart enough to derive information without actually watching the full game. I imagine that would come from a combination of being able to watch tape, and understanding statistics. I don't want to discount the virtues of being able to deep dive into the X's and O's, but I'm not convinced that every member needs to say, be Jon Gruden. The NCAA committee is made nearly exclusively of athletic directors who probably lack that insider basketball information, and most years, they still do a pretty good job. When your biggest failure is the omission of a team that finished 7th or 8th in their conference or the regular season champion of a low-major program who lacked the resume to survive a conference tournament loss, you're probably doing something right.
So do you need to have coaching experience to understand stats, or how to evaluate a football team? Of course not. You do need to understand football, and you need to be smart, but many excellent improvements in how we understand football have come from "outsiders", like Chris Brown or Bill Connelly. If you are a student of the game of football, and have some degree of intellectual candlepower, you can glean plenty of quality information from game statistics.
This, in my mind, is the strongest argument for Ms. Rice. You can say a lot of things about Condoleezza Rice, but you cannot say she is stupid. In terms of pure, intellectual firepower, she's probably going to be the smartest person in the that selection room. Completely ridiculous fabrications of her career aside, I think we can feel confident that Ms. Rice is enough of a football fan to bring herself up to speed on the proper metrics of team evaluation. Rice would also have the advantage of not being associated with the regular payroll of any team or conference, making it harder for others to cry that she's biased. And I say all of that as somebody who doesn't necessarily look back at her public policy resume all that fondly.
If we follow that argument though, that merely being a big fan of football and being very smart is enough, why on earth would we stack the deck nearly completely with football lifers? Why not made Nate Silver a Godfather offer and bring him aboard? Why not send Chuck Klosterman, Malcolm Gladwell, or some other public intellectual to football stats camp, and have them replace a sport diplomat like Archie Manning and some of the ADs? You wouldn't be able to charge them with bias (well, besides Gladwell's bias towards trying to eliminate football entirely, I suppose), and nobody would doubt their ability to intellectually pick up the intricacies of college football, assuming they actually wanted to.
Maybe it's overkill to do that for the entire selection body, (and let's be honest, we're talking about college football, not assembling a series of op. eds for a monthly periodical), but it's hard not to see the appeal for some total outside the box types. I can especially see the appeal for wanting to bring in some women. Anybody who has ever played the depressing game of "count everybody who isn't a dude" at a conference media day event knows that the corridors of sports power are not as open as they could be to women. That's probably a 2,000 word column on its own though.
If it were me though, would I pick Condoleezza Rice? No. We can't pretend her political record isn't controversial enough that it would attract undue attention to the selection process, and if Oliver Luck and Barry Alvarez are going to be busy, I can't even imagine what Rice's schedule must look like. Also, we know that Condoleezza Rice is a known Cleveland Browns fan, so her judgement must be immediately questioned.
I think it's possible to question that particular decision without being sexist or a raving partisan, but I don't question the general principle. It'll be good to get a little new blood and a little outside the box thinking into a sport's power structure that has been historically slow to change with the times. The decision making of this body will be exceptionally important for the sport, and especially so for Ohio State fans moving forward (if the Big Ten continues to fade in public perception), and adding one new voice won't ruin that credibility. Certainly the outcry among some of the "old guard" in the sport has been a little disproportionate. It's almost as if the committee added E. Gordon Gee instead.
Although, I hear he isn't doing all that much lately.