When courting recruits for his Rose Bowl-winning football team, Stanford head coach David Shaw ’94 can say plenty about the quality of the Cardinal football program.
Even so, in order to truly wow potential players with all that Stanford has to offer, Shaw often brings in the person he calls his “cleanup hitter”—former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“She could live in so many places and do so many other things, but she likes to surround herself with the brightest and the best, and she found that here at Stanford,” Shaw said. “She relates that really well to recruits and their families.”
Rice currently serves as a professor in the Graduate School of Business and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, but her ties to the Farm extend far beyond her current academic positions. The Birmingham, Ala., native joined Stanford’s faculty in 1981 as a political science professor and served as University provost from 1993-99.
According to Rice, she became involved with the football program during the 1980s, when the coaches would hold faculty brunches with recruits. Since then, whenever she’s on campus, Rice finds time to meet with recruits from a variety of sports.
“I never say that Stanford is the only option, but Stanford is about excellence, and you should want to go to a place where excellence is appreciated,” Rice said. “Here, you won’t be odd or unusual for caring about both academics and athletics.”
Shaw said that, at Stanford, the divide between the academic and athletic aspects of the school is much smaller than it is at other universities, as exemplified by Rice’s direct engagement with recruits and players.
“She wants them to feel like they can talk to her, because that’s the feeling here at Stanford,” Shaw said. “Stanford professors want to know what you want to do so that they can help you accomplish your goals.”
According to Cardinal football player Ronnie Harris ’15, Rice greeted him by name in the tunnel before a game during a recruiting visit, an experience that Harris called “surreal.” Rice told Harris that Stanford’s academics were already top-notch and Stanford football was on its way to the same level.
“It influenced my recruiting to a certain extent because seeing that amount of people that have such a prestigious regard for Stanford—everybody comes here for different jobs and life perspectives, so that’s pretty cool,” Harris said.
Players also noted Rice’s ability to share her background in a relatable way. Running back Barry J. Sanders ’16 said that Rice described her childhood in Birmingham as similar to “the little girl from ‘Remember the Titans,’” a movie about football and race relations in Virginia in the 1970s.
“She’s a successful woman, but there’s probably not too many things she hasn’t been through—she’s a product of hard work,” Sanders said. “Who wouldn’t want to look up to someone who has been in the White House?”
Shaw said that Rice’s experiences across the University allow her to answer almost any question recruits may have. Her experience travelling also allows her to compare Stanford to other universities.
According to Shaw, Rice is particularly helpful in talking to recruits who are also considering Notre Dame, where Rice earned her masters degree.
Asked to comment, Rice used her well-practiced diplomatic skills.
“They’re both great institutions, and I love both of them,” Rice laughed. “There’s never just one good place.”
Rice is not just a prominent but casual football supporter, however. According to Shaw, she has the mind of a coach.
Rice’s father was a football coach, and she joked that she was “supposed to be his star middle linebacker.” Although Rice’s gender may have derailed that plan, that didn’t stop her father from talking football with his only child.
Shaw said that he and Rice have drawn up some safety plays or considered ways to exploit the mismatches that Stanford’s tight ends have created in recent years.
“She loves that dynamic that we use to make big plays and also be big targets in the Red Zone,” Shaw said. “She hates prevent defenses. She loves defenses that are aggressive at the end of the game.”
A lifelong Cleveland Browns fan, Rice claims to have watched every Super Bowl and once said her dream job would be commissioner of the National Football League. Today, that passion extends to the Cardinal.
Despite her busy travel schedule, Rice said she does her best to make all football home games as well as to attend other athletic events throughout the year. Beyond football, she is particularly involved with the women’s golf team, serving as a mentor to several golfers and hosting the team’s Stanford Invitational tournament last October.
Even when she isn’t physically present, moreover, Rice supports the Cardinal from afar. This past season, Rice happened to be in the Middle East during Stanford football’s rivalry game at the University of Oregon. That didn’t stop her from waking up early and using the Internet to watch what Rice called “one of the best wins ever.”
Shaw said that, when he has shared the press box with her, Rice doesn’t merely take in the game. Instead, her anxiety, exhilaration and energy are palpable.
“All of our recruits, their families, our coaches and our players just truly appreciate the fact that she’s accessible and that she is clear in her passion,” Shaw said. “It’s something special to know that someone of her stature chose to be at Stanford football games rooting for Stanford University.”
Neel Thakkar contributed to this report.