- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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The notion of using a former U.S. Secretary of State to recruit blue-chip prospects sounds like one of two things. It could be a simple case of overkill, as in, you don't hire a symphony orchestra to play a fraternity dance. Or it could be a severe case of misplacement. Tim Lincecum's knee-buckling curveball may not translate to your beer-softball league.
Nevertheless, there stood Dr. Condoleezza Rice, speaking to a group of Stanford recruits, tying in the threat of Iran with the decision to come to the Farm, all in the space of one sentence.
"It was like voodoo," recalled Pace assistant head coach Jon Haskins, a member of the Cardinal staff last year. "She is so impressive and persuasive."
And there stood Rice, serving as honorary captain of the Stanford football team against Notre Dame last November. Among the memorable moments in a memorable life for Rice will be watching that game from the Cardinal coaches' press box, wearing a headset to hear them scheme, direct, yell and lead their players to a 45-38 victory.
It's hard to picture Henry Kissinger wearing a headset.
Rice returned to Stanford as a political science professor in 2009 after serving under President George W. Bush in his first term as National Security Advisor and his second term as Secretary of State. She is working on two books, teaching a class (Global Context of Business) in the Graduate School of Business and teaching a seminar (Challenges and Dilemmas in American Foreign Policy).
And, when she is in town and available, she is recruiting. Her role as Cardinal pitchman couldn't be more natural. She has been an active athlete and inveterate football fan since she grew up in Birmingham, Ala.
"What you are really trying to demonstrate is this is a place for athletes who want the academic experience at the forefront," Rice said. "I think the way it works at Stanford is good for Stanford and good for sports."
That Rice has been an avid figure skater, tennis player and golfer at various stages in her life may be an accident of gender. Football is her first love, dating to childhood. Her father, the Rev. John Rice, had been a coach as a young man. Father and daughter played football in the yard. They listened to Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide teams on the radio.
Rice arrived at Stanford as a political science professor in 1981. She immersed herself in campus athletics. She became a member of the search committee that hired Dennis Green in 1989. When he left for the NFL three years later, Rice participated again. It wasn't much of a search -- once Bill Walsh agreed to return to Stanford, what was there to decide? But Walsh would later say that the only person in the room who knew more football than Rice was Walsh himself.
Asked what the former National Security Advisor knows about his sport, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said, "Football is like taking territory. It's like national defense. She may understand it better than a lot of us."
Harbaugh sounded as if Rice understands a lot of things better than a lot of us.
"I appreciate any time I get to talk to her," Harbaugh said. "I think the thing I most realize is just how poor my vocabulary is compared to hers."
By 1993, Stanford appointed Rice provost, in charge of all academics on campus. In nearly six years in the office, Rice merged her two loves to great effect. She understands how a university that is so successful in so many sports has been to one Rose Bowl since 1971.
"We get talent," Rice said. "Depth is sometimes a problem in Stanford football. Our first 11 are good. Our 12th may not be so good. It [success] is not going to be year-in and year-out. But we've had some good teams. It really adds to the campus life. As long as they are students who are capable in the classroom, Stanford is doing it the right way."
Harbaugh said that academics and athletics go together on campus "like peas and carrots. Professors love the athletes here." Harbaugh has been at Stanford for three years. Another head coach on campus has a longer view.
"There's always been a little bit of philosophical difference with the faculty about the importance of athletics at Stanford," said Lele Forood, the Stanford women's tennis coach who also played the sport for the Cardinal. "There are plenty of professors who believe that the better-known the university is for athletics, the more it detracts from academics. When she was provost, she said that she was a big believer in athletics and it was important in her mind."
In Rice's view, the higher standard to which any Stanford coach is held does not address winning.
"I think we are competitive and we can be competitive but it's not easy," Rice said. "You have to have coaches who recognize they are not going to get every recruit they want. They're not going to get even most recruits. The one thing I did not tolerate when I was provost was coaches who complained about admissions."
If the coaches believe Rice can help close that recruiting gap, she's more than happy to help. That's why Rice speaks to football prospects on Junior Days. She also will meet with basketball prospects for the men's and women's teams, and prospects from other sports. She leaves time for questions and answers. She poses for pictures with prospects and their moms and dads.
Rice usually speaks in group settings but she will meet with prospects individually, such as tight end Davis Dudchock, a fellow Birmingham native. In the spring of 2009, Rice spent 30 minutes or so with Dudchock and offensive lineman Paul Jorgensen of DeWitt, Mich., and their parents. Harbaugh and assistant athletic director Mike Eubanks attended as well.
"I was kind of intimidated," Dudchock said. "I didn't want to say the wrong thing or have something come out the wrong way. She's not intimidating at all. She's very easygoing. I knew she was from Alabama. I didn't know she was from Birmingham. That helped some. Her personality helped the most. It really showed how professors relate to undergraduates. The relationship between undergraduates and professor really stood out."
Dudchock's father, Alex, is the manager of Shelby County. He played football at Auburn on the Bo Jackson teams of the mid-1980s. He remains thunderstruck that he and his wife and their oldest son sat and chatted with Condoleezza Rice.
"She talked about how she came to embrace Stanford and what Stanford means to her and the genuine relationship that the faculty has with the students," Alex Dudchock said. "She talked about her classes. It was very refreshing."
Dudchock switched from a commitment to Vanderbilt and decided to go to Stanford. Jorgensen, however, signed with Northwestern. In recruiting, as in diplomacy, you rarely get every objective you want.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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