Q&A: College Football Playoff selection committee member Paola Boivin

Jan 25, 2018, 7:16 AM | Updated: 9:42 am

(Courtesy Paola Boivin)

PHOENIX — Paola Boivin was planning to return the message from Bill Hancock that had been sitting on her phone for a couple days in December.

“I was just running like crazy,” she said. “I thought maybe he had run across something I had written.”

Not exactly.

When she called him back, Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff, offered Boivin a seat on the 13-member selection committee that chooses the four teams that compete for the national championship.

“I about spit my orange juice out,” Boivin said.

Boivin, a Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication Professor of Practice, is the second woman to serve on the committee after former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (2014-2016).

The appointment capped a remarkable year for the longtime Valley journalist. Boivin worked for The Arizona Republic for more than 20 years before accepting a job at Arizona State University in January 2017.

In November, she was inducted into the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame. 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station caught up with Boivin, 57, on Tuesday for a Q&A on her newly increased powers.

What intrigued you about this appointment?

Boivin: “A lot of it is just being a journalist and sort of getting to peek behind the curtain. As much as you cover things and attend sporting events and do interviews, there are always things you don’t get access to. To get an understanding of that system is fascinating.

“This job [at ASU] has taken me away from delving into these teams and the sport like I did before so I’m excited to be able to do that again, but it’s also the opportunity to be with people I like to be around. I have known Bill for years, just covering college football. I’d call to quote him and I’d run into him at events. I know [Ohio State athletic director and former Sun Devils athletic director] Gene Smith from being around ASU, so to be in this room talking college football with these people is exciting for me.”

Do you have a sense of your duties?

Boivin: “Not yet. We have our first meeting right before the Final Four [in March] where I am going to learn a lot of the details and things like that. From what I’ve read in the past, I might get assigned conferences and Bill told me I’ll have access to an unbelievable amount of video so during football season I’ll be doing that a lot. Poor me, I have to watch college football.

“Starting in late October or early November, on Mondays and Tuesdays for four weeks, I’ll go to this place outside Dallas, and I’ll be sequestered for a couple days, hashing things out.”

Your husband, Jay Dieffenbach, is an editor for azcentral sports and The Arizona Republic. Many of your friends are journalists. How will you manage those relationships with people who would love to have inside information on the process?

Boivin: “It is kind of a funny situation but Jay respects how important this is to me and I think others will, too. I think the bigger challenge I already have is people coming up to me and whispering their teams’ names in my ear, many of them in the media. Jay is already pushing the Washington State Cougars, his alma mater, on me (laughs). I’m like, ‘I don’t want to hear it. Not listening.’

“[Former White House press secretary] Ari Fleischer is our PR guy. We had a conference call with him explaining what we’d be dealing with and we’re basically granted a month for interviews and anything after a month, it’s ‘talk to Bill Hancock.’ They want to protect the integrity of the process. Not that I would do it, but at some point somebody is going to ask me a question. The answer might be construed as me favoring a team. That’s why this is in place.”

Is it significant to you to be the second woman to sit on this committee?

Boivin: “It means a lot for a couple reasons. I so believe in diversity in everything. Even diversity in a college football committee setting is important because we all have different life experiences and we all come from different points of view. By injecting points of view from all different walks of life, I think you have the best chance of arriving at the right conclusion.

“The second thing is if it inspires somebody else down the road. I’m so blown away by the female sports journalists I’ve met here at Cronkite. If this would help inspire someone else to do something similar then that’s awesome as well.

“I’m the second [woman] so I don’t think it’s sensationalizing it to mention it. It’s news, so I’m fine with it.”

Condoleezza Rice’s appointment was met with some backlash. Some of the reaction focused on her qualifications and football knowledge. Some of it was outright sexism. Are you prepared for that potential reaction?

Boivin: “It’s the training of being a woman in this business [journalism]. I’ve had 95 percent great experiences, but there’s been 5 percent that were really crappy ones.

“Early in my career, a St. Louis Cardinals player threw a jock at me in the clubhouse. I had a guy from prison call me at the [Arizona] Republic and say not very nice things to me. Then there’s the emails, the comments like ‘get back to the kitchen.’ Again, most of my experiences have been awesome, but you develop a thick skin.”

Have you called Condoleezza Rice yet to pick her brain?

Boivin: “I’m dying to call her but I’m afraid she won’t answer my call because she is such an important person. That is for me, probably the most attractive part of this job. We’ll have a lot of conversations about college football but I’m sure we’ll have a lot of conversations about other things. Just to be a fly on the wall with these people who are so accomplished and successful and smart — to be with those people for three years is really, really cool.”

On that note, have you considered the additional doors this opportunity may open for you?

Boivin: “I’m almost hesitant to say anything because I don’t want to say ‘this is how I expect it to be,’ but I have felt it a little bit already. People have extended a couple of opportunities.”

Why is it important to have a journalist on this committee?

Boivin: “I think the best thing about having a journalist on the committee is this: people can talk fake news all they want but the reality is we’ve spent our careers being taught fairness and objectivity. In this setting, those are two of the most important things. I hope that years of that sort of training can help me look at these things we’ll be examining with a very objective and fair eye.

“I’ve seen a lot of college football at all different levels of play, with all these moments and endings and offenses and defenses. That hodgepodge of information will be a valuable reference point when we’re talking about things in that room. I have a feeling there will be moments in my past coverage that will be valuable in that setting.”

Have you gained a sense of the awesome power you wield?

Boivin: “Ha! Maybe when the announcement [of the four teams] comes and the reaction follows, I’ll have that sense, but because there are 13 of us, I’m just 1/13th of that power.”

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Q&A: College Football Playoff selection committee member Paola Boivin