— Tom Landry and Don Shula hardly needed much help. Between them, the two coaches would win 617 games in the NFL. And in 1972, they had led strong teams to Super Bowl VI. Still, a couple of presidents determined that neither man could capture their championship without their assistance.
So Lyndon Johnson, America's 36th president, telegrammed Tom Landry to wish luck to the Cowboys coach.
Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, couldn't stop there — even though, as the sitting president, Nixon had plenty of other pressing responsibilities.
The former reserve at Whittier College was a Redskins fan, and had even suggested a play to Washington coach George Allen, a reverse that had lost 13 yards in a playoff game against the Los Angeles Rams. Nixon also happened to be a part-time South Florida resident, so she called Shula's home at 1:30 a.m to suggest some strategy:
Direct quarterback Bob Griese to hit receiver Paul Warfield on a down-and-in pattern.
The pass went incomplete.
The Dolphins went down 24-3.
"Nixon once said that if he lost in politics, he would want to be a sportswriter," said John Sayle Watterson, author of The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the American Presidency. "Of course, he said it to a group of sportswriters."
In that case, you couldn't necessarily call it pandering.
It was probably heartfelt.
Many presidents, after all, have acted as if they'd rather be leading a team than the free world, and that may not change in 2009. Barack Obama and John McCain are avid sports fans. Viewers of Game 1 of the World Series heard each reading inspirational quotes about baseball, words originally uttered by former presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Obama, a former reserve forward on a Hawaii state champion basketball team, held campaign events from sports bars where he watched the NCAA Tournament and he even participated in a workout with the North Carolina basketball team. He roots for Chicago teams, but prefers the White Sox to the Cubs, and has spoken of adding a rim and backboard to The White House. His athletic hero was Julius Erving and his brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, is the basketball coach at Oregon State.
McCain, in addition to holding season tickets to the Arizona's pro teams and selecting a "Hockey Mom" as his running mate, has taken a strong interest in sports-related issues throughout his long legislative career. As an Arizona senator and the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, McCain has sponsored and supported bills designed to reform boxing, has taken on corruption at the International Olympic Committee, and spearheaded a bill to ban casino gambling on college sports. (The latter failed to win passage.) He also has pressured Major League Baseball to purge itself of performance-enhancing drugs, an approach that differs with that of Obama, who recently said on ESPN that he would prefer the sport police itself without Congressional intervention.
Sports owners give money to political candidates — more often Republicans than Democrats — with the hope that it will help them with antitrust and stadium financing issues, and help them avoid any additional regulation. Presidents have the power to set the agenda, and to veto Congressional bills.
When it's come to sports, however, presidents have more often played the role of fan, rather than policy maker.
"Sometimes, the controversies in sports are high-profile, and they can get into it, and they can say something or do something," Watterson said. "It becomes useful politically for them to do that. But there have been so few of those situations that have come up."
Watterson said that an interest in sports — either as observer or participant — has proven useful to presidents and presidential candidates in the sense that it has made them more "relatable to the public." He cites George H.W. Bush, who was a college baseball player, "but was looked down upon as a wimp as a vice president. He made an effort to portray himself as the athlete he was. He did all kinds of sports, very publicly, his first two years in office, until he had some physical problems. Here was someone trying to show himself as one of the guys."
Yet a sports obsession can also backfire, "if a president tries to make himself something that he isn't through sports."
Watterson isn't sure if Nixon's football fetish backfired, but he does believe that tales of Bill Clinton's cheating on the golf course reinforced negative impressions of the 42nd president — impressions created in part by Clinton's cheating on his wife. Watterson also points to the curious case of Gerald Ford, caricatured as clumsy by comedian Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live. Ford had been an All-American center on the Michigan football team.
"Sports there took the form of people questioning whether he was smart enough or just a big dumb jock," Watterson said.
Other presidents might not have minded that characterization. It certainly wasn't the worst thing any of them would be called.
And virtually every U.S. president since the start of the 20th century has relished the role as First Fan.
Teddy Roosevelt, who didn't much care for baseball, admired Ty Cobb enough to invite the Detroit Tigers to the White House. These days, hundreds of athletes are invited each year.
William Howard Taft attended many baseball games, and was the first to throw out a first pitch, a tradition that has humbled many presidents since. He did so at National Park in Washington, and the Senators won 3-0.
Warren Harding played a lot of golf, and frequently posed with great golfers, as well as tennis players such as Bill Tilden.
Dwight Eisenhower, in response to a damning article by Hans Kraus about the declining state of fitness in the country, established the President's Council on Youth Fitness in 1956.
John F. Kennedy was known for all of those family touch football games. But his administration also had an impact on the NFL. He signed the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, which gave the NFL (and ultimately Major League Baseball) much more antitrust freedom in negotiating television rights. And his administration had an impact on the local team.
"The Washington Redskins were the only team in the NFL that had no black players," Watterson said. "Because the Redskins were playing on park land, the administration put pressure on George Preston Marshall to integrate the team or lose use of the stadium. So that's what happened. Interestingly, he drafted Ernie Davis, and traded him to Cleveland. But he had five black players, and one (Bobby Mitchell) made a huge difference in what had been a forlorn team."
Nixon didn't just design plays, or add a bowling alley to The White House. He and his son-in-law, David, picked a football All-Star team. He also famously took a helicopter to the University of Arkansas, for a 1969 game with Texas, and visited both locker rooms afterward.
"When Joe Paterno and Penn State heard that he was going to Fayetteville, they protested," Watterson said. "Though they were ranked third, they had the longest winning streak in the country."
Jimmy Carter made the most difficult sports-related decision of any modern president. He issued an ultimatum after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan: Get out by Feb. 20, 1980, or we're boycotting the Moscow Summer Olympics. The Soviets didn't withdraw. The United States did from the Games.
Ronald Reagan was a swimmer, a college football player, a sportscaster and an actor who played George Gipp in Knute Rockne All American and Grover Cleveland Alexander in The Winning Team.
As President, he hosted Old-Timers games on the White House lawn, called a Cubs game with Harry Caray and regularly called championship teams in their champagne-soaked locker rooms. His wife Nancy even threw out the first pitch at the 1988 World Series, on the night that Kirk Gibson hit his game-winning home run.
Clinton played basketball and lacrosse in high school, and his love of the Arkansas Razorbacks hoops team was well known.
"He also tried to mediate the baseball strike of 1994 and 1995... for about a day," Watterson said. "It didn't work out, so he washed his hands of it."
George W. Bush launched his White House Tee Ball Initiative in 2001 to celebrate baseball, and attended many games over the years on the White House lawn. He invited athletes including Tom Brady and Dikembe Mutombo to the State of the Union, and he even mentioned the steroid problem his 2004 address. This was no surprise. Before winning the presidency, Bush was trying (and often failing) to win games as the owner of the Texas Rangers.
So, what will Obama or McCain do? That's hard to say. But this election is already having some effect on the sports world.
Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel recently that he was planning to sell another 45 percent of the team to Stephen Ross before the end of the year, out of concern that Obama would double "or almost double" capital-gains taxes.
"I'd rather give it to charity than to him," said the long-time contributor to Republicans. The Obama campaign disputed the claim, saying that Obama planned to raise them by one-third, from 15 percent to 20 percent.