Podcast: Nicholas Sarantakes on President Nixon and Football
Richard Nixon was a member of the Whittier College football team. (Richard Nixon Presidential Library)
Nicholas Sarantakes is author of “Fan in Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports, 1969-1974.”
We are now about to begin football season. On an earlier podcast, we talked Nixon’s love for baseball what they call America’s past time. On this edition we’ll talk about Nixon’s love for America’s passion, football.
On this edition, we’re back with Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, professor of history at U.S. Naval War College and author of a new book due out this October, “Fan in Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports, 1969 – 1974.
President Nixon: I think, perhaps, as I look back at those who shaped my own life – and there are a great deal of similarities between the game of football and the game of politics – that I learned a great deal from a football coach who not only taught his players how to win but who also taught them that when you lose you don’t quit, that when you lose you fight harder the next time.
Jonathan Movroydis: You’re listening to the “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org.
That was President Nixon speaking at the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio on July 30th, 1971. We are now about to begin the football season of 2019, and on an earlier podcast, we talked about Nixon’s love for baseball, what they call America’s pastime. On this edition, we’ll talk about Nixon’s love for America’s passion, football. We’re back with Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, professor of history at U.S. Naval War College and author of a new book due out this October called “Fan in Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports, 1969-1974.” Nick, welcome back.
Nicholas Sarantakes: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be back.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just start-up, Nick, Nixon’s first exposure to football came at a young age when he was in high school and in college at Whittier. Can you describe his experience with football at this time?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Yeah. He was a walking, talking, breathing tackle dummy. Nixon was not particularly graceful physically and athletically. You can see that in pictures and videos of him, you can even see that on the golf course. For whatever reason, that just wasn’t his strength, and I don’t think you’re a Nixon hater to make that statement. But he also didn’t have the frame, the build, the weight to be really all that outstanding on the football field, but he loved the sport and he was a real asset to his team because he believed that, and he did add something to the team. He was, you know, it’s kind of like he was a Rudy before Rudy. He was out there, he was enthusiastic, he enjoyed the sport, he enjoyed playing, and he got a lot out of it. That quote about his coach says, you know, in one or two sentences, a lot about Nixon’s personality, his character, and it’s also probably what keeps you going in a profession where you do take a lot of hits. So he loved the sport. Obviously, a lot of people love the sport. We’re not politicians, but you know, it’s an exciting game, running and throwing and all those sorts of stuff. So he enjoyed it, he enjoyed playing it. He’s not the kind of guy who you would ever think was going to go far in the sport, either at the college level or pros, but that was his early exposure.
Jonathan Movroydis: He talks here in this Hall of Fame speech about the coach that he admired, and the coach that he admired was his coach at Whittier College, Coach Wallace Newman. Who was Coach Newman, and why did Nixon admire him so much?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Newman was, if memory serves me correctly, a USC player in his own college experience. And I guess the long and short of it is he spoke to Nixon in a way that others had not about the importance of will, the importance of focus and determination. I think part of it had to do with the classroom in which Wallace Newman was teaching, which is, to say, the athletic field, and it would just…you know, he taught some really simple lessons that really Nixon adhered to, and you know, it got to Nixon in a way that other people did not. It was also something Nixon referred to a lot, and there were other positive influences or influential individuals in Nixon’s life, his mother and his father. That’s pretty clear if you read any biography of Nixon, but his parents had a significant influence. But Newman had that too, and I think a lot of it is because he was who he was. That is to say, he was a coach and he was teaching players not only how to tackle but also how to deal with setbacks, how to deal with…what do we do in this situation. And when you’re playing football, a lot of it, obviously, athletic skill, but sometimes, it’s also you have to make decisions, “Do I go right or do I go left? Do we go straight?” We try and do something fancy, and you have to think about the ramifications, the odds are, you know, that this will not go well. How do you respond to something going well? How do you respond if it goes well or correctly?
So these are all kind of things, and you know, when you’re 18, 19, 20 years old, sometimes when you have to face these issues for the first time, the person who is forcing you to face them is the guy or the gal who really has a big impact on you even if, you know, you learn more in different circumstances from different individuals. So I think that’s essentially why Wallace had that impact on Nixon. And of course, there are other people in people’s lives that have influence, your parents, religious leaders, friends, etc. But in this case, it was his football coach.
Jonathan Movroydis: In the last podcast on Nixon and baseball, we talked a little bit about Nixon’s perspective on baseball, and you know, it allowed him to focus and relax and, you know, sort of think about the statistics of the sport and really, really go deep and analyze it. Was his perspective more or less the same on football?
Nicholas Sarantakes: I think, with football, it was a little different, because the sport is a little different. It’s more of you get to watch something thrilling and exciting happen. With baseball, there certainly are thrilling and exciting moments, but a lot of it is kind of the anticipation and the build in between the individual pitches and the plays. Whereas football, it was more constant action. And I think for Nixon, as is the case for many people, I think it was just the constant engagement that was more interesting. Now, Nixon being Nixon, he certainly was insightful, analytical. He paid attention to the sport. He was not just a guy who would, you know, watch the football, you know, like so many people do on TV who’s like, “Oh, there’s the football.” He could notice things like, you know, how’s the offensive line working, what’s the secondary doing, you know, how are the running backs coordinating between each other. So this is a guy who knew the sport more than just being a casual observer. But I think, for him, it was a lot more of just entertainment that it was the case for baseball.
Jonathan Movroydis: Indeed, was he a genuine fan?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. Now, Nixon being Nixon and being a politician, he found ways to use the sport to his advantage, and there are a lot of examples of that in his presidency, but this was also him getting to be the sports fan. He had access to television systems that nowadays are probably pretty common that you could find it in almost any sports bar or, you know, if you have the satellite dish or streaming video. You can watch games. You know, you can be in Florida and you can watch Oregon-Oregon State game or you can watch Baylor versus SMU. But you know, back in the day, you were kind of limited to whatever ABC or CBS put on the air. Nixon, you know, could pull those regional feeds in the White House or Camp David. So there’s something of this indulging of the fan. There’s also something of a little bit of a Walter Mitty fantasy. This is a guy who could call football coaches and talk to them, and often…sometimes these conversations were not particularly that insightful, but he just enjoyed, “Hey, I’m getting to talk to George Allen,” or, “I’m getting to talk to Woody Hayes, this is cool,” or he could visit the players at practice sessions.
So in a lot of ways, he was getting to be the fan that a few other fans get to be or the fan that, you know, you have to pay $5,000 to go to fantasy baseball camp and hang out with the ’69 Cubs and stuff like this. He didn’t have to do that because he was president of the United States, and that kind of let him do things. But on the other hand, he was a smart guy and he got himself on the national ticket of his party five times, and that wasn’t an accident either, and he knew how to kind of resonate with the American public. And he took something that he genuinely cared about and kind of made himself look like an average American, which in some ways he was and in some ways, you know, there are 300 million of us, what’s average? I mean, and then not many of us, you know, live in the White House and, you know, have Air Force One. So not in the average at all, but some of this was political theater, but some of this…but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it was also very genuine.
Jonathan Movroydis: Before he was president, did he have a lot of experience going to football games as a young politician both in Congress and the Senate and as vice president?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Yes, he did. He was a Redskins fan and he would attend games. In fact, there was a player who a lot of people have forgotten, even Redskins fan, a guy of the name of Gene Brito, and he was an MVP of the league in the late ’50s, mid-’50s. And Nixon went to his retirement game, the last game of his career. He would go to the Rose Bowl, then he’d make a very public display of being on one side of the Rose Bowl during the first half and then going to the second half. There’s a great line from Earl Warren, a political rival of Nixon who, of course, was the governor of California during the time that Nixon was a senator. And he basically said, “We’re in a lot of trouble. This guy can’t even pick what seat he wants to sit in in a football stadium.” So he definitely went to football games early in his political career, early in his life, and he genuinely was a fan of the college game and the pro game. And you have to remember that the pro game really didn’t become super popular with the American people until after 1960. So to go to a football game in the ’50s was not as common as it might be today.
Jonathan Movroydis: As we talked in the previous podcast, when Nixon becomes president in 1969, this was a historic year for sports in a Washington, especially baseball. Nixon’s inaugurated, the Washington Senators name baseball legend Ted Williams as their manager. But this is also a historic year for the Redskins, the Washington Redskins leadership. They hire as their head coach Vince Lombardi, previous Green Bay Packers coach. How did that come about? How did it come about that Vince Lombardi would become coach of the Redskins in 1969?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Lombardi was a New Yorker and he really wanted to be the head coach of the Giants. Actually, to be more accurate, he wanted to be head coach of West Point. He had been an assistant coach there. And people forget this now, but West Point had been a major college football power in the ’40s and ’50s. College football has changed a lot since then, but at the time, the service academies were one of the very few schools that could recruit on a national basis and had a national following. So he wanted that job. He was also, as I just mentioned, a native New Yorker. When he was clear he wasn’t going to be able to move up because the head coach wasn’t leaving, he basically said, “Okay, I’ll go to the pro game,” and he wanted to stay in the New York area. West Point, of course, is only about an hour from New York City. He went back down to the city and worked for the Giants. He wanted to be a head coach, and the opportunity was in Green Bay, and that’s when he goes there and has an enormous amount of success.
And we all talk about Lombardi’s Packers, we tend to forget that he did go to the Redskins. And he left Green Bay for two reasons. He didn’t particularly…this might be too strong, but he wanted to be on the East Coast. He was not a Midwestern guy. So that was part of it. And then the second part of it was he wanted more influence and more responsibility. He wanted promotion. And the Redskins basically wanted him to be coach and they also made him general manager. So he was really running the team, and we tend to think of, you know, Lombardi and the Packers, but his last season as a head football coach was as the head football coach of the Washington Redskins. And it was just a very odd timing, essentially, Nixon is inaugurated, and then the Senators announced that Ted Williams is coming, and then the Redskins hire Lombardi, all within about a week of each other.
So it’s all very interesting, and there’s a great line from a sports columnist for “The Washington Post,” it’s like, “This is the biggest transfer of power since January 20th,” which was the day of Nixon’s inauguration. So it’s this very interesting moment, and both the Redskins and the Senators had been perennial losers prior to this point in time. And both Williams and Lombardi have very clear, big, and instant impact on their teams. Both teams have winning records and start bringing in the crowds in 1969. And so it’s a really interesting moment in Washington’s sports history.
Jonathan Movroydis: On September 3rd, 1970, Vince Lombardi passes away, only a year after he is named the Redskins head coach. Nixon actually pays homage to him while at the Hotel del Coronado for a state dinner for Mexican President Gustavo Ordaz. Could you tell us a little bit about the Nixon-Lombardi relationship during Lombardi’s time in Washington?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Lombardi wanted him to come to football games, and he said, “If he’s a fan, he needs to be here.” They kind of thought alike on some things. On other things, they weren’t. Nixon briefly considers making Lombardi his vice presidential nominee. It’s interesting, outside-the-box thinking, of course, Lombardi never had much job responsibility in the sense he had not been in charge of any organization more than about 50, 60 people. So, and also, his politics were wrong, although they kind of both had similar attitudes about football and the power of will and focus and determination and all those sort of good stuff. Lombardi was much more of a democrat. He was, in fact, he was a democrat. He was much more liberal in his thinking about the relationship of the state and society, and his voting was much more left to center than what would have made Nixon comfortable. But you know, Nixon appreciated the pursuit of excellence that Lombardi engaged in. He believed that it runs along the lines of, you know, you get up, you knock the dust off yourself, you try, you should learn from the experience. You don’t, you know, cry, moan, and groan, and stuff like this. I’m exaggerating a little bit here, but these are the kind of attitudes that Lombardi had where, you know, you learn from experiences and you don’t wallow in your misery. You try to get better. And that certainly was something that spoke to Nixon in a way that a few other things did.
Jonathan Movroydis: So he really considered him. Did he consider Lombardi seriously for the vice-presidential spot?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Seriously, that’s a good question. It was, for a moment or two, yes. If you go back to the ’68 presidential election, Nixon, you know, he ultimately picks Spiro Agnew, but it didn’t seem like the very obvious choice at the time. Obvious choice would have been Nelson Rockefeller or Romney, and that’s Mitt Romney’s father, George Romney, who was governor of Michigan. But Nixon wasn’t particularly fond of either individual, didn’t really want to bring them into his administration. So he looked for…he was thinking about the people, and he’d thought of a couple of people. How long, how serious did he actually have people go vet Lombardi, I don’t think that’s the case, but he did spend some time talking about it. He’d looked at a couple of other people before he really kind of started locking in on Agnew. So he seriously is open to question, but it was something he thought about. And you know, let’s give him credit for thinking outside of the box, but you know, I think there were reasons why Lombardi did not get very far in that process. He never held any kind of government position, and of course, you know, their politics were not really that compatible in the long run.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did Nixon go to any Redskin games in 1969?
Nicholas Sarantakes: I believe he goes to a game in ’69. I do know he goes to a Vikings…excuse, not a Vikings, he goes to a Miami Dolphins – Oakland Raiders game, which makes him the first and only president to attend a game of the American Football League. This is just before the American Football League and the National Football League merged. I believe he went to a regular-season Redskins game in ’69, but I cannot remember who they…I want to say it was Dallas, but I’m pretty sure that’s wrong.
Jonathan Movroydis: It’s been said that he preferred watching games on television. Do you take a lot of stock in that?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Yeah, mainly because I prefer watching games on TV. You have color commentators offering, you know, analysis, you can see instant replays, and so forth. So there’s a lot to be said for watching in television. I mean, the sport comes across well on TV, particularly with the colors of the uniforms, the logos on the helmets, etc.
Jonathan Movroydis: Reports say that Nixon hated the blackout rules. You couldn’t watch, you know, certain games on television in your market. Could you describe, could you touch on this a little bit?
Nicholas Sarantakes: The rule in place when Nixon was in office that the NFL had was home games would not be televised. Long story made short, television has been fantastic for an NFL. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so popular. But they also didn’t, powers being the league, did not want to be playing to empty stands and have everyone at home because of how ticket sales were shared and stuff like this. So they basically said, you know, “If you want to watch a Washington Redskins game, you can watch them on the road. If you want to watch in Washington, you need to buy a ticket.” Okay. The NFL is a monopoly. They act like a monopoly. This was designed basically to maximize their sales. And Nixon really did not like this. He really wanted to go after the Redskins even though they were his favorite team, they were owned by Bennett Williams and he was a big supporter of the Democratic Party, and he really wanted to stick it to him.
So this was a way to kind of get at him, and he basically was trying to force them to change their blackout rule, which eventually, they did. The Congress got involved, and people said, “Wait a minute, the NFL is a private corporation, they have a product to sell. Why is the government getting involved in this?” And Nixon basically said, “Listen, television airwaves are public, you know. You have a monopoly on this. You have contracts with all three networks. You can’t get away with this.” I mean, there are some legitimate legal grounds to challenge the NFL on this. And people is always fun and idiot. Once he saw that this thing had legs, it was getting a lot of support in Congress, the NFL changed its policy now to where…or they changed the policy to something that basically was in effect throughout the ’70s and ’80s, which is home games would be televised if they sold out 72 hours in advance. So he did put some pressure and he had real impact on the sport, at least in that regard.
Jonathan Movroydis: Would you say that Nixon was as much a college football fan as he was a fan of professional football?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Yeah, I think it’s probably 50-50 when it comes to football. He loved both games a lot. I think, like a lot of people, he tended to focus on the traditional powers in college football, so Ohio State, USC, those sort of schools. I don’t think he particularly cared about, you know, the success of RISE or Iowa State. And of course, he loved the pro game. He didn’t really make a difference between the AFL and the NFL.
Jonathan Movroydis: On December 6th, 1969, Nixon flies down to Fayetteville, Arkansas to see the historic matchup between the University of Arkansas Razorbacks and the University of Texas Longhorns. Can you describe this matchup, the context of this great football matchup? And why did Nixon decide to go down south?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Well, that’s a long story, and I’m a little biased since I’m a Texas Longhorn, did my undergraduate year at UT. But here’s…essentially, he had a staffer who read a story in “The New York Times” that said, you know, college football was very popular in the south, and he had this idea, and he kind of forwarded it up to the chain of command, to Haldeman and others. He said, “Listen, this will make great political theater. Let’s look for a game that we can send the president to, preferably a game between schools from two different states, be it, you know, Mississippi and Alabama or Tennessee and Florida.” And as it happened, Texas and Arkansas were undefeated in 1969. What people probably don’t remember is that, in the ’60s, Texas and Arkansas were 2 of the most dominant powers in college football. They’re in the same conference, and one year, ’63, the Longhorns won the national title, and the next year, the Razorbacks won. And then the games that they play between each other often determined who, you know, at least knock one of the teams out of contention.
So in 1969, these 2 dominant powers in the same conference are undefeated. And then throw on top of this, that 1969 is the centennial year of college football. In 1869, Rutgers and Princeton played the first college football game. So here it is, this game that’s just…it’s a perfect storm. They’re southern schools, they’re from two different states, they are ranked one and two, both were undefeated. This is for the title of the Southwest Conference. It’s also the teams are going to…basically, whoever wins is going to be number one. And at that time, the wire service polls, Associated Press and UPI, United Press International, they basically stopped at the end of the regular season. So those were the two dominant media outlets as far as determining who won the mythical national title. There were several other media outlets that awarded the national title. There was no kind of semi-playoff system, the way we have today. We don’t really have a playoff system today, but that’s a different story. But this is a perfect storm, and Nixon loved it and said, “Okay, we’re going to go.” And then Nixon kind of did more. He said, “I’m going to give a plaque to whoever wins the game and declare them national champs,” or actually, I think he was kind of careful in what he said, “We’re going to declare them number one team in the centennial year.”
Okay, well, this is fantastic. The thing is, is for most of the year, there had been about five or six undefeated teams in college football, and a couple of them lost at the very end. Ohio State lost, USC lost. So that week rolls around. That week of December 6th, there are 3 undefeated teams: Texas, Arkansas, and Penn State. Penn State in the ’60s was not the Penn State of today. It was an independent school, they don’t have a really long or big record in college football, it was kind of a…every 10 years, they go, you know, they won 8 games and everyone is happy. Under Joe Paterno, who is I think only in like his fourth or fifth year as head coach at this point, they had suddenly really kind of turned it on, and they had gone undefeated, and it was the second year in a row they’d gone undefeated. And Paterno’s like, “What do I have to do? Who do I have to kill to, you know, get us ranked number one?” And they hadn’t been ranked number one at all during this time. So Penn State starts creating a stink about this and saying, “Hey, you know, what about us?” And this kind of creates a little bit of an embarrassing situation, not a huge embarrassing situation, because most people are going, “Oh, Texas and Arkansas are better. They’re not an East Coast school. They play really good football, whatever that is. They’re more of a power.”
And so Nixon goes down to Arkansas and he watches this game, which you know, turns out to be fantastic, because the better school wins. And then he’s a good politician, he goes into both locker rooms. You know, everyone’s cheering him there in the Texas locker room. But he was a smart guy, he goes into the Arkansas locker room and talks to them. He says, “You guys put on a great game.” And they did. I mean, if you watch the game, Arkansas dominates for three quarters of play. The problem is there are four quarters in a game, Texas, you know, really is only really good for about five or six plays during that fourth quarter, but they win. They had more points at the end. So you know, it’s a great game, it’s entertaining. I mean, I can say that because, you know, I’m a Texas Longhorn. But you know, Penn State is still sitting here, going, “What about us?” And this does create a bit of a stink, and ultimately, it’s like, “Sorry, Penn State.” And he kind of, as politicians go, he kind of says, “Well, it was just a plaque to say he’s number one who won this game. And I’m not declaring national champs.”
So it’s one of those things. And the interesting thing about all of this is it’s a byproduct of the system that’s in place at the time, and the system really that’s in place even today, where college football is really the only college sport that’s administered by the NCAA that does not have a formal playoff system. And in fact, the lower divisions of football that the NCAA administers have playoff systems. So it’s kind of this byproduct, and he takes advantage of it, but it also backfires just a little bit in his face.
Jonathan Movroydis: What’s interesting about this game too is that Bud Wilkinson is one of the announcers. He actually forges a pretty close friendship with Nixon, even serves as one of his advisors at the White House. Could you describe Nixon’s relationship with Bud Wilkinson?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Wilkinson comes to the White House and he’s working as a staff member. It seems a very odd kind of switch from being a head football coach, college football coach guy who wins a couple of national titles, and then he basically goes and works at the White House. You know, his son actually runs for Congress and his son is actually on the White House staff too. Wilkinson is still doing, as many retired coaches do, he does play-by-play and some color commentary for the networks after his retirement. So he’s doing this on the side, and he gets…stuck isn’t the right word, but because he comes from this athletic background, he gets a lot of these assignments. He didn’t really have much to do with this game, although people think he did, and there was a lot of gossip at the time that Wilkinson was making sure that Nixon would attend the game, because ABC wanted the president there to increase the ratings and stuff like this. But Wilkinson, you know, he had a lot of different taskings at the White House.
He was not particularly fond of Haldeman and Ehrlichman. And if memory serves me, there’s actually a point, not in the Texas-Arkansas game, but another year or two later when he’s on the air and he makes some comment about Haldeman and Ehrlichman will be the ruin of President Nixon. I think this is actually much later on now that I think about it. It’s, you know, when it’s clear that Watergate is starting to be a real scandal. And anyway, so he was not a super fan of, you know, some of his bosses at the White House. But I think, you know, this was reflecting Nixon’s interest in sport. It certainly gave Wilkinson some access to get involved at a higher level. And of course, you know, when you’re a college football coach, you’re doing a lot of networking, you’re talking to alumni, boosters, etc. So, sure, he had good Republican networks, so it wasn’t completely out of the blue for him to go and do this.
Jonathan Movroydis: A few weeks ago, we had Kasey Pipes here, who’s author of the book about Richard Nixon’s post-presidential year, “After the Fall,” and he talks about Nixon’s relationship with Woody Hayes a bit. Nixon actually gave the eulogy at Hayes’ funeral, and he talks about how, basically, sort of like Coach Newman, how Hayes just kept going even after winning a third national championship in 1969. He even quotes him saying or he even, in his eulogy, he says that Hayes wanted to go on and do more. He knew there were risks. After all, there’s a rule of life – if you take no risks, you’ll suffer no defeats, but if you take no risks, you’ll win no victories. That’s sort of adage that Nixon carried throughout his political career, even in his post-presidency, till his passing in 1994. But could you talk to us a little bit about Nixon’s relationship with the Ohio State great Woody Hayes and his effect on him?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Yeah. I think they had a mutual admiration society going on between the two of them. It’s something you kind of see with Nixon and Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball great. They both respected what the other guy was doing. Nixon liked to go to Ohio State games, and Hayes even jokes in ’69 that, or in ’68 I think, that Nixon is their good luck charm. Every time he comes and watches game, they win a national title. And Nixon certainly thought a lot about along the same lines. And, you know, the common response to Nixon’s eulogy about Woody Hayes is he’s not talking about Hayes, he’s talking about himself. And I think that’s only half the story. He was talking about Hayes, but he was also talking about himself. They basically had a similar philosophical outlook on life. Hayes also was really fascinated by international relations and strategic studies. And in fact, there’s an endowed chair in the political science department of Ohio State named after Woody Hayes for international relations.
So you know, Hayes, when they got together, I mean, Nixon wanted to talk football and Hayes wanted to talk about world affairs. And it was, you know, it was fantastic because both of them were beginning to see stuff that they really, you know, “So, what are you going to do with China,” and all this sort of stuff. “Yeah, I’m going do this, that, and the other thing. So, how are you going to deal with Purdue?” “Oh, we’re going to throw a lot of, you know, passes,” or actually, with Hayes, he wouldn’t throw passes at all, but, “We’re going to, you know, grind them down with running backs,” and all this sort of stuff. So they both kind of had something that the other guy wanted to chat about. Nixon is really…he visits Ohio State, the campus, while he’s in office to talk to the football team. He’s really…they show up unannounced. And he’s kind of proud that, you know, because it wasn’t unannounced, he attracted people who wanted to listen to him. And Nixon, in some ways, was really at his best when he was talking to young people, talking about, “Here’s what we want to do in the future, and I want to do this, and I want to do that.”
So you know, college campuses are just…they’re college campuses, you know. You have 100 people on campus who want to create a stink about something, be it, you know, whatever. And there’s the president, well, that’s a great opportunity to create a stink, you know, and get media attention. And you know, in ’69, ’70, there was indeed a lot of stuff to create a stink about, particularly with, you know, Vietnam War, the Cold War, any number of other policy issues that were going on at the moment. So they both really enjoyed talking to each other because they both kind of have a similar outlook in life.
Jonathan Movroydis: Moving on to 1971, this is when President Nixon installs his White House taping system. What do the White House tapes tell us about his relationship with the game of football?
Nicholas Sarantakes: They really tell us that it was something genuine. I mean, it removes any doubt there. And it’s really interesting, right in this book, I spent about three months listening to the tapes. And although they’re almost all online now, they’re not easy to listen to because of how they were organized. Sometimes, they would go on and on and on, and it’d just be dead silence for 20 minutes. And then sometimes, you know, people would be in their chairs or they would be, you know. Presidents have to sign a lot of documents, so apparently, one of the things that goes on is, even when he’s chatting with people, he’s signing stuff, and you can hear the pen scratching on the wood and stuff like this, because it was right next to the microphone. But it’s interesting to listen to it, because it’s no question about who is boss and there’s no question about who’s one of the smartest guys you’ll ever meet. Nixon didn’t become president on accident. He really had some real something going on in between the ears.
But with football, it’s also pretty clear that it’s a sport that he genuinely loves, and it was one of his few idle chitchats. So you know, the president meets all sorts of people, Miss America, the Girl Scout who sold the most cookies, this lady who’s working on, you know, literacy, and so on, so forth, you know, this person and that person. And many of these people reflect the breadth and depth of American society, you know, be they from Washington State or from South Carolina. And for a lot of people, this is a highlight, it’s a really great moment to talk, this is the White House, and all this sort of stuff. But Nixon didn’t really know a lot about, you know, some of the issues that they were working on, but he could always talk to them about sports. And in most cases, people at least were, you know, polite enough not to say, “I don’t know anything about football,” but I mean, he would say, “Oh, you’re from Cincinnati. Well, did you know this, that, and the other thing?” And she says, “Well, yes, yes.”
I remember there’s this one lady who was working on, I believe it’s literacy or feeding the homeless, and he was talking to her about Oscar Robertson, who was a basketball player who went to the University of Cincinnati. And she kind of said, “Well, he was before my time, you know. He’s 10 years older than me, blah blah blah.” But just gets to the point that it was his idle chitchat with visitors and oftentimes even with people he worked with closely. He’d sit there and have a meeting with John Connally, who’s secretary of treasury, and for 10 minutes, they’d talk University of Texas football before they’d actually get to talking about exchange rates of the Dollar versus the Yen and the Deutsche Mark and stuff like this. So if you wanted to, you know, talk with Nixon, you either had to talk about work or you had to talk about sports.
Jonathan Movroydis: That’s interesting, you know. A couple of months ago, we had an event here at the library with the people who or the White House officials who witnessed President Nixon on the phone with the astronauts, and they talked about the national experience of the moon landing in July of 1969 and how that inevitably impacted Nixon’s communication with the astronauts, the whole national experience impacted the silent majority for him in a very positive way. Could you say the same thing about or similar things about the national experience of football?
Nicholas Sarantakes: I think so. I mean, one of the reasons I started this project was I was astonished, like a lot of people with the outpouring of affection for Nixon upon his death. Just given the way he had left office, you would think that he would not be super popular. He is always this kind of metaphor for, you know, bad things in American politics. Some of that is deserved, a lot of it isn’t. But what really surprised me was, you know, this is a guy who, you know, just had this outpouring of affection, and one of my research questions is why. Why did people love and hate him? I mean, I get…the hate is easy whether or not you agree with it. The love was tricky, and one of the reasons, you know, is I think he resonated with Americans in a way that other people did not. And as I said a little earlier, when you’re president of the United States, that’s a very rare kind of uncommon club. I mean, you know, there are 40 people, 44 people, or 45 people who had that job, and you know, that’s a pretty select club. Not many of us can go whisk off to Camp David and all this sort of stuff.
But Nixon, in many ways, was middle-class American, middle, middle, middle-class American, not upper-middle-class, not lower-middle-class, just middle-class American, and he was able to communicate that he was essentially one of us, to steal a title from someone else’s book. And I think, you know, this was a guy that people could understand. He was not, you know. He certainly had his social limits, but he could really speak to the American public in a way that they could understand. And I think a lot of this had to do with, you know, just sports and the American love with sports. I think most Americans enjoy sports. It might not be baseball, it might not be football, but they enjoy a physical activity even if they’re not, you know, in great shape, they love watching it, and this was something that people understood. And I think that was a real powerful asset that Nixon had that people could understand him. And they might not agree with him, but they understood him. And I think that is something that was an enormous advantage, and I think that was one of the reasons why people, even people who were opposed to him, in the end, appreciated him.
Jonathan Movroydis: In 1971, another football relationship really blossomed. George Allen, who had been coach at Nixon’s alma mater at Whittier College and the professional team in Nixon’s home area, the Los Angeles Rams, had come to Washington to be the team’s head coach. Can you describe George Allen, his coming to Washington, and the effect on the team, and his relationship with Richard Nixon?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Yeah. It was, again, a mutual admiration society. Allen was a very successful coach. He never had a losing season ever in his entire career. He had come out of Whittier. And in fact, it’s kind of interesting, just before Nixon leaves office, another Whittier head coach, Don Coryell, becomes the head coach of what were then the St. Louis Cardinals. The St. Louis had two professional teams that were called Cardinals, one in baseball, one in football. These are now the Arizona Cardinals. They moved there in the ’80s. But Coryell coached there, and then he coached the San Diego Chargers in the late ’70s or in early ’80s. So Nixon was just super proud of Allen for being the alumnus of Whittier College or representing the Whittier tradition.
Again, similar attitude about life, about, you know, the excitement of football, George Allen had an enormous impact almost immediately on the Redskins, in fact, I should just state, almost out of it, he had an immediate impact on the Redskins. They returned to their… When Lombardi was there, he got them to a winning season for the first time in something like 20 or 30 years. He gets sick with cancer and then dies. There’s an interim head coach for a year. The Redskins returned to a losing season. And Allen comes in, he’s basically fired, I believe, by the Rams, and he is snatched up by the Redskins. And he comes in, he just starts making wholesale changes. He did not believe in basically drafting players and developing them. He went out and grabbed veterans. He trades around for a lot of guys, particularly a lot of guys he coached with the Rams. And the Redskins suddenly start winning again.
And Washington, D.C. is a town. It’s a wonderful place to be, but it is different in the sense that no one is from Washington. Everyone is from somewhere else. They’re from Michigan, or they’re from Tennessee, or they’re from Arkansas, or New York. And they come to do politics. And a lot of people might leave after 5, 10 years. Some people might stay, but it’s this town of transience, people who are there temporarily to be with the current administration or to work for a senator or a congressman or do something. And there are not a whole lot of ties that bind if you will, and the success of the sports teams in the area are one of those ties. That certainly was, particularly with the Redskins, they’ve had sellouts for decades even though they were not particularly successful during that time. And with the Redskins winning again, this was fantastic. People wanted to go to the games. The Senators were not, after 1969, they were not doing particularly well, and the Redskins were winning. It was particularly, since it’s football, there are only eight home games, or back then, seven home games, so it was a special, special thing.
Nixon wanted to talk football, and George Allen loved the fact that he could talk to, you know, the president of the United States, and it turned out they liked each other. They had similar attitudes, they came from similar backgrounds, kind of, you know, middle-class background, even apparently a similar taste in food, which is to say rather simple food. They didn’t particularly care for complex, you know, ornate stuff. So they really enjoyed talking. And listening to a lot of the conversations, it wasn’t like Nixon and Hayes. They just talked football. That’s all they talked about. And for Nixon, I think it was a real release mechanism. He didn’t have to worry about the conversation leaking. He didn’t have to worry about, you know, the foreign policy ramifications. It was just someplace for him to go to get away from the job for 20 minutes, and he could talk.
And it was really interesting listening to the conversations, Allen, particularly the ’71 NFC, National Football Conference championship, where the Redskins beat the Cowboys to go into the Super Bowl. I guess the game was in…it was actually in ’72, I believe. Anyway, long story made short, Allen was basically kind of giving an insider’s perspective and he said, “The Cowboys just quit in the fourth quarter. They knew they’d been beat. It was, you know.” He talked about the power of the stadium and the fans cheering, stuff like this. So it was really interesting, even, you know, for me as a football fan, you know, 40, 50 years later, to listen to an NFL head coach talk about how he ran his team. And I’m sure, for Nixon, it was even better, because he was talking about stuff that was contemporary.
Jonathan Movroydis: And Nixon and Allen actually…Allen invited Nixon to practices and even invited him to call plays during games. Is that correct?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Yes and no. Nixon goes to…basically, he extends an open invitation, “You’re welcome to come anytime.” And the Redskins had a bad game against the Dallas Cowboys where they got pounded and they lost, and they were booed in the stands. And Nixon said, “Okay, this is the time I go, because the team is feeling low and I can give them a little perk up and tell them.” And so he goes and he basically says some of the stuff that I just said, you know, “You had been good for the city. Your bond and all this sort of stuff. The fans are with you. I’m sorry you got booed, but don’t worry about it. Sometimes you got beat, but you didn’t give up. You’re playing there, I could see it. Blah blah blah.” And I mean, it doesn’t matter what your politics are, you know. You’re 23, 24, or 25 years old, you’re a professional football player. And guess who’s walking across the practice field? The president of the United States, you know. It doesn’t matter if it’s Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama or Donald Trump. You know, it’s like, “Hey, how many times does a president show up to your office?” So that is just, in and of itself, a charge, you know. I mean, I don’t think even the governor showing up, or in the case of…even for a team that’s in the state with a governor, of course, the Redskins are in the District of Columbia, I don’t think that would have that impact. But here’s the president, that has to be a really neat thing. So that was something that Nixon did, and of course, the Redskins go on and win the next couple games. They make it to the playoffs, and Nixon was very proud of that in that he keeps talking about that for weeks after it happened.
Now, the story that gets out about Nixon designing a play is something that Allen actually does, and he basically tells Nixon, in one of the phone conversations, “I’m going to use this play and I’m going to tell them it’s your play.” And Nixon’s response is, “Oh, boy.” He doesn’t say, “Don’t do that, George,” or you know, “George, use this,” or have the tied in, you know, do a double end fake or something like this. He just says, “Oh, boy.” So they do the play, and Allen tells the team, “Nixon designed this play,” and it’s designed to basically inspire them. Well, it turns out the play doesn’t work, they lose the game, it’s the first playoff game, and that’s the end of that. And then one of the players is providing a commentary for a retelecast of the game. He says, “Nixon designed that play,” you know, and suddenly it becomes this thing where Nixon designed plays. And the story became better than the reality in that sense in that everyone says, “Nixon’s crazy, he’s designing football plays,” and stuff like this. No, it was a George Allen designed play, but he just put Nixon’s name on it, and Nixon was like, “Okay, if you think this will help, go for it and do it.” So it’s a great story. Unfortunately, it’s just a story.
Jonathan Movroydis: How did the Redskins fair that season in ’71?
Nicholas Sarantakes: They had a winning record. They make it to the playoffs and they lose in the first round.
Jonathan Movroydis: And the following season, they go to the Super Bowl and they play against the Miami Dolphins, the undefeated Miami Dolphins, who go on to win with their coach, Don Shula. Did Nixon follow that season pretty closely? And how did…did he have any anticipation about the Super Bowl in ’72?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Yeah. Nixon, he’s loving life. He was a Dolphins fan. He had his weekend getaway home in Florida, and he liked the Dolphins. So he was cheering for them. He cheered for them in the previous Super Bowl when they lost to Dallas Cowboys. And then that year, they go undefeated. It’s the, at that point in time, only the third time in NFL history that a team has gone undefeated during the regular season. And then they get to the Super Bowl, Nixon is kind of in this quandary, both of his teams are there. And he says, “Well, I’m a Washington guy, this is where I live most of the time. I’m going to root for the Redskins.” And he basically invites George Allen to the White House. You know, George Allen gives his team a day off. It’s apparently the first day off since the start of the season, you know, and he gives him the football, says, you know, “Go.”
The interesting thing is, a couple of weeks before Billy Kilmer, who is one of the quarterbacks for the team, gave an interview with “The Washington Post.” And in the story, it’s very clear, the reporter actually talks about that Kilmer had been drinking. And so he is giving an interview, it’s a long feature story in The Post, and Kilmer basically says, “This Nixon guy is crazy. He’s getting in our way. I got to talk to George Allen. He’s really hurting us.” And everyone, you know, gives Kilmer a hard time. It’s like, “You guys are going to the playoffs for the second time in 40 years. I mean, good Lord, you know, what is Nixon doing that’s hurting you?” So anyway, Nixon talks to Allen about this and says, “What’s going on?” And he said, “Kilmer has a little problem with the bottle. He got a little too drunk. And don’t worry about it, we love you.” So when he has Allen over at the White House, he gives a letter to Kilmer and basically says, you know, “Go, beat the Dolphins,” and he even writes a letter to Kilmer’s daughter who’s fighting cerebral palsy. So anyway, you know, he basically says, “I’m with you, guys, through thick and thin.” And you know, he’s basically, he roots for the Redskins.
They don’t win. In fact, the Dolphins win, and they put together the first and only undefeated season in NFL history. The other two teams that had…the Chicago Bears had gone undefeated in the 1940s. They both lose in the playoffs, as is the case with the 2008 New England Patriots. People from Florida give Nixon a hard time. Nixon says, “Well, you know, you guys did a great thing. I love the Redskins. I love the Dolphins, too. Congratulations.” You know, it’s basically the only thing you can do in this situation.
Jonathan Movroydis: Did he have the Dolphins at the White House or speak with Coach Shula?
Nicholas Sarantakes: He spoke with Shula. He invents the practice of inviting people to the White House after they win the big game. He hadn’t invented that practice at that point. So he doesn’t invite them to the White House at that time.
Jonathan Movroydis: At the beginning of the podcast, we talked about the…we played the speech that Nixon gave in July of 1971 in Canton, Ohio at the Gold Jackets ceremony at the Hall of Fame. Could you tell us why Nixon was there and the full extent and context of that speech?
Nicholas Sarantakes: Nixon was in Ohio for domestic politics. He was trying to basically get control over Ohio Republican politics, and he made a series of trips there. And it was also, you know, part of this opportunity to kind of associate himself with the sport. It’s a political theater. He had to have an excuse to go to Ohio. And it was also an opportunity. He would give the speech, but then he would also be interviewed by ABC Sports. Frank Gifford is the one who interviews him. This is an opportunity for him to get a lot of, basically, free national publicity without doing anything political. Because when you take a stand on a policy issue, you’re going to make people happy, but people who disagree with you are going to be unhappy about this. “Hey, I’m going to give a feature interview with Frank Gifford who is not a hard-news journalist.” He is a former athlete who’s a sports broadcaster. He’s going to ask me questions about, you know, I don’t want to say soft, but generally, questions that are going to work to Nixon’s advantage. So it was a win-win-win-win for Nixon.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, professor of history at Naval War College and author of “Fan in Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports, 1969-1974,” coming out soon in October. Our topic was Richard Nixon and his love for America’s passion, football. Nick, thank you so much for joining us.
Nicholas Sarantakes: Thank you. It was fun.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.