’72 Miami Dolphins get ceremony at White House, 40 years after perfect season

Erika Bolstad

President Richard Nixon didn’t have them by the White House when they went undefeated in 1972, but the Miami Dolphins got their due Tuesday.

The 1972 Dolphins, who defeated the Washington Redskins to win Super Bowl VII, remain the only NFL team with an undefeated season.

Nearly every living member of the team made the trip to the White House, including 83-year-old coach Don Shula. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered to pay for travel for any member who wanted to go. Thirty-one players attended the ceremony, along with Shula, assistant coach Howard Schnellenberger and trainer Robert Lundy.

President Barack Obama said he was honoring the 1972 team because they are “all men of accomplishment and character, and it showed on the field and off the field as well.”

The president joked that if he could invite the Green Bay Packers, a rival to his Chicago Bears, to the White House after their 2011 Super Bowl victory, the Dolphins were certainly welcome after 40 years.

“These Dolphins made history back before Super Bowl champs started visiting the White House,” he said. “Let’s face it, this is also just a fun thing to do. I like doing it as president.”

It wasn’t a common practice in the 1970s to invite championship teams to the White House, although Nixon might have been unusually distracted during the Dolphins’ historic game on Jan, 14, 1973. Although Nixon had just been re-elected, former aides G. Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord Jr. were about to be convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in connection with the break-in at the Democratic Party national headquarters at Washington’s Watergate hotel. Nixon’s presidency, it turned out, was doomed.

Championship teams are frequently invited now. Obama, known to decompress with ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” even shot hoops in 2009 with the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team when it visited the White House to celebrate its NCAA championship.

Obama sheepishly admitted to the Dolphins that he already had invited another team that got neglected: the 1985 Chicago Bears. The team’s victory trip to the White House had been postponed by the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

Shula reminded the president that the Dolphins were the only team to defeat the president’s beloved Bears that season.

“We beat ’em!” shouted out one of the people attending the ceremony.

Despite the distractions he faced during the 1972 season, Nixon remained a huge football fan who followed the Redskins closely. He was known for calling coach George Allen to suggest plays. He did the same to Shula.

Before the Dolphins played the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl VI on Jan. 16, 1972, Nixon called Shula to suggest “a quick slant pass to Paul Warfield,” according to an Associated Press account from the time.

It’s tough to turn down advice from the president of the United States, Shula said Tuesday. And since Warfield was one of the best athletes he ever coached, the coach said, the presidential suggestion made sense.

“I said, ‘That’s not a bad idea,’” Shula said.

It’s unclear whether Nixon called Shula before the 1973 Super Bowl victory that Obama honored Tuesday. But as the Washington Post put it at the time, Nixon’s allegiances “were with the Washington team.” Nixon watched Washington play Miami from Key Largo, Fla., at the home of his friend, banker C.G. “Bebe” Rebozo. The game was at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Dolphins won 14-7.

A presidential spokesman said at the time that Nixon thought “the people of Washington and Miami can both be proud of their teams because they played well.” His deputy press secretary, Neal Ball, told the Post that Nixon thought the Super Bowl “was a fine game” and, in Ball’s words, “thought it was one of the best Super Bowl games because there was suspense right up to the end.”

In fact, the Dolphins completely dominated the game. Washington’s only score came with a little over two minutes left in the game when Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian's field goal attempt was blocked and Yepremian attempted a pass that ended up being intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

Nixon sent telegrams to both the Washington and Miami coaches. They’re archived at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif.

“Today’s victory,” he wrote to Shula, “was a smashing climax to a truly perfect season.”

Tuesday’s 15-minute ceremony was the first visit to the White House for the legendary football coach. The 1972 team entered the East Room of the White House in Dolphin-green sports coats. The Hall of Famers on the team entered in their special gold jackets. And Shula, also in a gold sports coat, entered on a motorized wheelchair.

Toward the end of the ceremony, Shula stood up from the wheelchair to have his photo taken with Obama and a team jersey signed by the remaining team members. It’s numbered 72. There’s no name on the back, just one word: “Undefeated.”

By Erika Bolstad
McClatchy Washington Bureau