WASHINGTON -- President Nixon didn’t have them by the White House in 1972 when they went undefeated, but the 1972-73 Miami Dolphins team got their due Tuesday, celebrating their historic season with a ceremony to mark an achievement that has yet to be eclipsed.
Thirty-one players — nearly every living member of the team —attended the White House ceremony, including legendary coach Don Shula and former assistant coach Howard Schnellenberger and former trainer Robert Lundy.
President Barack Obama said he was honoring the team because they are "all men of accomplishment and character, and it showed on the field and off the field as well."
The president, a Chicago Bears fan, joked that if he could have invited the rival Green Bay Packers to the White House after their Super Bowl victory, the Dolphins were certainly welcome after forty years.
"These Dolphins made history back before Super Bowl champs started visiting the White House," he said. "And 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, although Nixon might have been unusually distracted during the Dolphins’ historic game, which took place on Jan, 14, 1973. Although Nixon had just been re-elected, his former aides G. Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord Jr. were about to be convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in the Watergate scandal, and his presidency was doomed.
Championship teams are frequently invited now, though. Obama, known to decompress with ESPN’s Sports Center, even shot hoops with the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team in 2009 when they visited the White House to celebrate their NCAA championship.
Obama sheepishly admitted to the Dolphins that he had already 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 beat his beloved Bears that season. "We beat ’em!" shouted out one of the people attending the ceremony.
Despite the distractions he faced during the 1972-73 season, Nixon remained a huge football fan who followed the Washington Redskins team closely; he was known for calling coach George Allen to suggest plays. He did the same to Shula. The Dolphins defeated the Washington Redskins.
Before the Dolphins played the Dallas Cowboys in the Jan. 16, 1972 Super Bowl, 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, Shula said Tuesday, and since Warfield was one of the best athletes he ever coached, it 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 at the White House. But as the Washington Post reported 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, the banker C.G. "Bebe" Rebozo. The game was played in Los Angeles.
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."
Nixon sent telegrams to both the Washington and Miami coaches. They’re archived at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif. "Today’s victory was a smashing climax to a truly perfect season," he wrote to Shula.
Tuesday’s 15-minute ceremony was the first visit to the White House for Shula.
The 1972-73 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."