Why White House visits by champions are a U.S. tradition

Geno AuriemmaGeoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

University of Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma has a bedroom in the White House.

Wait. What?!

Auriemma and the Huskies have visited the executive residence with such regularity that President Barack Obama apparently suggested making the Hall of Fame coach a tenant.

"He's been in office seven years, and we've been there five," Auriemma said. "He said that I have my own room in the White House. I have my own bedroom in the White House."

Surely, the president was just kidding. We think. But perhaps Auriemma should at least have his own parking spot.

The University of Alabama football team is scheduled to visit the White House on Wednesday, marking its fourth trip to Washington in seven years. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban also visited in March 2004 with his LSU Tigers championship team.

But few, if any, sports figures have visited the White House as often as Auriemma. He has guided UConn to 10 NCAA national championships, and the team has visited the White House after nine of them. (Scheduling issues prevented the team from attending in 2000.) This season, the Huskies are 29-0 and well positioned for their fourth consecutive title and another trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Obama and the two presidents who preceded him are avid sports fans, and Auriemma has a story about each of them.

On Bill Clinton: "He got his picture taken individually with every single person in the travel party. It was unbelievable."

On George W. Bush: "He's got a daughter named Jenna, and so do I. I said, 'Hey, raising a 16-year-old daughter is a lot harder than being president, isn't it?' He just turned around and said, 'You got that right.'"

On Obama: "He loves the game. He loves the kids and what they represent and makes it a point all the time to talk about the players and what they mean to his daughters as role models."

So as the Crimson Tide again heads to Washington, let's look back on some of the history and wacky moments of sports teams visiting the White House over the years:

Back in the day

The tradition of sports teams visiting the White House dates to at least Aug. 30, 1865, when President Andrew Johnson welcomed the Brooklyn Atlantics and Washington Nationals amateur baseball clubs. Ulysses S. Grant played host to the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, in 1869. The first World Series championship team feted at the White House is believed to be the 1924 Washington Senators, who visited Calvin Coolidge at the executive residence the following year.

John F. Kennedy was the first president to welcome the NBA champions, when the Boston Celtics visited in January 1963, and the Indiana University men's basketball team is believed to be the first NCAA champion to visit the White House when it was hosted by Gerald Ford in April 1976.

The first Super Bowl champion to visit was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who joined the World Series-winning Pittsburgh Pirates in a dual ceremony with Jimmy Carter in February 1980.

It was Ronald Reagan, however, who made the practice of honoring championship teams at the White House a regular occurrence. Reagan had a cooler full of popcorn dumped on him by New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson, evoking the team's famous Gatorade celebration, in February 1987. The following year, Reagan threw a pass to Washington wide receiver Ricky Sanders.

The Pittsburgh Penguins became the first Stanley Cup champion to visit when they met George H.W. Bush in June 1991.

These days, about a dozen professional, U.S. national and major college teams visit the White House each year. Obama has also continued a tradition started by George W. Bush in honoring each of the other NCAA Division I championship teams in one large annual ceremony. Many teams perform community service as part of their Washington visit. The Baltimore Ravens provided equipment to area high schools. The San Antonio Spurs met with wounded military members. The U.S. women's soccer team held a youth clinic to promote fitness.

"When these sports teams come to the White House to honor their championship, we also honor them for their work in the community," White House spokesman Frank Benenati said. "And in each speech marking a championship, the president has mentioned their community work. ... [Arranging] the president's schedule is extremely difficult, of course, but we believe it is important to honor teams for the work they're doing on and off the court in their communities."

In addition to UConn women's basketball and Alabama football, a few other teams have made themselves regulars at the White House in recent years. The San Francisco Giants, Chicago Blackhawks and Jimmie Johnson's NASCAR team each have visited three times during Obama's time in office.

A few who didn't make the trip

A number of sports figures have skipped visits to the White House over the years. Some notable instances:

  • Larry Bird: Larry Legend didn't attend when the Boston Celtics visited Reagan at the White House a day after winning the decisive Game 7 of the NBA Finals in June 1984. He later told a reporter that the president knew where to find him.
  • Michael Jordan: His Airness didn't join his Chicago Bulls teammates in visiting George H.W. Bush at the White House in October 1991 to celebrate the franchise's first NBA championship. Jordan played golf at Hilton Head, South Carolina, that day instead.
  • James Harrison: The Steelers linebacker has twice missed visits to the White House after Super Bowl victories -- once in June 2006, when George W. Bush was in office, the other in May 2009, during Obama's first year in office. "This is how I feel -- if you want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers, invite us when we don't win the Super Bowl," Harrison said at the time. "As far as I'm concerned, [Obama] would've invited Arizona if they had won." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, however, reported that Harrison's fear of flying might have been the reason for his absence.
  • Tim Thomas: The Boston Bruins goaltender passed on the opportunity to visit Obama at the White House with the Stanley Cup champions in January 2012 and explained himself in a terse Facebook post. Wrote Thomas, "I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People. ... This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country."
  • Matt Birk: After the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII, the Harvard-educated center declined to attend the team's White House ceremony in June 2013 because he disagreed with Obama's support for Planned Parenthood.
  • Tom Brady: The star quarterback wasn't in attendance when the New England Patriots traveled to visit Obama in April 2015 to commemorate their Super Bowl XLIX victory. As it turned out, the president delivered a quip about Deflategate during the visit: "I usually tell a lot of jokes at these events. But with the Patriots in town I was worried that 11 out of 12 of them would fall flat."

Better late than never

Obama welcomed the 1985 Chicago Bears in October 2011. The team didn't visit the White House after winning Super Bowl XX because of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986. Said Obama, an adopted Chicagoan, "This is as much fun as I will have as president of the United States. This is one of the perks of the job, right here."

Similarly, the 1972 Dolphins -- the only NFL team to go undefeated and win a championship in the same season -- visited in August 2013. Although Richard Nixon was a staunch football fan, visits by championship teams weren't yet common during his presidency, and the Dolphins didn't visit him at the White House following their Super Bowl VII victory.

Quotable

"Take it easy, baby." -- Celtics forward Tom "Satch" Sanders, January 1963, to Kennedy.

"It was my honor and my pleasure to be present in the Pittsburgh locker room last fall on the final night of the World Series. I escaped without getting tramped, by the skin of my teeth." -- Carter, February 1980, to the Pirates.

"If you'd like to move back here, keep in mind, there's no Astroturf here. The Rose Garden has real grass." -- Reagan, October 1987, to the Minnesota Twins, who had moved from Washington after the 1960 season.

"And you are?" -- George H.W. Bush, June 1991, to Penguins superstar  Mario Lemieux.

"All my life I've been looking for a woman as tall as I am." -- Clinton, July 1994, to 6-foot-7 North Carolina basketball player Gwendolyn Gillingham.

"YOU WORE FLIP-FLOPS TO THE WHITE HOUSE?!" -- Chicago Tribune headline, July 2005, commenting on the Northwestern women's lacrosse team's footwear.

"Appreciate you putting your false teeth in." -- George W. Bush, February 2007, to the Carolina Hurricanes.

"The folks at West Point need to practice." -- George W. Bush, November 2008, to the Alaska-Fairbanks rifle team, which had defeated Army for the NCAA Division I championship.

"I guess his grandmother died again." -- George W. Bush, February 2008, on the absence of Boston Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez.

"Clearly Dirk is a tough guy, although the most painful thing may have been his rendition of 'We Are the Champions' during the victory celebrations." -- Obama, January 2012, on Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, who played through a fever and finger injury during the 2011 NBA Finals.

"I told him to keep his shirt on." -- Obama, April 2015, on Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

"You defied the cynics. You accomplished big things. You racked up a great record, and you don't get enough credit. I can't imagine how that feels." -- Obama, February 2016, to Golden State Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton, who had guided the team to a 39-4 start while head coach Steve Kerr recovered from back surgery.

Last, but not least

Former NFL head coach and executive Mike Holmgren brought one of his daughters to the White House in February 1989, when he was an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers. As Holmgren related to the Seattle Times, he shook hands with George H.W. Bush, who then said, "Mike, you like 'em kinda young, huh?" First lady Barbara Bush then intervened and said, "George, that's his daughter!"

ESPN senior writer Elizabeth Merrill contributed to this report.

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