Crimson Tide take trip to remember
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The United States is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American economy is struggling to gain traction. Two branches of the government are embroiled in a debate over the future of our nation's health care.
Maybe that's why the leader of the free world blocked out time Monday to confer with the coach of the national champion college football team in the Green Room of the White House.
"Every new success brings a new set of challenges," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
"Tell me about it!" replied President Barack Obama.
A couple of minutes later, Obama and Saban walked out of the Green Room and turned right into the East Room. A Marine jazz ensemble in the foyer struck up "Yea Alabama." And the 44th president of the United States of America stood before the microphone and cried, "Roll Tide!"
The American president is not only head of government but also chief of state. He hosts an Easter egg hunt every spring. He pardons a turkey at Thanksgiving every fall. And when a team wins a championship, he throws open the doors of the White House -- no matter the season.
The Crimson Tide became the 10th championship team to visit the White House in Obama's 14 months in office. That list, ranging from the Columbus Crew of MLS to the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA, doesn't include visits by NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson and PGA Tour Presidents Cup captains Greg Norman and Fred Couples.
The 30 minutes Obama would spend with the Crimson Tide had been exactly two months in the making.
On Friday, Jan. 8, the day after Alabama defeated Texas 37-21 in the BCS National Championship Game, Joe Kennedy from the White House Office of Public Engagement called Alabama associate athletic director Jeff Purinton. Small world -- Purinton used to work at Florida State. Kennedy, 26, is the son of former Seminoles men's basketball coach Pat Kennedy, now the coach at Towson.
The following Monday, Joe Kennedy and Alabama football operations director Mike Vollmar discussed possible dates. Saban wanted to make the visit after signing day on Feb. 3 and before the start of spring practice, which is this Friday.
Five weeks later, on Feb. 8, they talked again. The White House ruled out the first week of March. Alabama had scheduled its pro day for seniors on Wednesday, March 10. Spring practice would start two days later. That pretty much left March 8 or 9.
The White House confirmed the date during the last week of February. The public announcement didn't come until the week before the event. Then the planning began in earnest. Purinton e-mailed a long file of anecdotes to White House assistant speechwriter Kyle O'Connor.
"Not long after the 2008 season ended," Purinton wrote, "Coach Saban put a picture up of Florida winning the championship and asked if our players wanted to work hard enough to win a starting job or to beat out a teammate in a drill, or did they want to work harder than the best team in the country, hard enough to be the best in college football. I think that carried a lot of weight with our guys."
The team charter flight arrived at Reagan National Airport at 11:02 a.m. ET Monday. Waiting on the tarmac were four chartered buses and three D.C. police cars.
When the buses pulled up to the White House, police dogs gave them a once-over. As each of the 175 people in the Alabama traveling party stepped off the bus, a uniformed police official asked for a government-issued ID. When they reached the entrance to the White House, maybe 100 yards away, they showed their IDs again. Unlike at the airport, no one complained.
On the walls of the South Hall are five official presidential portraits, including the famous posthumous portrait of John F. Kennedy, looking down with his arms folded across his stomach. In one recess of that wall stands a bust of Abraham Lincoln. Next to the bust stood quarterback Greg McElroy, a big grin on his face as a teammate snapped a photo.
The White House forbids video cameras and any other type of recording device on its private tours. Photography is for personal use only -- no Facebook, no Twitter.
Shortly before 1 p.m., White House officials gathered the team in the State Dining Room, at the opposite end of the South Hall from the East Room, where the ceremony would be held. The officials asked the players and coaches to line up Noah's Ark style, two by two.
The taller players, going in first, stood on the back risers behind the presidential podium. Junior tight end Preston Dial and offensive lineman David Ross did their scouting. They surveyed the East Room and timed their walk so they ended up standing behind the podium -- prime photographic real estate.
"I slowed down and let a few teammates walk past me," Dial said, a knowing grin across his face.
The program called for no food to be served, yet White House maitre d' George Hannie, resplendent in a tuxedo, stood in front of the State Dining Room. Hannie, 63, grew up in Northport, just across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa, Ala. He came to work at the White House during the Johnson administration in July 1966. He never left.
"We just had the Lakers," Hannie said. "It gets better and better. I'm more excited by my hometown."
Hannie said Obama really enjoys the visits.
"Wait until you see him," Hannie said. "He will be bright-eyed, like a young kid. When the Lakers were here, he was wide-eyed and happy."
Obama has taken the traditional visits of champions and put them to work. As part of his United We Serve campaign, every team that comes to the White House engages in a service project. The Pittsburgh Steelers, for instance, joined with the president, wounded warriors and the USO to assemble care packages for military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During the transition to the Obama administration, Joe Kennedy said, the president-elect asked the staff "to re-evaluate some of the traditional events. One of the things about the championship events is that people wanted to do them. We have a first family that is really engaged in the value of getting kids active and having a healthy lifestyle."
Just off the State Dining Room, in the Old Family Dining Room, 22 boys and girls from Falcon's Edge, a family outreach center in Washington, stood with their coaches and club officials. Executive director David Jones Sr. sounded the alarm many parents voice these days.
"We're trying to get them out of the house and off video games," Jones said.
"At some point in all of our lives," Johnson told the kids, "we made the decision to do good in school and get all our work done so that we could go on to college, be on that college team and get to experience that education. That's what is most important to us. That's what we've done with our lives. That's what we've worked for. I hope you'll do the same in your lives and make it to college and get your education."
When Saban and the players returned to line up for the ceremony, Purinton informed Johnson and Arenas that they would be presenting the president with the team gifts. Johnson would present the crimson jersey, replete with the president's name above a white 1. Arenas would give Obama the game ball and the crimson helmet with the number 13, representing the national championships Alabama has won.
Playing for the crystal football had nothing on this.
"I got nervous. I got sweaty. I got jittery," Johnson said. "I've never even been to Washington, D.C., much less met the president."
Ingram didn't need a role in the ceremony to have butterflies. "I'm a nervous wreck," he confided to Terry Saban, the coach's wife.
The team and university officials returned to the East Room and took their places. At 1:45, a sonorous voice introduced the president and the coach.
Obama and Saban entered the East Room. The president spoke for a shade more than five minutes.
"I've got to tell you, everyone was really excited about this team coming today," Obama said, "except for my press secretary, Robert Gibbs. He was born and raised in Auburn. He's hiding in his office right now."
Obama congratulated Ingram for winning the Heisman. He congratulated Rolando McClain (in absentia, although Obama gave no indication of knowing McClain had stayed behind, in order to prepare for the draft) for winning the Butkus Award. And he showed that the speechwriters had read Purinton's notes.
"One of the trademarks of this team has been its unwavering focus on what's important," Obama said. "I know shortly after the 2008 season, Coach hung a picture of the Florida Gators winning the national championship in the locker room -- not too subtle. It was his way of asking his players, did they want to work hard enough to beat their teammates in a drill? Or did they want to work hard enough to beat the best team in the country? It's pretty clear what choice they made."
The president closed with another congratulations. "The best of luck next season," he said. "I know spring practice starts on Friday -- woo, man. Next Friday, huh?" And naturally, he added another, "Roll Tide!"
Arenas made the handoff of the game ball to the president, and Johnson gave him the jersey. Obama turned and shook hands, moving from one end of the line of players to the other. Departing senior defensive back Chris Rogers, wearing a long blue coat with a beige plaid vest and matching pants, stuck out his hand and said, "I wore this just for you."
"Mr. GQ!" Obama replied, and everyone in earshot roared.
"I got a good handshake," Rogers said. "I can remember that forever."
"I got a kiss!" Terry Saban said, pointing to her right cheek. "I didn't get a kiss the first time."
Terry Saban was referring to her first White House visit with her husband, after his LSU team won the BCS title in 2003. That Nick Saban came back is unusual. That he came back with another school is unprecedented. Yet optimism is epidemic among the Crimson Tide family. As Karen McElwain, the wife of offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, walked out of the White House, she turned to the policeman sitting behind the desk.
"See you next year!" she said.
By 2:30 p.m., the Alabama players and coaches had left the White House and headed east down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. They went from there to the Lincoln Memorial, then to the Pentagon and then back to Reagan.
The day cost Alabama at least $85,000 -- including $79,000 for the Delta charter round-trip flight from Tuscaloosa to Reagan National Airport, $1,700 for four charter buses in Washington and $3,300 for box lunches (including a few extra sandwiches; this was, after all, a football team) delivered by Chick-fil-A to the team after the visit.
When the door on the Delta charter shut, so did the door on the 2009 season. Spring practice, as the president reminded the players, is upon them.
But the value of the memories the trip created can't be measured.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.
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