Tuesday, March 23, 2004 Updated: March 24, 9:22 AM ET
No game, but plenty of politics at White House
By Ivan Maisel ESPN.com
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The meeting all of college football clamored for, USC and LSU, had come. Offers of millions couldn't get them together in January. The pleas of millions went unheeded. Yet here they were, lined up on opposite sides, a wide expanse of manicured lawn below, cloudless skies above, a chill in the air -- perfect football weather.
President Bush, getting a jersey from LSU's Rodney Reed, was careful not to lean in any politically-dangerous directions.
It had all the markings of a fall Saturday, except that it was a spring Tuesday.
Before the teams lay the South Lawn of the White House. LSU and USC were lined up on the curved stairwells of the portico -- Tigers on the west stairs, Trojans on the east -- listening as President George W. Bush welcomed them.
Their only meeting, and the only shoulder pads in sight were sewn inside blazers.
Joining LSU and USC were the Indiana men's soccer team, the North Carolina women's soccer team, and the USC women's volleyball team. The latter three won NCAA championships last fall. Their presence was merely ceremonial. The football teams could have been another story.
Bush tantalized us with the possibility.
"There was quite a lot of discussion about who was really number one," Bush said. "My attitude is, the South Lawn is a pretty good size."
He waited a few moments, as the functionaries in attendance clapped, then said, "Never mind."
I know what you're thinking -- another broken promise from a politician.
"Both schools, LSU and USC, are national champions," Bush said, "and we're proud to call you national champions."
The scene reminded me of a conversation a few years ago in the Alabama State House with then-Gov. Don Siegelman, an Alabama graduate. I asked him whether he favored his alma mater over Auburn. Sitting behind his desk in his small working office, Siegelman smiled and said, "I didn't get elected by answering questions like that."
California may be a blue state, and Bush may be a red-state president. Louisiana, for instance, gave him 52.6 percent of its vote in 2000. But California has 55 electoral votes this year, more than 20 percent of the 270 votes needed, and, well, Bush is not stupid.
After Bush departed, USC coach Pete Carroll surveyed the South Lawn, which slopes gently down in the direction of the Washington Monument. "You have to win the coin toss," Carroll said.
That's as close anyone came to playing. The last chance at a Battle for No. 1 became the Yawn at the Lawn.
When the teams met with the president in the East Room before the public ceremony -- nothing.
"We were in the same room for a long period," Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart said. "No hard feelings between both teams. Both had good years."
When the teams milled about together after the ceremony -- nothing.
Carroll ran into an old friend, Stan Hixon, from their days coaching together at Iowa State.
"What are you doing here?" Carroll asked.
Hixon is the assistant head coach at LSU.
LSU coach Nick Saban wore a deep blue suit with a gold chalkstripe. Carroll chose not to wear a cardinal and gold suit, thank goodness. He wore a sign-the-mortgage dark suit, equally appropriate for the occasion.
The Washington visit has become a part of the national championship ritual, right up there with big championship rings. The Tigers wore theirs Tuesday, a surprise engineered by equipment manager Greg Stringfellow, who had them flown to Baton Rouge Monday night. The players received them on the bus from campus to the airport Tuesday morning.
When the LSU players and coaches lined up on the steps of the U.S. Capitol for photos, several of the players waved their rings to their teammates videoing the scene.
Congressmen and senators are busy doing the nation's bidding. The Washington Post listed 15 Senate committee and subcommittee meetings scheduled for Tuesday, and six in the House. But most of the members of the Louisiana delegation wiped their schedules clean and stood in the blustery cold, waiting for the home-state heroes to arrive.
Rep. Richard Baker, a Republican from Baton Rouge and an LSU graduate, pretended to do what he could to derail USC's visit.
"I am advising you that I am contacting the White House chief of protocol, who I know very well," Baker said on the phone Monday night. "There appears to be some confusion. Southern California was invited to the Rose Bowl, not the Rose Garden. We'll try to get all this cleaned up."
Tuesday afternoon, coatless despite the cold, Baker grinned a devilish grin.
"Anything to inflame," he said.
Baker also introduced a resolution congratulating LSU on the floor of the House a few weeks ago in which he pointed out that there was some discussion but no real dispute as to who was No. 1.
"Let anybody who has a differing opinion stand up and say something," Baker said.
Of course, the House was in recess and the Californians were all on planes headed west, but ...
The Tiger Nation refuses in any way, shape or form to acknowledge the possibility that there is more than one national champion. Some, like Baker, do it in jest. Others don't. The LSU Web site (LSUSports.net) posted a three-paragraph story on March 16 regarding the upcoming visit to the White House. It didn't mention the Trojans. The USC Web site (USCTrojans.com) posted a lengthy story on March 5 that described the football team's participation in NCAA Fall Champions Day at the White House and listed the other teams that would attend.
LSU fans continue to make their arguments, too, long after the rest of the nation has moved on. Next year has begun, for fans immersed in March Madness and for the coaches and players themselves. Both teams are well into spring practice.
One of the Ten Commandments of coaching is to leave last week behind, leave last year behind, leave everything behind. Focus on the next task. Carroll and Saban made an allowance for Tuesday.
Carroll, in his different way of seeing things, called the day "one of those spikes in the charts." Saban, who is more traditionally eloquent, summed up the experience before the Tigers boarded their plane to go home and practice Wednesday.
"You know what?" Saban asked. "I try to keep things in perspective. But the day today is one of those things that you can't buy. You can buy a Sugar Bowl watch and a ring. Obviously, you earn a national championship. To come to Washington, D.C., which for a lot of our players is their first time here, is a great experience, and something they will remember for the rest of their lives. To be recognized as a champion by your president is a special thrill."
Last January, LSU chancellor Mark Emmert, in one of the best lines ever delivered by a college president, said, "USC is the national champion the same way Al Gore is president." On Monday, Emmert was introduced as the new president of the University of Washington, partner of USC in the Pacific-10 Conference.
Politics isn't the only thing to make strange bedfellows.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com.