On this day 40 years ago, the Michigan Wolverines’ No. 48 became America’s No. 38.
Gerald Ford was sworn in as the 38th President of the United States on Aug. 8, 1974, following Richard Nixon’s resignation amid the Watergate scandal.
Ford’s swearing in completed an unlikely ascent from the Big Ten gridiron to the White House, as it actually require two scandals for the Michigan man to reach that point. Just 10 months before Nixon stepped down, Vice-President Spiro Agnew resigned from office under the black cloud of a tax evasion and bribery scandal.
Gerald Ford, then House Minority Leader, was thrust into the vice-presidency.
Now, the ex-Michigan standout’s inauguration was hardly the first time football invaded the White House.
College football’s had a fascinating connection with the presidency since the early 20th Century. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt became known as the president who saved football. His push for reforms to make the game safer planted the seeds for a governing body, which grew into the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Among Roosevelt’s supporters in reforming the game was then-Princeton president Woodrow Wilson. Wilson defeated Roosevelt and incumbent William Howard Taft in the presidential election just seven years later.
Current Pres. Barack Obama publicly endorsed a playoff system to determine college football’s national champion. Ford’s predecessor and ardent football fan Nixon played the game at small Southern California college Whittier.
Yet, it’s Ford who stands out as the Football President.
That’s partially attributable to his unremarkable presidency. Gerald Ford held the Executive Office of the President for just over two years, from August 1974 to January 1977. He’s one of only five presidents ever to have not won a presidential election.
For those of us born after his tenure–and even for some who lived during it–Pres. Gerald Ford is most remembered through unflattering pop culture depictions of him.
Ford’s tumble on Air Force One more or less launched Chevy Chase.
So, in a way, Ford’s to blame for Funny Farm, Cops & Robbersons and Nothing But Trouble.
The Simpsons depicted Ford 20 years later as an affable, if not oafish, neighbor to the titular family. He befriends Homer over their mutual love of beer and football.
It’s rather ironic the most athletically accomplished president is known today for his clumsiness. But the accomplishments of No. 38 in his time wearing No. 48 have gained renewed appreciation in recent years.
The university retired Ford’s jersey in 1994, 60 years after the season in which he was named Michigan’s Most Valuable Player.
“Other honors that were bestowed on me were because of my work or my efforts,” Ford said of his jersey retirement, per the Gerald Ford Foundation. “But in this case, I am being honored [by the] school where I learned the skills and discipline that I used for the rest of my life.”
Among the life skills Ford gained while playing football at Michigan was perspective on race and education. Ford was at odds with Michigan administrators when the university left black teammate and friend Willis Ward out of the lineup for a game against Georgia Tech.
Ford referenced Ward and Georgia Tech in his 1999 New York Times editorial, “Inclusive America, Under Attack,” which defends affirmative action legislation.
In 2012, Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke brought Ford’s No. 48 out of retirement. Hoke’s decision was not a slight on Ford’s accomplishments–quite the opposite. The No. 48 is now used as motivation for current and future Michigan players to hold themselves to higher standards.
And there’s no post higher in the U.S. than the presidency–no matter how one gets there.