Skip to main content

10 Most Successful Athletes/Coaches Turned Politicians

Many athletes have retired from sports and gotten into politics.
10 Most Successful Athletes/Coaches Turned Politicians

Former college football head coach Tommy Tuberville is one of two current Congressmen who have deep ties to football.

All eyes in the political world will be on Georgia this Tuesday as Herschel Walker challenges incumbent U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) in a runoff. If the former Heisman Trophy winner and USFL and NFL star wins, he will become the latest person to make the jump from sports to politics.

In 2020, former Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville (who also coached at Ole Miss, Texas Tech, and Cincinnati) became the first person elected to the Senate who spent almost his entire career coaching football after he defeated incumbent Doug Jones. Tuberville is not the only congressman currently serving with deep ties to football. Outgoing Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), first elected to the House in 2018, played in the 2007 BCS National Championship Game with Ohio State and was a first-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts. Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) was elected the same year after playing at Baylor and landing with the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent in 2006.

Many athletes have retired from sports and gotten into politics. Here are the 10 who were the most successful at it.

10. Ralph Metcalfe

The sprinter was overshadowed by his Olympic teammate, Jesse Owens, but won a gold medal on the team that broke the world record for the 4x100-meter relay at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. After getting his education and serving in World War II, Metcalfe returned home to Chicago and was elected alderman in 1955. He served four terms before easily winning a race for an open congressional seat in Illinois' 1st district in 1970. Metcalfe was one of the 13 founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus and was running for a fifth term when he died of a heart attack in 1978.

9. Tom Osborne

After retiring as Nebraska's head football coach in 1998, Osborne ran for Nebraska's 3rd District Congressional seat as a Republican in 2000 and won with 83 percent of the vote and then was re-elected twice. In 2005, Governor Mike Johanns was appointed to be U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Lt. Governor Dave Heineman assumed the governorship. Osborne challenged Heineman in the three-person gubernatorial primary in 2006, but the sitting governor won 50 percent of the vote compared to Osborne's 44 percent. He returned to Lincoln and served as Nebraska's athletic director from 2007-13.

8. Steve Largent

The Hall of Fame wide receiver won the special election to succeed Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) in Oklahoma's 1st District in 1994 as the Republicans won the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. He unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) for the majority leadership post in 1998 and resigned in 2002 after winning the Republican gubernatorial primary. Largent was an overwhelming favorite in the general election but lost to Democrat state senator Brad Henry by 7,000 votes in a bizarre race that included a well-funded independent candidate and a mobilized voting bloc in support of cockfighting. He later served as president and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association.

7. J. C. Watts

The former Oklahoma quarterback played six seasons in the CFL before returning to the Oklahoma City area to become a youth minister. In 1994, Watts ran for the open Congressional seat in Oklahoma's 4th District as a Republican and narrowly won the primary. He then won the general election, becoming the first black Republican south of the Mason-Dixon line to be elected to Congress since reconstruction. In 1999, Watts succeeded Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) as House Republican Conference Chair and served in that position for four years before retiring from Congress. Since then, he has been involved in a number of efforts, most recently launching the Black News Channel in February.

6. Kevin Johnson

The three-time NBA All-Star point guard retired in 2000 and went home to Sacramento, where he got involved in community service. In 2008, Johnson challenged two-term incumbent mayor Heather Fargo and forced a runoff election, which he won with 58 percent of the vote (All municipal elections in California are nonpartisan.). He was reelected in 2012 and did not seek a third term in '16.

5. Jim Bunning

Bunning (R-Ky.) pitched for 17 seasons in the major leagues and then got into politics, winning elections to city council, the Kentucky State Senate (where he was voted minority leader), and Congress. He also ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1983. After representing Kentucky's 4th District for 12 years, he became the only person to be elected to both the Baseball Hall of Fame and the U.S. Senate, beating Rep. Scotty Baesler by a half a percentage point in 2000. Bunning served two terms before retiring and passing away in 2017.

4. Jack Kemp

Kemp (R-N.Y.) ran for Congress shortly after retiring as quarterback of the Buffalo Bills in 1969 and represented suburban Buffalo for nine terms. During that period, he helped influence the Reagan Administration's embrace of supply-side economics and sponsored the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which was signed into law in August of that year. After an unsuccessful run for president in 1988, he was selected by President George H.W. Bush to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and did so for the full term. Kemp was also chosen as Senator Bob Dole's (R-Kan.) running mate in the 1996 presidential campaign, losing to incumbent President Bill Clinton and Vice president Al Gore. He remained a voice in the Republican Party until his death in 2009.

3. Bill Bradley

After retiring from the New York Knicks in 1977, Bradley ran for U.S. Senate as a Democrat in his home state of New Jersey and won. A policy wonk, he served three terms and sponsored legislation overhauling the U.S. tax code that was signed into law in 1986. Bradley ran for president in 2000, but lost the first 20 primaries and caucuses and withdrew his candidacy and announced his support for Vice President Al Gore.

2. Alan Page

Page may bristle at the notion of being called a politician, but he did have to run for his seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court. During his 15-year Hall of Fame career as a defensive tackle, he completed his law degree at the University of Minnesota and practiced law after he retired. In 1992, Page successfully ran for an open seat as an Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, becoming the first African-American to serve on Minnesota's highest court. He continued to win reelection and served on the court until he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 2015.

1. Gerald Ford

Ford won two national championships as a center and linebacker for Michigan in the early '30s and then went to Yale Law School and on to service in World War II. In 1948, he defeated incumbent Bartel Jonkman in the Republican primary for Michigan's 5th District Congressional seat. He then won the general election and spent the next 25 years in the House of Representatives, serving the last nine of them as minority leader. When Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973 because of pending tax evasion and money laundering charges, President Richard Nixon selected Ford to replace him. Nixon resigned 10 months later in the fallout over the Watergate scandal and Ford moved into the Oval Office, becoming the only person to serve as vice president and president without being elected. Ford lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976 and served in a number of public and private capacities until his death 40 years later.

— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports' Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.