Thursday, September 29, 2011
Springer: Christmas with George Allen
By Steve Springer
George Allen was very good at carrying the losing-is-like-dying philosophy to the extreme.
I thought I had pulled the quote of the week -- heck, the quote of the season -- right out from under the noses of the national media.
Ok, so I was a na´ve rookie sportswriter with the now-defunct Thousand Oaks News Chronicle, covering my first, big pro event. It was a 1974 divisional playoff game between the-then Los Angeles Rams and the Washington Redskins at the Coliseum, played several days before Christmas.
After the Rams’ 19-10 victory, I walked up to Redskin head coach George Allen, whose back was to me, and tossed out a softball question to begin the conversation: “Looking forward to getting back to Washington as soon as possible so the team can enjoy Christmas?”
Allen turned to face me, his eyes red, and replied, “When you lose, there is no Christmas.”
What a great line, I thought, a line I can build a story around.
What I didn’t know was that it was a typical Allen line, the type that filled the notebooks and tape recorders of those who covered him on a regular basis.
He certainly wasn’t the first, or the last football coach to articulate the losing-is-like-dying philosophy. But few carried it to the extreme Allen did, partially because he believed in it, but also to perpetuate his image as the ultimate workhorse in the coaching fraternity.
This is a man who once said he called the opposing coach’s office after 10 o’clock on a Wednesday night and, if no one answered, he knew he would win that week’s game.
This is a man who once ordered an assistant to sit in the Coliseum at dusk in the days before a Super Bowl to chart the exact spot where the sun set below the stadium’s rim in order to factor that into the game plan.
This is a man who, before that Super Bowl, told his players, “To win this game, I’d let you stick a knife in me and draw all my blood.”
This is a man who preferred to live on milk, vitamins and ice cream because, as his wife, Etty, once told her kids, according to daughter Jennifer, "Chewing's a distraction. Your father's afraid it might take his mind off football."
This is a man who once became so obsessed with the time the players were “wasting” eating lunch during training camp that he decided to divide those waiting for soup into two lines, one for those wanting crackers and one for the crackerless.
So why did owners put up with Allen?
Because he won. In a dozen seasons as head coach of the Rams and Redskins, he never had a losing season, finishing with a record of 118-54-5 including the postseason.
Allen’s success was grounded in hard work, preparation down to what sometimes seemed like the most insignificant detail, exorbitant spending and a philosophy he summed up as “The future is now.” In practical terms, it meant favoring veterans over rookies, often trading draft choices for proven players.
In all, Allen’s teams made 131 trades.
He was a players’ coach and it’s not hard to understand why.
“If a player asked for $50,000, my father gave the guy $60,000,” wrote Jennifer Allen, in her book, Fifth Quarter, the Scrimmage of a Football Coach’s Daughter.
“If a player hesitated before signing a contract, my father offered a television, a stereo, even a car as incentive. One month, he ran up $10,000 in telephone bills, trying to persuade players to join him and cajole rival coaches to trade him their veterans. My father also helped players mend their marriages; he sent them Scripture and found them off-season jobs.”
And that devotion paid off the first time Allen was fired by the Rams. He had been hired after the team had endured seven straight losing seasons ending in 1965 when it finished 4-10.
Under Allen, the Rams improved to 8-6 in 1966 and 11-1-2 in ‘67 with Allen being named Coach of the Year.
But ultimately, a long-running feud with owner Dan Reeves resulted in Allen being let go a year later even though the Rams were 10-3-1.
It was another bleak Christmas for Allen. Reeves called him the day after the holiday and said, “Merry Christmas, George. You’re fired.”
Not just yet.
In an incredible demonstration of support that would be hard to imagine in today’s me-first jock culture, 38 of the team’s 40 players protested, threatening to demand a trade or retire if Allen was not reinstated. Then, some players held a press conference, attended by Allen, at which they went public with their outrage.
Reeves caved, bringing Allen back and signing him to a two-year deal.
At the end of those two seasons, however, with only two first-round playoff losses to show for his five seasons with the Rams, Allen was again fired by Reeves.
"I would rather lose with another coach,” Reeves said, “than win with George Allen."
This time, even his players couldn’t save him.
Allen went on to Washington where, in his seven years with the Redskins, he made the playoffs five times, including one losing trip to the Super Bowl.
But his excessive spending persisted. The late Edward Bennett Williams, who owned the team, said, "George was given an unlimited budget -- and exceeded it."
Cut loose once more, Allen was again hired by the Rams in 1978, by then under the ownership of Carroll Rosenbloom.
But this time, Allen’s return was a complete disaster.
And this time, his players no longer had his back.
Just the opposite. Times had changed and, in an era when players were far more independent and far less enamored with Allen’s rah-rah, collegiate style, they rebelled at his demands for discipline and conformity that extended to the soup lines.
When linebacker Isiah Robertson tossed a paper cup on the field, Allen ordered him to pick it up, saying, “The field is our living room,” according to Newsday’s Joe Gergen.
When the team lost its first two exhibition games, Rosenbloom could see his season disintegrating before his eyes.
So Allen got the axe from the Rams for the third time, gone by mid August.
He never coached again in the NFL, finishing up his career in the United States Football League and at Long Beach St. where he died two months after the end of the 1990 season at 72.
There will eventually be another NFL team in L.A., but there’ll never be another coach like George Allen.
There will never be another coach hired and fired by the same team three times, who lived on milk and vitamins, obsessed over crackers and paper cups, and rattled off great lines like, “When you lose, you die a little. Every time you win, you’re reborn.”
Steve Springer is a longtime Los Angeles area sports writer and a special contributor to ESPNLA.com