Whittier College is just a faint blip on the radar of big-time college football.
The little private school east of Los Angeles, founded in 1887 and named after Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, has 1,500 students, offers no athletic scholarships and plays in the NCAA’s Division III.
The Poets’ best-known player achieved fame not for his athletic ability, but for the fact he became president of the United States in 1969. Richard Nixon, who once was described by a former teammate as a terrible athlete but a great debater, wore a leather helmet for the Poets in the early 1930s.
Yet football helped shape his life, and Nixon credited his coach at Whittier, Wallace “Chief” Newman, as having a lasting impact on his career.
Today, Newman and another longtime coach at Whittier, John “Tiger” Godfrey, hold a special place in the school’s football lore for their longtime success. The team plays on Newman Field at Memorial Stadium, and a nearby monument was dedicated this past September to Godfrey, the program’s winningest coach.
Together, they are considered the deans of Whittier football.
Yet two other men, among the most dynamic ever to blow a whistle, coached at Whittier. Outside the little school, they are the unknown Poets.
George Allen, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, was head coach at Whittier from 1951 to '56. When he left, he was replaced by Don Coryell, the first man ever to win 100 games in both college and the NFL and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Whittier may not exactly be the Cradle of Coaches, but as a tiny school its claim of two coaching heavyweights is tough to top. Throw in Jerry Burns, an assistant to Allen in 1952 who went on to become an NFL head coach in Minnesota (taking the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game), and it’s a trio.
Pat Putnam, who played for Allen and Coryell as a running back and defensive back, says few people have a clue they were Poets.
“They’re impressed that little old Whittier College had those kinds of people working for them,” he says.
Today, the only indications Allen and Coryell ever worked at Whittier are their memberships in the school’s Hall of Fame and the name of the weight room in the athletic department --the George Allen Fitness Center -- that has some of his memorabilia on display.
But for the athletes who played for them, the coaches made a lasting impression.
Max Fields, a Poets running back who was drafted by the 49ers in 1958, says he feels blessed to have played for both.
“The highlight of my career that I had was the fact I played for both of those guys,” he says. “They were so good to me.”
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Allen arrived as head football coach of what was then an NAIA program in 1951 after Newman retired, but also was given other duties.
“Allen did a lot of things,” says current Whittier baseball coach Mike Rizzo. “He coached baseball here, too. Some of those guys tell me he would line ’em up. He would use baseball players to design football plays. … That was part of practice, you know, lining up. Guys were, ‘Are we gonna hit?’ ‘No, we’re trying to put in the forward pass today.’ ”
Fields and Putnam say Allen ran a version of the single-wing attack called the University of Michigan multiple offense.
Putnam recalls Allen as an exacting coach who was intent on running an old-fashioned system at peak efficiency, with its direct snaps, spins, precise footwork, handoffs, laterals and misdirection plays.
“You ever see the Knute Rockne movie, where the guys would line up and go, ‘One, two, three, four, shift’? They had a little dance step they used to practice. Well, we used to practice that dance step.”
That first season under Allen, the Poets went 2-7. Then they turned it around the next year to go 9-1 and posted winning seasons three out of the next four. When Allen left Whittier after the ’56 season to take an assistant’s job with the Los Angeles Rams, he’d compiled a 31-22-5 record.
Later he made a name for himself as defensive coordinator of the Bears and as head coach with the Rams and Redskins. In 12 seasons he never had a losing record, was 116-47-5 in the regular season, took his team to the playoffs nine times and the Super Bowl once. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.
Always in the NFL his teams were tough and defensive-minded, and it was the same at Whittier.
Fields, who was recruited out of East Los Angeles JC by Allen, said Allen always got his players to play hard.
“I talked to some people from San Diego State before I got to Whittier that had played against Allen’s teams and they said even though the Whittier guys were small, they just knocked the heck out of you,” he says.
Putnam recalls Allen as intense and “a defensive-minded personality.”
“One game against, I want to say Pomona, there were 23 punts between the two teams,” he says, laughing.
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When Allen left, Fields didn’t know who (or what) was coming next.
“We wondered who in the world were we going to get,” he says. “Lo and behold, Don Coryell came.”
Whereas Allen was old-fashioned, Coryell was an innovator, installing the I-formation -- which he later took to USC as an assistant, and then San Diego State as head coach -- and using spread formations that took the passing game to a new level.
“Coryell was a great offensive football coach,” says Fields. “He was a genius.”
Coryell was at Whittier for just three seasons, 1957-59, but his teams went 6-2-1, 8-1 and 8-2, and his .796 winning percentage is the school’s best.
Fields recalls the I-formation attack as almost unstoppable, and as a tailback he reaped its rewards.
“My senior year under Coryell I averaged 9.3 yards a carry with the football, so I can tell you about the I,” he says.
In 1958 and ’59, says Fields, Coryell was “using the spread formation like you see now, though not so much the option thing,” and the team’s Little All-America quarterback, Gary Campbell, started putting up huge numbers.
Though Allen in the NFL had the reputation as an extremely intense coach, Putnam remembers Coryell as the fiery one.
“They were completely different coaches,” he says. “Different personalities. Coryell was a very exciting person to be around. He was excited during the ballgame. We used to call him ‘Mad Dog’ because it looked like he’s going berserk, out of his mind. But he wasn’t. He brought a whole different perspective to Whittier College football.”
Coryell went to USC for the 1960 season, had great success as head coach at San Diego State from 1961 to 1972, then coached the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers from 1973 to '86, again building teams that were among the most explosive in the NFL. As a college coach his teams were 127-24-3 (.834); in the NFL, his teams were 111-83-1 (.572).
Many have argued Coryell belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with Allen, because of his impact on the game as well as his success.
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Putnam says when he played for Allen and Coryell, he never really considered that the two would be going places.
“I don’t know that we were so sophisticated back then,” says Putnam, who went to coach high school. “We didn’t even think about it.”
Fields, however, believed Whittier was a just a stopover for both. He’s grateful he had the chance to play for two great coaches.
Even Allen – whom he says rubbed some players the wrong way at times – was always special in his mind.
“One thing I really appreciated about George was he never forgot if you played for him,” he says. “He was always so gracious. If you asked a favor of him, even many years later, a small favor, he would try his best to do what you asked. … He was just a nice man. Coryell was as well.
“Two great men and two great coaches.”
Both of whom settled in at one very small school before reaching the big time.
Says Rizzo of the conversations he’s had with those who played for both:
“They would have run through a wall for either of them.”