WHAT FOOTBALL meant to George Allen, who died as a "youthful 72," was tantamount to obsession. He sounded and acted at times much like a former president, Richard M. Nixon, who played football at Whittier College, where Allen, years later, was the head coach before he went on to do the same with sterling success for the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins.
We first met George when he was assistant coach of defense for the Chicago Bears and, as a sideline, sold a "weighted" football that was supposed to increase the firepower of weak-armed quarterbacks. After seven years, he wanted to become the Rams' head coach and his foremost mentor, another George, last name Halas, took him to court -- to prove a point.
Halas insisted Allen hadn't been forthright and testimony showed inconsistencies in how the Rams' opportunity had evolved. The judge ruled the Bears did not have to let Allen out of his signed agreement. But then Halas went to the witness stand, without permission of his attorney, and consented to grant a release. Halas explained he wanted to establish the "sanctity" of a contract that had two seasons remaining.
Allen became successful in Los Angeles, quickly restoring a once-mighty franchise to a contender. The Rams' owner, Dan Reeves, was initially elated but later became disenchanted to the point of saying, "George Allen takes all the pleasure out of owning a club." In handling players, he cultivated a "it's us against them" feeling -- meaning the opposition, league office and even the organization that was paying his salary.
It was Allen's belief that on road trips the Rams should be geographically removed from the proximity of saloons. One spring day he showed up in Baltimore and scouted for a motel away from downtown that fulfilled those desires for the following October. He went to the pristine suburbs, searching for remoteness and settled on the quiet surroundings of Woodlawn.
A self-compelling desire to devote himself, in season and out, to football meant his wife bought his shoes and clothes and even arranged to make appointments with barber shops, located in airports, so he could use the time he would normally wait to board a plane for getting a haircut. George tried to think of everything.
Roman Gabriel, who was floundering until Allen arrived, became a winning quarterback. "I never met a man who concentrated his energies so totally on one goal," said Gabriel. "He worked day and night, all the time. He filled every minute of every day with football."
Allen had a fondness for veteran players because they made fewer mistakes. He traded draft choices with abandon. At one point, after coming to the Redskins, he spent them so fast he even tried to make deals for selections he had already dealt elsewhere.
If there was a way to get around a waiver procedure or a playing regulation, as with the crack-back blocking controversy, Allen was persistent in stretching and testing the vigilance and patience of then commissioner Pete Rozelle. Winning, even tying, was important to him, as illustrated with what happened when the Rams played the Colts in 1967.
A new tie-breaker rule for deciding a divisional champion had been agreed upon, but not all coaches were cognizant of how it would work. But the Rams deadlocked the Colts, 24-24, and Allen was one of the few to realize it could be as beneficial as a victory, providing his team could win the rematch on the final Sunday of the season. That's precisely what happened.
His personal habits were Spartan. He never smoked or drank but would be a threat to win the Olympics of Ice Cream Eating had such an indulgence been contested. After every practice, with the players and his assistants in the locker room, he would circle the field for 3 miles of pensive jogging. Result: He was physically sharp and mentally alert.
In 1982, he ranked football's all-time quarterbacks in this order: Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman and John Unitas. About Lenny Moore, he said, "He may have been the best combination receiver-runner pro football has had." And he went on to list Jim Parker as the finest offensive lineman in history and spoke glowingly of Gino Marchetti as a defensive end.
There was an eccentric side to Allen. He insisted players not toss paper cups, after getting a drink of water, on the practice field. It became a fetish. But that was George Allen . . . true to himself yet constantly looking for an edge. His heart was shaped like a football.