We all have our problems this year. Some have more than others, but few have more than George Allen, the football coach. Allen knows that no matter how well or badly his Los Angeles Rams play this season he is almost certain to lose his job.
It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the United States to learn that another football coach is going to be fired; firing coaches is an American pastime, like reading the funnies or burning the flag. Usually, however, the coach has done something egregious like losing. Allen has done just the opposite. In the four years he has been head coach of the Rams they have won 40 games, lost 13 and tied three. Of the active NFL coaches, only Don Shula has a better record—by .0006. What's more, the Rams hadn't had a winning season in the seven years before Allen arrived.
Unlike most people, which he certainly is, Allen ranks the prospect of being fired toward the bottom of the list of things he thinks about occasionally, so he rarely mentions it. Allen's mind is almost solely devoted to winning football games and how it can be done more efficiently. He has written six books on the subject, and if he ever gets around to writing his Ph.D. dissertation that will undoubtedly make seven. His 500-page master's thesis was entitled: The Survey of Technique and Methods Used in Game Scouting by Outstanding Football Coaches.
"I've never known a man who concentrated his energies so totally on one goal," Roman Gabriel, the Rams' quarterback, has written of Allen in a diary of the 1969 season. "He works day and night, weekdays and weekends, fall and spring. He fills every minute of every day with football."
September 6, 1970
Allen, who is 48, maintains, nonetheless, that "nobody should work all the time. Everybody should have some leisure, and the early-morning hours are the best for this. You can combine two good things at once—sleep and leisure. Leisure time is that five or six hours when you sleep at night."
Such a man is not apt to have a wide circle of friends, and Allen doesn't. The people in his world are divided into Rams and non-Rams, and the Rams are subdivided into front-office types who work in Los Angeles and players, coaches, trainers, etc. who work in Long Beach, 30 miles away. Allen has as little as possible to do with management, which is the main reason he's going to get canned. He and Dan Reeves, the Rams' owner, are not compatible.
"Almost the only thing they have in common is the language they speak," Gabriel has written. "If they were partners in a filling station or a gold mine, I would have advised them to break up."
At the end of the 1968 season—in which the Rams finished with a 10-3-1 record and were second to the Baltimore Colts in the Western Conference of the NFL—Reeves dismissed Allen, even though two years remained on his contract. It was a moment of considerable drama. Six of the Rams' leading players—Gabriel, Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy, Eddie Meador, Charlie Cowan and Jack Pardee—said they would give up football if Allen were not rehired. When Allen called a press conference to explain his position, 12 Rams stood behind him to demonstrate their loyalty, and, all told, 38 of the 40 players on the roster let it be known that they, too, were on his side. Not only that, a citizens' committee was formed to save Allen's job and 7,500 people signed up overnight. On the other hand, the employees in the Rams' front office held a champagne party to celebrate Allen's dismissal.
After 12 days, in which the Reeves-Allen showdown monopolized the front pages of the local press, Reeves relented and agreed to respect the two remaining years of Allen's contract. Ill for some time with Hodgkin's disease, Reeves didn't have the energy to take on 38 loyal players and thousands of fans. In a generous recantation he announced, "if anyone [meaning Allen] was that dedicated and loved the Rams that much, [I felt] I should reconsider. He was being a big man about the whole thing."
Even so, a residue of ill will remains. Reeves and Allen are cold and formal in their dealings with one another. A peppery little Irishman who likes to stay up late and have a few with fellow sportsmen, Reeves has never been able to relate to a man of Allen's monkish dedication to football. Allen, he once said, took all the fun out of winning. In the closely knit fraternity of football owners and their chums, Allen is regarded as a pariah for having painted their friend Danny into such an uncomfortable corner. They mutter about how Reeves has had to rescue Allen from illegal trades he made with imaginary draft choices. It is in this context that Allen now enters the fifth and final year of his contract with the Rams.
What makes a winning football coach is an enigma, even to the trade. Winners like George Allen (or Hank Stram or Bud Grant) are no wiser about the game than losers like Norm Van Brocklin. And, as Allen pointed out recently, "Physically there is practically no difference between one team and another in the NFL. Football isn't necessarily won by the best players. It is won by the team with the best attitude."
In a recent interview with Bob Oates of the Los Angeles Times, Allen elaborated on this philosophy. "Every man was born with the ability to do something well," he said. "Every man is a born salesman, accountant, football player, farmer or artist. The individual who uses the ability he was given when he was put on this earth—who works to the very limit of that ability—is doing what the Lord intended him to do. This is what life is all about. This is my religion."
Over the past 11 years nobody has meant more to the Rams than free safety Eddie Meador. Allen is the fourth Ram coach (and the first winner) under whom Meador has played, and he has this to say about him: "Allen is totally dedicated to football. He works so hard and demands that his coaches work so hard, the players feel obligated to work hard, too."
But to Allen an unwillingness to lose is even more important than a willingness to work hard. "If you can accept defeat and open your pay envelope without feeling guilty, then you're stealing," he has said in one of the innumerable little moral lessons at his command. "Winning is the only way to go. I've heard that the average NFL player draws a salary of $25,000, but I can't think of a thing this money will buy that a loser could enjoy. Losers just look foolish in a new car or partying it up. As far as I'm concerned, life without victories is like being in prison."
One day during last month's football strike Allen was sitting in his high-backed chair in his tiny, dark office at the Rams' training camp in Fullerton, a Los Angeles suburb. On his lap was one of his countless black loose-leaf notebooks; this one was open to a page with some rough typing on it. Allen looked at the page and said, "When the veterans get to camp I've got this little thing I'm going to say to them. I'm going to say: 'Last year was a pretty good season with some good points and some bad points. We missed winning the whole thing by just this much. [Here Allen made a circle with his thumb and index finger not quite touching.] But that isn't good enough.' I'm going to tell them that the Detroit Tigers went 23 years before they won the pennant in 1968. Ken Rose-wall was runner-up at Wimbledon three times. The San Francisco Giants have been second in the National League for the last five years. I'm going to name a few instances like that and point out that just that little bit more effort is the difference between winning and coming in second. That's what I'm going to tell them, because they have to understand that this is the year we go to the Super Bowl and win it all."
There is nothing in Allen's appearance to indicate the force of his personality. Indeed, far from having a piercing gaze, his eyes seem to be searching the horizon for some stray homily. But his principles were fixed early. In 1948 he accepted his first head-coaching job, at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa where they hadn't won a football game in two years, on the condition that his assistant be paid $3,500. Allen's salary was $3,900. Since he couldn't afford a car, he rode a bicycle and vowed not to buy a car until he had a winning season. He bought a Ford in 1949.
The son of an auto worker, Allen was born in Detroit and went to Alma (Mich.) College and to Marquette, where he was a 178-pound end, and to Michigan, where he was a 155-pound wrestler and took his master's. After three years at Morningside he moved on to Whittier, and then to the Rams in 1957, as an assistant. For the next eight years he was a defensive coach for the Chicago Bears. The culmination of his career with Chicago came in 1963 when, as a tribute to his defensive ingenuity, he was awarded the game ball after the Bears beat the Giants 14-10 to win the NFL title. Allen is almost equally proud of being a member of Sigma Delta Psi, a national honorary fraternity. To be eligible, you have to be a B student, run the 100 in 11 flat, high jump five feet, long jump 17 feet, run the 120 low-hurdles in 16 flat, do a 20-foot rope climb in 12 flat, swim 100 yards in 1:35, "plus," says Allen, "there are several other things you have to do."
Etty Allen, George's wife, tells a story of their courtship which helps explain the faraway look in George's eyes. Etty was an impressionable young French-Tunisian girl who happened to be visiting friends in Sioux City when George was at Morningside. On one of their first dates Etty was enchanted when she noticed George doodling X's and O's on the tablecloth. "Isn't that romantic?" she thought. "George drawing all those kisses and hugs and cupid's arrows. He must really be trying to tell me something." It wasn't until they were married that Etty wised up.
Even today, after 20 years of marriage and four children, Allen has trouble focusing on his loved ones, much less himself. Etty buys all his clothes, including his shoes, and when he needs a haircut she makes an appointment for him at the airport barbershop so he can get a quick trim before boarding a plane. His salary of $60,000 a year has made it possible for him to install his family in a Mediterranean-style house, which Etty designed, in Palos Verdes Estates, overlooking the Pacific. "I am never really happy," Allen has said, "unless I can get up in the morning and look at an ocean, a lake or a river. You get strength from a moving body of water."
Particularly in the off season, Allen does his best to spend some time with the family, dining at home ("He likes ice cream," Etty once said. "I think it's because he doesn't have to chew. Chewing would take away his concentration from football") or taking everyone camping. It's not easy. Allen finds that unless they are deep in the boondocks, he is apt to spend most of a holiday talking on the phone to other teams about possible trades. According to Bob Oates, not long ago in Hawaii, Allen kept sneaking into phone booths, and once, when he couldn't find a public phone, knocked on a stranger's door.
Asked recently if he ever got his mind off football for more than a few consecutive minutes, Allen thought for a while and replied without any real conviction, "Yes, when my oldest son and I took a trip to Alaska this spring and flew into an area that only about 12 people a year ever see."
Last season, after the Rams had won their 10th consecutive game by beating Dallas 24-23—a victory that virtually assured them of the Coastal Division title—Allen explained how he was going to celebrate. "I'm going home and have dinner with my family tonight," he said. It turned out he had not done so since July, and this was late November.
Preoccupation with football hardly sets Allen apart from other coaches, however. Preoccupation with detail does. Like most coaches, Allen concludes each practice session with wind sprints. The Rams' sprints are called "striders" because Allen keeps yelling "Don't sprint! Glide! Stride!" He has figured out that the choppy sprinting gait causes pulled muscles. Further, unlike other teams, the Rams run no distances greater than 40 yards. "Football," he explains, "is a 40-yard game. All the big plays are in that range if you count the zigs and zags and other lateral movements. You'd better be able to run more than 20 yards at a burst if you're going to participate in pass offense—or pass defense. On the other hand, you don't have to sustain it 100 yards or even 60. Or take the kicking game. NFL punts average 40 yards, and you'd better be there when they come down. On the kickoff everyone's object is to tackle the runner on his 20-yard line, and that's 40 yards from where we kick. Football is a 40-yard game, so we run 40-yard striders."
A passion for training gadgets is a widespread addiction among coaches, but Allen is so hooked that his practice field has been called Disneyland East. There are nets to throw over and ropes to run under and Exer-Genie pulleys by the dozen and even a pass-rush item called "Joe the Bartender" that looks like an overfed scarecrow. Allen's latest acquisitions are "field weights," stationary versions of the barbell that can be left out on the field without fear of theft. He heard about them from the coach of one of his sons. "I fell in love with them in two minutes," he says. He immediately ordered eight. "No detail is too small. No task is too small—or too big," Allen likes to say.
Although Allen prides himself on his conditioning program, it is only a fraction in his equation for successful football. "The way to win," he insists, "is to get good athletes, get them in shape and have great morale." As for what makes a good athlete, Allen goes on to explain, "The biggest thing is to love the game, play it with enthusiasm and emotion—and to love to hit people."
"Character" is another of Allen's favorite nouns. During a scrimmage at last year's camp, Allen, who regards rookies with a jaundiced eye because they make so many mistakes, spoke admiringly of a rookie back named Pat Curran. "He almost regurgitated at halftime," Allen said, "and it took Gatorade and smelling salts to revive him. He showed me he's got character."
Enthusiasm, emotion and character. Those are Allen's key words. Every now and then during practice, even in the middle of a conversation, he will sit down on the grass and start doing calisthenics. At the end of each practice session he runs around the field several times on his spindly legs, his body bent forward purposefully. Just as he sets seasonal goals for his players (so many interceptions, so many fumbles, so many sackings of the opposing quarterback), Allen sets goals for himself. One this year is to run a 2:30 half-mile; so far he's done a 2:58. Asked why, he says, "Enthusiasm. If the coach doesn't have enthusiasm, no one will. Every day I get more of it."
Yet enthusiasm, emotion, character and conditioning are still not enough, as Allen well knows. He believes that championships are won by leaving as little as possible to chance. "Winning," he has said, "can be defined as the science of being totally prepared. And I define preparation in three words—leave nothing undone."
For instance, there is nothing so wasteful in Allen's eyes as an expanse of wall without a chart on it. His assistants' offices are adorned with charts on every conceivable statistic—not only of their own players but of their opponents as well. When Allen is on the phone to discuss a possible trade, he can usually glance at a chart to assess the record of the man he is talking about. It was thus that he acquired Alvin Haymond from Philadelphia last year, and Haymond helped win several games for the Rams with his punt returns. When Haymond reported for duty in Allen's office, he was surprised to find his statistics on the wall. "You see why I wanted you," Allen told him. "And this year your goal is to improve on those figures."
The walls in each of the three meeting rooms where the Rams' offensive, defensive and special teams meet are hung with charts that specify the goals for these units.
For example, to win, according to Allen, the offense must, among other things:
•Move the ball past the 20-yard line before punting.
•Not give the opponents the ball outside its 40.
•Make two out of three short-yardage situations.
•Not get a penalty to stop a drive.
•Make five big plays per game.
•Sustain the ball for 12 plays in a drive.
The units are graded on their goals after each game so they can see how they are doing throughout the season.
Allen also covers the walls of the locker room with homilies such as:
Always remember anything is yours if you are willing to PAY THE PRICE.
The difference between MEDIOCRITY and GREATNESS is EXTRA EFFORT.
100% is NOT...enough.
These aphorisms are so ingrained in the Rams that they frequently use them in conversation. During a recent practice session a rookie already steeped in Alienisms was almost breaking a gut on his last few bench presses with a field weight. When someone praised him, he replied, "That's the extra effort you have to make to be a champion."
Since it was as a defensive strategist and teacher that Allen made his reputation, he spent most of his time during his first three years as head coach of the Rams with the defensive unit, installing what is generally regarded as the most complex system and code in pro football. Here, for example, is how he once explained to Gabriel the team's method of containing tight ends. "Whenever we run into a team that wants to go to the tight end too often, we go into the defense we call a 46 jet stub ax combo. If stub can make a good ax block on the tight end a time or two, they quit calling the play. Quarterbacks don't like to waste plays."
Last year, for the first time with the Rams, Allen devoted his attention to the offense in camp. "This year," he told Gabriel, "I'd like to see you call six draws in every game, six screens and one halfback option. You'll have to call that many to count on getting results. The screen pass, particularly, is a play you have to stay with. It can either work the first time or be a bust three or four times in a row. But I've never seen the day when a good team struck out on half a dozen screens. The main thing wrong with this play is that the quarterback doesn't call it often enough. The main reason the 49ers screen so well is they keep using it. And the thing I like about the screen is that it's a game-breaker. It's a more reliable play to get you 40 or 50 yards at one crack than any other play in football. You might not go all the way with it, but this is the play that can set up the winning field goal."
As a final safeguard Allen favors experience and craft over youth and heft. From the moment he joined the Rams he started unloading younger players for oldtimers on other clubs. As of last week Allen had made 50 trades in 4½ years, a major point of dissension between him and Reeves, who had taken great pride in the Rams' scouting system. To be sure, it was extremely thorough and produced 12 of the Rams' starters last year, including such All-Pros as Gabriel, Jones, Meador, Merlin Olsen and Tom Mack. Yet they were never winners until Allen complemented them with veterans from other clubs.
As this year's exhibition season got under way, Allen was distraught over the retirement of two of his oldtimers—Meador, 33, who had decided to devote himself to his insurance business, and Maxie Baughan, 31, the right linebacker and "defensive general," who had played on a patched-up right knee last season. All winter and spring Allen phoned Meador and Baughan several times a week. Last month he finally persuaded them to rejoin the club. "Allen always stands on the side of his players," Meador has said. That, more than anything else, accounts for the extraordinary personal devotion they feel toward him and their joint dedication against their common enemies on the field and in the front office.
Allen's Rams are known around the league as a highly emotional team—and for this reason they are vulnerable. When they are high, as they were during the first half of their Western Conference playoff with the Vikings last December, they can be devastating. Yet, when they're not on a jag, as in the second half, they look sluggish and disinterested.
One might expect that Allen charges his team up before a game with Rockneian oratory. Before last year's opening preseason game against Dallas, Allen's "human engineering" consisted of a 20-minute lecture in which he said such things as "I want the defense to sit on the right side of the bench and the offense on the left. I want the linebackers as close to the phones and tables as possible. I want the receivers as close to the tables and phones as possible....
"I don't want any long faces on the sidelines. I'd rather have you sitting on the bench with everyone cheering....
"On warmups, pay special attention to your hamstrings and groins. If you can't touch the ground with your knees stiff, you aren't ready....
"I want this year to be 14 and 0. This is your team goal. Think about this all year. I may never mention it again...."
And finally, in his only real appeal to emotion, he said earnestly, "It's a tough crowd here in Los Angeles. The people come from all over the country. But I want them to get so excited about the Rams they have to stand up and applaud. How many times have you seen people standing up and applauding? That's reserved for generals and kings."
Obviously the message had its effect, for the Rams went out and beat Dallas. They also won their first 11 regular-season games before the slump set in that cost them a trip to the Super Bowl.
Not long ago Allen was asked what he thought when he considered his uncertain future. Right away he got that faraway look. "I can't let it affect my work," he finally said. "All I can do is try to win and get to the Super Bowl and win that, and whatever happens beyond that is not in my control.
"Sometimes I'll walk along the beach and pick up rocks and throw them in the ocean. If one is tucked into the sand and bigger than I thought, I just won't leave it there and keep walking. I'll dig it out. I won't let that rock defeat me. The same thing applies to my job.
"Everybody has problems. The person without problems is dead."