George Allen: The One that Got Away When the Bears Fumbled.
It kind of got lost in the sea of worrisome developments about college football's season on the brink. But the news about Patrick Mahomes’ boggling $500 million contract was another reminder that the Bears saw Mitchell Trubisky as their quarterback of the future, not Mahomes or Deshaun Watson.
On the bright side, if the Bears had gone for Mahomes, maybe they'd be on the hook for $500 million. And maybe Bears fans would be facing a ticket-price increase.
I bring this up because when all of this pandemic nonsense began—and please let me know if you can make sense of it—I was planning to write about the best moves and worst moves of all-time by Chicago’s sports franchises.
Other stuff got in the way.
But now, while we wait for team sports to try and reopen—I’ll believe it when I see it—the idea is still there. Except for one thing: My idea was all a smokescreen for the most interesting of those moves. . . what I consider one of the biggest coulda-shoulda-woulda decisions in Chicago sports history.
Dedicated Chicago fans of a certain age know most of the worst moves. Trading away Lou Brock and Phil Esposito, and firing Tony LaRussa are right up there. And ESPN just did 10 hours on not giving Michael Jordan a chance to press the bets, so to speak, and chase a seventh NBA title.
Maybe we’ll go into more detail on the best moves/worst moves on another day. For now, just to be fair and balanced (and not entirely gloomy), the strong contenders for best moves include: Hiring Theo Epstein. Drafting Michael Jordan. Forcing Da Coach, Mike Ditka, to keep The Defensive Coach, Buddy Ryan, was pretty good stuff, too.
And even though Denis Savard might be my all-time favorite Blackhawk, trading him for my No. 2 all-time favorite Blackhawk, Chris Chelios, is right up there.
But back on topic. . . the move that set back a Chicago franchise in the most monumental way was. . . Papa Bear’s refusal to retire and give the reins to George Allen.
I would put the over/under at 2.5 NFL championships left on the Midway by the Monsters of the Midway. After departing from Chicago, Allen revived two floundering franchises. Imagine if he had been given the keys to the Bears, who had a much more solid foundation. . .
I do not say this as a teeth-gnashing Bears fan. I enjoy it when they do well, but my emotional attachment to the Bears ended long, long ago.
And I find the George Allen exit from Chicago especially fascinating because, unlike Lou Brock and the other bests/worst, it never gets mentioned. Then again, Chicago teams have a long history of this stuff. Another one that seldom gets mentioned is the impulsive firing of Cubs manager Joe McCarthy, who led the Cubs to the 1929 pennant, got fired in 1930 and went on to win seven World Series with the Yankees.
I also find the subject interesting because I was friends with George Allen’s son, also George but not a junior, in sixth grade, when we were in the same homeroom. The younger George was very astute when it came to sports. He turned me on to UCLA basketball and a fighter named Cassius Clay before either of those icons became iconic. He also was a great practical joker with a fine sense of humor.
George played my father in a Christmas play we did, ``If Santa Claus Came to Moscow.'' Memories fade, but I think it was a Cold War comedy. Too bad parents didn't take cell-phone videos in those days. That would be a hoot to see.
We never talked politics, though. It never occurred to me that he would become a governor and senator in Virginia. But he did.
In 1963, with George's father as its coordinator, the defense led the Bears to the NFL championship, their only title between 1946 and 1985. In 1965, with Allen directing their draft, the Bears selected Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, which might be the best one-two pair of draft picks ever.
In 1966, Allen agreed to an offer to coach the Los Angeles Rams. Owner/coach George Halas, who first started coaching the Bears in 1920, responded by going to court, claiming breach-of-contract. After winning in court, Halas let Allen go, saying that he had made his point about honoring contracts.
If only Papa Bear had been as determined to win football games, he might have let George do that. Yes, George Allen proved to be a pain in the posterior to future employers even while he was winning football games.
But here’s the thing: So what?
In five years in L.A. and seven in Washington, Allen never had a losing season despite taking over two teams that struggled before he arrived, He went to the playoffs seven times in an era where making the playoffs was a greater accomplishment than it is now. He reached he Super Bowl once, in 1972, and went to two other NFC championship games.
Difficult to work with? Yes. Despite his winning ways, Allen wore out his welcome with the Rams and Washington owners. And his system of trading draft picks for veteran players was controversial. I wonder if he would have done that as much if he had been given the Bears, who had more talent than he found in L.A. and Washington.
Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Halas finally stopped coaching two years later. In 1968, he gave the job to Jim Dooley, a decent man and innovative assistant coach. The thing is, Dooley never finished over .500 in four seasons despite inheriting a roster that was much more promising than what Allen found when he went to L.A. and Washington.
In 1969, the Bears went 1-13, with their only win coming over the Pittsburgh Steelers, who used that tiebreaker to draft Terry Bradshaw and go from a sleepy franchise to one of relentless success. Meanwhile, the Bears traded the No. 2 pick to Green Bay for running back Elijah Pitts and linebacker Lee Roy Caffey, who were near the end of their careers, and center Bob Hyland, who was traded away a year later.
George Allen wouldn’t have made sideways deals like that. He would have found the Bears their own quarterback. If Halas had not been so stubborn.
While Allen was going 116-47-5 in 1966-77 three Bears coaches—Dooley, Abe Gibron and Jack Pardee—were a combined 51-88-1, with one one-and-done playoff appearance. That was in 1977 under Pardee, who had played for Allen in L.A. and Washington. Pardee celebrated by leaving Chicago and replacing Allen in Washington.
I know it’s a long time ago. But decisions like this are what have make franchises sink or swim. Find the right coach or quarterback—preferably both—and you have a chance to get where you want to go.
Traditions get built brick by brick. In 1969, the Steelers were tailenders. Since their '70s turnaround, they have been consistent winners. The Bears, meanwhile, have bobbed up and down.
Hitch your wagon to Jim Dooley and Marc Trestman and John Fox and Jay Cutler and, it would appear, Mitchell Trubisky—and things are not going to go well.
CHECK OUT HERB'S BOOK
If you like sports history with an extra bit of drama, please check out Herb Gould's 1908 Cubs novel, The Run Don’t Count: The Life and Times of Frank Chance and his 1908 Chicago Cubs. As Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray used to say, you can’t beat fun at the old ballpark. . . Excerpts and other information at facebook/therundontcount. It’s available in paperback and Kindle at Amazon.com.