George Halas is the most triumphant anachronism in sports, but it would be untruthful to say that his success has made him either lovable or serene. Something of an introvert in a field that exalts the extrovert, Halas has turned into an achingly bottled-up man, whose every public appearance is a torrent of smothered emotions. Over the years, his rivals in the National Football League have studied Halas as raptly as Greeks regarding an oracle, for he has prospered by defying many of the most common canons of coaching. He speaks to players and press in a voice like breaking bones. He smiles as if his shoes are too tight. He treats players who reach for more money with all the compassion of Ebenezer Scrooge. Yet he expects his players—like himself—to give their all. ("Taylor, we've run out of time-outs. Go in there and get hurt.") Somehow he has managed to parlay all this into 16 championships for the Bears he owns and coaches and to make them synonymous with everything that is muscular, malevolent and profitable in pro football.
Last week, the more venturesome spelunkers were probing Halas' mind again—dodging stalactites and stalagmites all the way—in search of the reason, and the profit, in his most recent series of moves. For in defiance of all tradition—a dubious tradition, to be sure—he was insisting that one of his assistant coaches, George Allen, live up to the terms of his contract, ignore an offer to become head coach of the Los Angeles Rams at something like twice his $19,000 salary and remain in Chicago with Papa Bear.
It was an insistence that sent tremors of apprehension through all of coaching—college as well as professional—for nothing jeopardizes a coach's own ambitions more than the notion that his contract is binding. When Allen, nevertheless, did jump to the Rams he also violated one of Halas' personal traditions. George likes to be the pusher, not the pushed. In the manner of Allen's leaving—and in the effort of Dan Reeves, owner of the Rams, to encourage him despite Halas' charges of tampering and the tendency of Pete Rozelle, commissioner of the NFL, to look benevolently upon the move—Halas suspected that he was being made the victim of a double shuffle. He thought it was time to demonstrate just who is running the National Football League, in case Pete had forgotten, and so he engaged in that most perilous of professional-sport maneuvers—a lawsuit. The suit did exactly what NFL leaders feared it would—it inspired the defense to pronounce that fearsome word, antitrust.
To understand what led this flinty, vital, crusty, visionary and thoroughly remarkable old man (he is nearly 71) to so hazardous a course, one must first understand the basic fact of George Halas: he is the last Puritan. It is not simply that his manner sometimes is as taciturn as a New England Yankee's (once when a barber asked how he'd like to have his hair trimmed, Halas said, "Silently"). It is not simply that he is paternalistic, purposeful, undeviating in his loyalty to those who are loyal to him, undying in his hatred for those who are not, or that he is a notably parsimonious man. (When one prospect, who was about to be cut, asked for some cash "to buy milk for my kid," Halas is said to have replied, "What's his address? I'll send him a quart.") It is that, in the great Puritan tradition, he defines respectability in terms of hard work and personal responsibility.
January 31, 1966
Hard work is as vital to Halas as the glass is to fine brandy. Even now he will work 15 to 18 hours a day during the football season and ease up only slightly in the off season. He was the first coach in professional football to hold practice sessions every day, the first to work at football 12 months a year. He drives his staff as hard as he drives himself and assumes they will not balk at the extraordinary pace. In the classic Halas tradition Allen was paid one salary for two jobs, those of assistant coach for defense and director of player personnel. Says an acquaintance, "Halas is one of those guys who feel that if you haven't got anything to do, you ought to be down at the office doing it." The concentration that he brings to long hours of work is complete and astonishing; it is not unusual for him to stare at filmed reruns of a single play 40 to 50 times to pinpoint the reason for a missed blocking assignment. His zest for the game's minutiae is as lively now as it was more than 40 years ago, when the Bears were the Staley A.C. of Decatur, Ill.
Halas' sense of personal responsibility is equally rigorous. He measures accomplishment, not words per minute or the decibels of salesmen. He has little use for the gaily trip-hammered monologues of today's hucksters of professional sports. He feels that his own monument is one of solid achievement—nothing less than the National Football League—and he protects it with evangelical fervor. He will not falsify a fact on his own behalf—though he has no objection to somebody else falsifying a fact in his interest. He has been fortunate in being located in Chicago, where the newspapers are not merely adulatory but utterly servile. In the pantheon of its gods the Chicago Tribune ranks George Halas above and slightly to the right of the late Robert R. McCormick, the longtime publisher of the paper. "George Halas, moving defiantly ahead in his one-man crusade to re-establish the integrity of professional football," trumpeted the Tribune in a news story on the Allen contretemps last week. One paper took two reporters off Bear coverage because they were not sufficiently "sympathetic" to Papa's problems. Not the least reason for his power is that his closest friend is Don Maxwell, editor of the Tribune.
Unquestionably the papers have perpetuated the great myths—e.g., that Halas is particularly gifted in discovering superior players from small schools (Bulldog Turner from Hardin-Simmons, Harlan Hill from Florence State Teachers). Actually, he has made as many mistakes as discoveries; he once passed up Sammy Baugh in the draft for an All-America who fizzled, and he spent five years trying to prove that John Adams of Los Angeles State was a great football player. ("Adams was one of the most versatile players who ever came to the Bears," one insider has remarked. "So far we've found he can't play six different positions.")
But the papers have never been able to dispel the notion rampant among Bear fans that Halas is an unusually frugal man. His treatment of the fans has sometimes been cavalier. When P. K. Wrigley ordered new and wider chairs for the box seats in Wrigley Field—reducing the number of seats in every box from 10 to eight—Halas put the older, narrower seats in storage, then hauled them out to be re-installed every year for the football season. Last year when the Cubs put in permanent box seats, thus cutting his revenue in the highest-price section, Halas was quite upset and did not sign his rental contract with Wrigley Field until after season-ticket applications had been mailed out—and ticket prices raised. His reluctance bothered Wrigley not at all. He needs Halas' money somewhat less than Halas needs a place to play. As recently as last week the Bears acknowledged that they were not going to pass along to the fans the savings on the discontinued 10% federal excise tax, which means another 10% off the top for Papa.
From this it should not be deduced that Halas has hardened in mind or attitude. Indeed he can be as flexible as a bull whip. Some three years ago a now-defunct Chicago magazine printed a bluntly objective appraisal of Halas and the then parlous state of the Bears, who had lost 10 of their previous 14 games, including exhibitions. Halas managed to contain himself and make no public comment on the criticism. (It is not that he doesn't have rabbit ears; he watches and notes everybody who's critical of him—and, indeed, first spotted the girl who became his wife when she razzed him during a high school football game.) But the Tribune rushed nobly to his defense. In a hilariously obsequious column David Condon, one of the paper's sportswriters, assured his readers that the Bears would respond to the criticism by rising up and smiting the Green Bay Packers the following Sunday. The Bears rose up for seven points, but the Packers smote back with 38, facts that somehow escaped Condon's notice.
But Halas himself responded remarkably to the magazine's appraisal. Within days he ended a rancid feud that had been racking the Bear coaching staff. The Bears joined the Players Association after years of being the only outsiders. The team was warned that Halas would no longer "carry" players who did not produce. The result was that the Bears won five of their last six games in 1962 after Halas' changes and in 1963 went on to win the NFL championship.
Similarly, early last season Halas found himself with a "right-handed offense" (Johnny Morris, the right flanker back, set a league record by catching 93 passes in 1964) and a passer who had great difficulty hitting a receiver moving away from him. Halas had in Bill Wade a quarterback with seraphic personal habits, which he deeply admired. Wade's trouble was that he was an independent thinker. He scrupulously studied the team's game plan before a game, then tried spontaneously to improve on it. This sometimes led to a sluggish offensive performance.
Midway through the third game of the 1965 season Halas was ready to take stock. The Bears had lost their first two games and were losing again. Wade was troubled with a leg injury of growing seriousness. So Halas replaced Wade with Rudy Bukich and shifted the halfback-fullback assignments so that two rookies, who could run but not block, were never in the game at the same time. Suddenly the Bear offense developed great variety and flexibility and force. It not only ran to the left as well as the right, but featured Halfback Gale Sayers on a run-pass option to the left. Sayers turned out to be an adequate left-handed passer and an exceptionally skilled ballcarrier. The Bears spent the rest of the season playing some of the finest football they had displayed in a quarter of a century, and Halas won much-deserved acclaim as Coach of the Year.
Whether winning or losing, Halas preserves a profound respect for the law and the written word—when it suits him. A few years ago, when the Chicago Cardinals wanted to hypo their attendance and income by moving from the slum-ridden South Side to a stadium in Evanston in the prosperous northern suburbs, Halas suddenly hauled out a document signed in 1930 that prohibited the Cardinals from playing north of Madison Street, the equator in Chicago. Nobody but Halas remembered the document—and even he had managed to forget it on the 25 or so occasions when the Cardinals had journeyed north of Madison Street to play the Bears in Wrigley Field.
Another time, Hunk Anderson, who had first joined the Bears as a guard in 1922 and had long been one of Halas' closest friends and most trusted aides, was offered a job as head coach of the Washington Redskins. This was in the middle of the 1951 season and Anderson was still under contract to Halas as an assistant coach, though he was sitting out the season as a steel executive, one of the casualties in the feud that was already disrupting the Bear coaching staff. When word that Anderson might get the job reached Halas he came out fighting—and waving Anderson's contract. He demanded that Washington give him a player in return, specifically All-League Tackle Paul Lipscomb. Anderson never got the job. He came back to the Bears, formally finished out his contract as assistant coach and Halas simply accepted him, secure in the knowledge that he had upheld the written word, though it cost an old friend a chance to improve his situation in football.
The Allen matter also has its ambivalent aspects. Halas did not object when at least one other assistant coach, Chuck Mather, asked if he could talk with anybody who might be interested in him to fill the several head-coaching posts then open in professional football. And still another assistant, Abe Gibron, is reported to have considered—and to have turned down—a chance to become head coach of the Miami Dolphins of the AFL. Yet when Allen made his bid, Halas' attitude seemed to harden. It may have been a personality difference. Allen is a thoroughly competent, thoroughly conscientious man; it was the defensive team he coached that played so great a part in the success of the Bears last season and in 1963. Moreover, he is himself no mean hand at inspiring loyalty. Doug Atkins, the 6-foot-8, 275-pound All-League defensive end of the Bears, announced that he was quitting the game because "this thing that has happened to Allen convinced me that Mr. George Halas is unreasonable and impossible to deal with."
Halas said Atkins had told him he was quitting long before the Allen matter blew up, then added, in a typical gratuitous slap, "He couldn't move in the Los Angeles game." That was one the Bears lost 30-28 last year. "If Atkins had been in condition," said Halas, "we would have won that game."
If George Allen has a flaw—from Halas' viewpoint—it is that he is ambitious for George Allen, not for George Halas. Allen has a boyish, diffident "push" about him. He is going to get ahead, though he labors hard to appear humble in doing it. In any case, Halas likes push only in his behalf.
Or it may have been the manner of Allen's request. Halas claims the first word he got about it was on December 28 in a phone call from Allen in New Orleans, where Allen was signing one of the Bear draft choices. Allen asserts that he had already made about half a dozen phone calls to Halas but had been unable to get through to him. Halas quotes Allen as saying that he had been approached about the Ram job and was asking Halas' permission to talk to Reeves about the matter. The permission would have to be in writing, under the terms of Allen's contract, but Allen was seeking only verbal permission. Halas says he gave Allen verbal permission to talk to Reeves but—curiously—only to declare himself unavailable. Allen remembers of one conversation that Halas "stammered and stuttered and told me there were eight or nine men under consideration for the job and indicated I didn't have much chance." That sounds like the authentic Halas. Allen felt his conversations with Halas were "frustrating and misleading." One difference between the versions: Allen's was delivered under oath in a court of law, while Halas' was delivered in a press statement.
At different times Halas has cited several motives for denying Allen permission to pursue the Ram job. One was that he felt that the Bears had a good chance to win the title in 1966, and Allen was vital to that hope. Later he said he was only trying to protect his friend Dan Reeves from charges of tampering. Under "Prohibited Conduct," Article IX of the NFL Bylaws, is "tampering with players or coaches under contract to or the property of another member club." So solicitous was Halas of Reeves's well-being that he phoned him on December 29 and, lo, he discovered from Reeves that it was not the Rams but Allen who had taken the initiative. In fact, Allen allegedly had made contact with Johnny Sanders of the Rams on Christmas Day to inquire about the job. Moreover, the Rams were quite interested in hiring him. Halas says he told Reeves that Allen was not available and would not be made available before 1967.
Nevertheless, Allen's hopes were still high. He returned to Chicago, tried to bring the matter up again with Halas and concluded that he was getting a "stall." So he went to Los Angeles, talked with Reeves and agreed to take the job.
Back in Chicago, Halas felt he was being unduly pressured. "He [Allen] made four propositions to me after he'd already agreed with Reeves on January 4 to coach the Rams," claims Halas. Among the propositions cited by Halas:
•Allen would stay with the Bears if Halas would guarantee him the head-coaching job when Halas retired.
•Allen would guarantee to come back to the Bears as head coach after three or four years in Los Angeles, if Halas would give him comparable guarantees.
•Allen would stay with the Bears if Halas would give him an option to buy 5% of the Bear stock. (Halas and his family own 91%, the rest is held by close friends.)
•Allen would stay with the Bears if they matched the Rams' handsome salary offer.
To almost any man of property these demands would be difficult to accept. To Halas, jealous of his privileges as a sole proprietor, they were intolerable. Some insiders on the Bears feel that Allen might have been prompted in his demands by Reeves. Halas was not consoled when Pete Rozelle cited the "tradition" that assistants are always allowed to abandon their contracts to move up to a head-coaching job. He was conscious that Rozelle had once worked for Reeves as publicity director and then general manager of the Rams.
So he hauled out Allen's contract and went to court to seek an injunction to stop him from going to Los Angeles and from taking Bear defense manuals and textbooks with him. Allen responded by appearing with a renowned counsel, Albert E. Jenner, former president of the Illinois Bar Association and onetime legal aide to the Warren Commission which investigated the assassination of President Kennedy. Allen told his side of the story under oath. Part of his testimony was that he had never really read his entire contract.
He might have been astounded if he had. He had signed it on June 22, 1965, and it was a three-year deal, starting on April 1, 1965 and concluding on March 31, 1968. It not only specified Allen's "special, exceptional, and unique knowledge, skill, and ability as a football coach," but also provided specifically for injunction proceedings in court if he joined "any other professional or college football team of any kind whatsoever during the term of this contract." It also barred him from coaching anywhere in the Chicago area for six years without Halas' written consent, which would halt defection to a potential AFL franchise in Chicago. Allen also was forbidden to write books or articles on football or any other major sport, or to appear on any radio or TV program, not only for the term of the contract but for three years after it ended, without Halas' written consent.
The immediate result of Halas' suit was a public-relations disaster. "Allen looked like a boy scout and Halas was the old curmudgeon trying to keep him from getting ahead," said one critic.
On Tuesday of last week Halas was supposed to testify under oath and submit to cross-examination on the issue. At 2 o'clock that day the courtroom of Judge Cornelius J. Harrington of the Circuit Court of Cook County was filled to overflowing. The people were there to see one of the most dramatic events of the athletic year—Halas being cross-examined by a skilled lawyer and being directed to answer the questions by the court. "He doesn't know how to approach a question except evasively," cracked a newsman. Halas was prepared for the showdown. Throughout the courtroom were scattered former coaches and players for the Bears, apparently ready to testify for him. In his hand was an envelope filled with notes he'd made of telephone calls and conversations with Allen and Reeves. ("He's got notes on everything," says his attorney, Charles Short. "When you start talking he starts writing down what you're saying.")
At the outset of the hearing it became clear that Halas was not only suffering from a public-relations problem but also a legal one. For Attorney Jenner indicated that he was interested in examining the terms of the contract and their restrictions on Allen's nonathletic efforts in the light of the antitrust laws of the state and federal governments. He felt that certain provisions of the contract were "in restraint of trade."
Judge Harrington had been up until 1 a.m. that day, studying the documents and the legal references and trying to reach the first of a number of decisions. He ended the opening exchange between the lawyers with his first decision: that in his view a bona-fide contract between Allen and the Bears did exist. Halas was on the edge of his cushioned chair at the plaintiff's table. The judge went on to cite the second question: whether or not to enjoin Allen from leaving the Bears. At that Halas leaped to his feet and strode to the bench, introducing himself and asking to make a statement. "No," George, sit down," said his startled attorney. Through a thicket of objections by Attorney Jenner, Halas was sworn in and allowed to make his statement from the witness stand. Its substance: now that he had proved the validity and the sanctity of the contract, he was withdrawing the suit and would grant Allen the appropriate release from the Bears.
It was a bravura performance. A smattering of applause broke out briefly in the courtroom. In one stride Halas had removed himself from the danger, difficulties and discipline of being cross-examined by Jenner. He had terminated whatever dangers might develop out of the antitrust aspects of the contract. He had gotten rid of a coach who could not possibly help him now, no matter how many legal battles Halas won. And he had touched up a tarnished public-relations image by appearing magnanimous in victory. Jenner, however, was not ready to admit it was a victory. He said Halas was "throwing in the towel."
There were still some details to be cleared up. At first Halas could hardly bring himself to talk to Allen, much less shake his hand. "George," he finally said, "a few of those statements you made on the stand I did not like. They weren't true, George." He told him to "bring back those books"—i.e. the Bear defense manual and textbook. Allen said later he didn't have them, that they had already been returned. In fact, they were in the possession of Jenner, who planned to have them delivered immediately to Halas' attorney.
Then there was Halas' charge that the affair "began in subterfuge and ended in chicanery," which he made the next day. There was also one of his direct slaps at Commissioner Rozelle. "When Commissioner Pete Rozelle made that ill-advised statement, where he advocated substituting phony tradition for a legal document, we were all the more determined to go through with the lawsuit." Rozelle said that he would handle the matter privately and personally. If he thought of bringing disciplinary action against Halas, he failed to mention it to the Bears. In fact, he talked with the Bears on three different occasions in the 24 hours after Halas' comments without bringing up the blast that Halas had leveled against him. According to Halas, in the "harshest" of their conversations, "We agreed that he and I will talk informally over a drink at the time of the league meeting in Florida next month."
Out in Los Angeles, Dan Reeves had acquired one coach and lost another. Offensive Coach Bill Austin left to become head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and there were claims that Reeves had not been approached by the Steelers for permission to talk to Austin until 4½ hours after Austin had been named to the job.
Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Attorneys Jenner and Short were scrapping over the final wording of the court order that would end the case. Short slyly phrased the order so that it might appear that Halas had won a mighty victory—and so that the order might be used by the owner as a precedent in other cases. Jenner argued that such language would bind parties not in the court. He pointed out that Halas had withdrawn his suit, not won it, and that Allen had not been given the chance to place Halas under cross-examination. He was instructed by his client, he told the court two days after Halas' withdrawal, to enter an immediate appeal unless the language was changed. That, of course, would open the old dangers to Halas again and bring the issue back to the courts. So Halas' attorney accepted the changes.
Thus the lawyers were content, but what of Halas and Allen? Halas emerged with the sense of satisfaction that only the last Puritan could know. Allen left court looking a little mystified that Halas was not quite friendly. A reporter asked Halas if he would ever consider Allen as a head coach for the Bears. Halas looked for a way to evade the question. "Well, I'll tell you, my boy," he said, patting the reporter on the shoulder and pausing for a long, long while to consider his words, "he won't be."