At about 8 a.m. on the day after Christmas, the phone rang in George Allen's home in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif. When Allen, who at the time was the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, picked it up, he recognized the voice of Dan Reeves, the majority owner, president and general manager of the team.
"I said something like 'Merry Christmas,' " Allen related later. "I'm not sure what he said at first, but then he said something like 'This is the end. You're fired. The two of us couldn't get along.' He rambled on and on. He appeared to be drinking." Moments later Reeves telephoned Eddie Meador, the free safety and defensive co-captain of the Rams. "Dan Reeves told me that there was a personality conflict," Meador recalled. "I told Dan he'd better catch a plane for Cuba because he was going to be the most unpopular man in town."
In his three years with the Rams George Allen had become one of the most popular men in town. Before Reeves hired him away from the Chicago Bears, where he had been an outstanding defensive coach, the Rams had stumbled through seven straight losing seasons, their attendance was down and the team was dispirited. Allen succeeded Harland Svare, who had a 4-10 record in 1965 and whom Reeves, with his great sense of timing, had canned two days before Christmas. In 1966 the Rams were 8 and 6. The following season they were 11-1-2. This year, despite injuries and illness, the Rams had a 10-3-1 record.
Why then, in the name of Amos Alonzo Stagg, did Reeves fire Allen? First of all, Reeves, like Ben Kerner of the old St. Louis Hawks, seems to be one of those owners who fill an inner need by firing coaches. Since Reeves brought the Rams to Los Angeles in 1946, the club has had nine: Adam Walsh, Bob Snyder, Clark Shaughnessy, Joe Stydahar, Hampton Pool, Sid Gillman and Bob Waterfield preceding Svare and Allen. Reeves indiscriminately fired winners, losers and those who batted .500.
Secondly, as Mel Durslag of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner succinctly puts it, "Allen is not Reeves's kind of cat." Daniel Farrell Reeves, 56, a small, neat, pink-faced man whose money came from the sale of his father's grocery chain to Safeway Stores, was born in a mansion on Fifth Avenue. His boyhood friends were Robert Wagner, now ambassador to Spain, and George M. Cohan Jr. When the Reeves chauffeur didn't drive the boys to play ball, the Cohan chauffeur did. Later in life Reeves became unduly sensitive about his inherited wealth: he drove a Ford for years before permitting himself a Buick. When Reeves was recently asked why he purchased the Rams, he replied, "But isn't it the dream of every American male to own a football team?" Reeves enjoys the realization of this dream in places that don't close till very early in the morning, where he talks football with cronies.
George Herbert Allen was born 46 years ago in Detroit, where his father was an auto worker. His first head coaching job, for which he was paid $3,900 a year, was at Morningside College in Iowa where, since he couldn't afford a car, he rode a bicycle. Allen has been known to sip blackberry brandy, but he prefers ice cream. His nights are spent in a projection room running game films back and forth. His wife Etty buys all his clothes, including his shoes, and when he needs a haircut, Etty makes an appointment for him at the airport barber shop so he can get a fast trim while waiting to board a plane. "George Allen," says a friend, "doesn't even know what town he's in half the time. The guy's walking around with all those Xs and Os in his head." Or, as Sid Gillman once said about coaches, "We're all nuts."
According to John Hall of the Los Angeles Times, Reeves is something else; he believes that football should have a sort of Frank Merriwell integrity and that even when it is played for money, it should be fun and games. "There have been many times when Allen's grimly all-out, no smiles, 24-hours-a-day death march approach to football has distressed Reeves," Hall has written. As Reeves once said, "George Allen takes all the pleasure out of owning a club." When the Dallas Cowboys accused the Rams of spying on one of their practice sessions, Reeves was deeply upset—not because of the accusation, but because the Rams really had been spying.
Although the alliance between such disparate figures was, like a bad marriage, probably doomed from the start, its dissolution can be dated to Sept. 25, 1966, when the Packers beat the Rams 24-13, dumping Roman Gabriel eight times, a defeat that seemed to affect Reeves out of all proportion. He subsequently learned he had Hodgkin's disease and spent most of this past season in a New York clinic. As a result, Reeves and Allen, who had talked only a dozen times in the first two years of Allen's tenure, scarcely met at all this year. Since Reeves's condition left the Rams leaderless, Allen felt obliged to step more and more into the front office, which is staffed to some extent with Reeves's cronies. In fairness to Reeves, Allen may have been a bit high-handed in the front office, but then, in effect, he was trying to run things there with his left hand while coaching with his right. Shortly after Allen became head coach of the Rams he reportedly told Reeves he wanted to begeneral manager, too. The astonished Reeves turned him down. Now Reeves felt that Allen was taking advantage of the fact that Reeves was somewhat incapacitated, and was moving in.
The incident which led directly to Allen's firing occurred on Nov. 17, after the Rams' 20-20 tie with the 49ers in San Francisco, when Allen described the Kezar Stadium playing field as "a disgrace to the league. The end zones are like quicksand—and the way they're painted, they ought to sell them to the hippies." Although it is not uncommon for coaches to knock gridirons, Reeves's curious sense of chivalry was affronted. He called Mal Florence of the Times and told him, "We don't alibi. It's not in the Ram tradition."
The following week, after the Rams' 24-21 win over the Giants, Reeves greeted Allen in the dressing room. "Well, George, how did you like the field today?" he asked, holding out his hand. Allen refused to shake it and stalked off. Reeves told him to come back. "Dan, you had no right to criticize me in the paper," Allen said. "You embarrassed me and my family. Here I am working 16 to 18 hours a day, trying to build our team into a winner, and you make a fool out of me." With that Allen turned away again. "George, you come back here," Reeves said, but Allen didn't.
This episode wasn't made public until the Hollywood Citizen-News printed a version three weeks later. Last week Durslag reported it in full: "Here was a juicy scandal. It is, however, a point of ethics in this business that one doesn't take advantage of owners, coaches or players who have been drinking, no more than a gentleman takes advantage of a lady who has passed out."
The day after he was fired Allen held an emotional press conference in the Sheraton-West Hotel, the same hotel where three years before he had been greeted by Reeves, who hailed him as the Rams' savior. Allen was drawn from lack of sleep and red-eyed from crying.
"I want to read this," he said, taking a sheet of paper from the pocket of his brown suede jacket. "It's written in red. Every man is said to have his prejudice and ambitions. Whether it is true or not, I have no other greater than to receive the approval of my players. I hope I have been worthy of their esteem and confidence. If there is such a thing as love between a coach and his players, that exists between me and my players. I truly hate to leave the Rams."
His players' feeling for Allen was manifested when six starters—Deacon Jones, Roman Gabriel, Charlie Cowan, Lamar Lundy, Jack Pardee and Meador—vowed at the press conference that they would quit or retire if Allen wasn't rehired. It was Lundy who best summed up the players' position: "Our whole point," he said, "is that Dan Reeves has the right to make this decision, but why couldn't it all have been resolved by sitting down with George Allen?"
Indeed, Allen said he had asked Reeves if they could meet to talk things over, and that he would "bear his pride" and return to the Rams if Reeves would rehire him, but Reeves said his decision was final, although he was willing to meet with a players' delegation. At week's end a citizens' committee was formed for the purpose of getting Allen reinstated, but this seems to have as much likelihood of success as the scheme of a fan who picketed the Sheraton-West. "Send Dan Reeves to the moon," read the sign on his son's stroller.
The Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins have reportedly inquired about signing Allen, but he affects disinterest. As he said at his extraordinary press conference, "My only concern are these guys, the Los Angeles Rams, and three years of blood, sweat and tears." The tears, at least, were literal, and when he finished speaking, he put on a pair of sunglasses to conceal them.
"George Allen is a great coach and a fine family man," was all that Reeves had to say. "It is probably more my fault than his."