Edward Bennett Williams is having fun at last. He is the president of a group that calls itself the Over The Hill Gang, and it is a joy. You would not believe the plane ride back from Dallas, says Williams. He led the gang in some wild hymn singing ("Gimme that old time religion, Gimme that old time religion...") and eavesdropped as they kidded each other about what a miserable bunch of refugees they were, how they had been brought together in desperation through the common bond of tired blood by their beloved coach, who is known as "Ice Cream," for this one last bank job. They sang a paean to their coach. It went, "Hoo-ray for Ice Cream, Hoo-ray for Ice Cream, He's a horse's - - -" Williams was delighted. Ice Cream smiled in that handsome, clenched-teeth way of his and said they could call him whatever they liked as long as they kept winning.
Winning, of course, is what it's all about. Edward Bennett Williams knows about winning. Edward Bennett Williams (the name is respectfully strung together that way, except when he's with the gang; he likes the gang to call him Ed) is the high-powered Washington attorney who was first in his class at Holy Cross, first in his class at Georgetown Law School and famous for his relentless pursuit of justice on behalf of such clients as James Hoffa, Senator Thomas Dodd, Bobby Baker and Adam Clayton Powell. His voice has rung in the chambers of the Supreme Court. Until now, he usually got a catch in it when he talked about the Washington Redskins.
"I've tried it both ways. Winning is better," said Williams last week as he awaited—as breathlessly as the rest of Washington—the game with the St. Louis Cardinals that was to be the Over The Hill Gang's fifth straight victory. The Redskins have not started a season in such grand style since 1940.
"People are tired of hearing 'building' around here," Williams said. "They haven't had a football championship since 1945. They haven't seen a World Series since 1933. When the Senators left town last month it shook people up. Now we've come along and it's like a revival meeting. Everybody's with it. You can have all kinds of cultural centers and parks, but it takes the excitement of a winning sports team to pull a city together. It's the great common denominator.
October 24, 1971
"The President sends messages [he also arranged an open-phone radio hookup to get the Dallas game to his Key Biscayne retreat]. The mayor has been out to practice to talk to the team. There was a full-page ad in all the papers—a business expressing its appreciation. REDSKINS, YOU'RE BEAUTIFUL, it said. You should have seen the crowd at the airport when we got back from beating Dallas. Eight thousand people. The cars were backed up live miles.
"Everybody wants tickets to the games. We could sell 100,000 seats if we had them. I don't have room in my box for enough people. I can't keep Ed Muskie away. Ethel and the kids were there Sunday. Chief Justice Warren was bubbling. My wife says she can't go anywhere without being stopped by people wanting to talk about the Redskins. When the man came to fix the refrigerator, he said he'd fix it if she'd give him two tickets."
Football—the Redskins—has been the one great frustration of Edward Bennett Williams' extraordinary life. At first, he said, he thought he would succeed as rapidly as he had in other areas. That was in 1965. Then he realized it would take a while. Then he began to wonder. Wonder led to desperation. Desperation earned him his nickname: "Panic Button." Before he hired Vince Lombardi, he had coaches like Otto Graham. Graham had a way with words. When the team lost to the Colts 35-0 one year, Otto was told that President Johnson was in the stands. "Next time tell him to stay home," said Otto. Edward Bennett Williams was appalled. Then, when Lombardi took over, Williams recalls, "I thought to myself, 'Nothing can stop us now.' " Lombardi died of cancer in 1970, and Williams admits he came close to "chucking it right there." A year (and one more coach) later the Rams made what Williams calls "that incredible mistake": they fired George Allen.
Panic Button first met Ice Cream on the beach at Waikiki in 1966. George Herbert Allen—no one ever stretches that one out; everybody calls him George, the players' best pal—was then in the midst of his first major reclamation project, rebuilding the Rams in the same unorthodox way he has now rebuilt the Redskins: through a lightning series of trades for veteran players, players with families, players who were not over 30 but well over 30. But players who, as Allen phrases it, are "winners" and "have character."
"We talked," said Williams, "and the more we talked the more I began to realize that we had the same convictions: the same commitment to excellence, the same impatience with anyone who gets distracted, the same total immersion in the problem at hand. When I'm on a case, I become obsessed with it. That's the way Allen is about football. I felt like I was talking to myself."
All similarities end there, of course, and neither man would pretend otherwise. Out of the office Williams is a man of the people; he rubs elbows, he has been known to bend his own. Allen is a milk drinker. At the end of practice he unwinds with a dish or two of ice cream. He also pops Gelusil. Allen is never really "out" of the office; his people are his players. He wows them with aphorisms ("The achiever is truly alive"; "Winning is being totally prepared") and inspirational messages. Almost everything he says has been, or should be, on a wall somewhere.
After nine months in Washington, Allen has yet to see the sights, although he had dinner with the President at the White House. "It was a memorable evening for Mrs. Allen and me," he says. What did you eat? he was asked. "I don't remember," he says.
Williams gave Allen the kind of contract most coaches would not dare dream of: $125,000 a year for seven years, bonuses, chauffeur-driven car, house, ad infinitum. He also built him (in three months) a half-million dollar field house-and-office complex on six acres in the middle of a forest near Dulles Airport. There are two practice fields, one with artificial turf. Trees, now in fall foliage, ring the fields; hawks soar above. It is the perfect sylvan setting, with the Blue Ridge Mountains looming on the horizon, for the low-key Allen approach to dedicated-but-friendly practice.
The complex fairly hums with ambition. There are player comforts everywhere (weight rooms, handball court). The film room bulges with footage. Allen has duplicates made of every film that comes to him on loan from other teams. Sometimes the hum of intrigue can be heard. The week of the Dallas game a quarterback who had been cut by the Cowboys wound up in the Redskin camp. Actually, his father had called and asked for the tryout, but while he was there the quarterback had some interesting things to say about the Dallas offense. Naturally, the Redskins listened.
Allen is famous for listening. It is one of the things that separates him from Lombardi. Says Williams, "He is still striving. He has not reached Olympus yet." The Allen way to do it is to expend energy and money in vast quantities. "I have given him an unlimited budget," says Williams, "and he's already exceeded it."
Last week, before the St. Louis game, Allen, as usual, was at his complex in the woods from morning to midnight: he thinks it is the only way to get the edge. "I'll be working here late at night," he said, "and I'll call a coach, and he won't be in, and I think, 'Uh-oh. He doesn't love his job.' " Allen fidgeted in his chair as a visitor dragged the conversation out. Allen fingered a three-sided cardboard sign that he had had made and put on every desk in the complex. "I'm sitting here," he said, "and I'm looking at this sign, is WHAT I AM DOING, OR ABOUT TO DO, GETTING US CLOSER TO OUR OBJECTIVE—WINNING? and I'm thinking, 'No.' "
He got up and walked to the window and looked out over the fields. "Shangri-La," he said. He turned around. He said he had read that morning where a coach threatened to fine a player if the player didn't come around. "I'll never do that," he said. "I would never punish a player to make him play." It has been duly noted in Washington that this is the most obvious difference from the Lombardian approach. With Lombardi, it was "Make me happy, we'll be happy." With Allen, it is "I'll make you happy, we'll be happy."
Upon arriving in Washington, Allen made the same basic promise he had made in Los Angeles: "The future is now." He said his goal was 10 victories (the last time the Redskins won 10 games was in 1942). He said he would, as always, stress defense. The Redskins' approach to defense was to get Sonny Jurgensen to throw four touchdown passes. Against the Giants last year, Washington scored 57 points in two games and lost them both. Allen said that would not happen again. Ever.
Then came the trades, 19 in all. It was the same pattern as in Los Angeles. Allen went for quality, regardless of how shopworn, and nary a rookie made the squad. Three of the Rams he got were players he had traded for the first time around: Running Back Tommy Mason, age 32; Safety Richie Petitbon, 33; Linebacker Myron Pottios, 32.
Another trade brought in John Wilbur, an offensive guard who was with Allen last year at Los Angeles. Wilbur has now been with four teams in two years. Along the line he was traded to St. Louis. He decided to quit. Allen sent out a feeler. He considers Wilbur one of those men of "character." Wilbur canceled his retirement. "Football is fun with Allen," he says. "I love the guy. He synthesizes in a team the importance of winning."
Wilbur noted the number of older players who work out after practice. "Every time you see Billy Kilmer walk out of here he's got three rolls of film under his arm," he says. Wilbur was very disturbed last week when some Ram players were quoted in a Washington paper criticizing Allen and his ways. Wilbur was moved to call his old friend, Merlin Olsen, in Los Angeles, and to tell him to knock it off. The Over The Hill Gang, said Wilbur, has absolutely no internal problems. "No troublemakers. No racial hang-ups. No psychological bad guys. No nothing."
It may be hard to pinpoint exactly when all this solidarity developed. The Redskins had an indifferent preseason; they looked enticingly beatable in exhibition games. But of this there has never been a doubt: Ice Cream Allen is a master at one-upmanship. He leaps like a panther on psychological opportunities. He exploits small openings. When the team came out for its first home game, he had all 40 players introduced. There was a seven-minute standing ovation at RFK Stadium. A very emotional scene. He called the television station that carried the game and had the introductions replayed the following morning, so the players could get that old-time religion all over again.
The incident that probably turned things around—certainly the one Allen pounced on the quickest—was the shoulder injury to Jurgensen in a late preseason game. At a press conference afterward a writer suggested that the season was over before it started. Allen, sipping a cup of milk, quivered with emotion. He talked of the greater challenge with Jurgensen out, the greater rewards. He talked of "pulling together." He even used a "damn" to expedite the message. Then he drained his cup.
The rest is recent history. Kilmer, after nine knock-around years, became quarterback-by-default and was suddenly exalted. His passing was more than adequate (he has thrown only two interceptions, and one was a carom off a Redskin's chest), his play-calling was masterful. He let runners like Larry Brown and Charley Harraway feel the ball. They responded. A run-pass balance developed, a balance missing over the years.
Actually, the offense didn't have to be too good because the old men on defense were brilliant. They held the Giants to three points in a very physical game (Allen asked that the Redskins "be physical"; they were penalized 173 yards). After five games, a defense that hadbeen the worst in the NFL in 1970 was now the best in the conference. The specialty teams, always an Allen long suit, featured Speedy Duncan returning punts for more yardage in one game (65 against Houston) than the team got all last season.
The one nagging question was Jurgensen. Allen teams seem always to be loaded with gimmicks and superstitions, a reflection on the coach. This one is no exception. The cake from Duke Zeibert's has to be there on Thursday after practice; publicist Joe Blair has to wear his blue sports coat; the offensive line has to have its private meeting, with beers, on Friday night. As the team rallied around Kilmer, protecting him from harm ("I can tell how much better it is here than in New Orleans by the amount of time I don't have to spend in the whirlpool on Mondays," said Billy), Jurgensen became the symbol of past frustrations. Washington columnists resurrected all the times he had snubbed them. It was noted that he was a loner, that he didn't slap his fellow man on the backside with the frequency of the ebullient Kilmer, that he was not the "inspiration" John Unitas was. "It is not my style," said Sonny, and more or less clammed up. Allen did nothing to discourage the implications. The opposite is more the case.
Jurgensen, his shoulder mending, did not accompany the team on any road trips (the first three games were away). Why? "I was told to stay home," he says. When the Redskins played their first home game, Sonny was offered a ticket in the stands. The excuse was that he might get his arm jostled. Sonny said he would rather not go than be seen sitting in the stands. Allen relented. Jurgensen, in a raincoat, sat at one end of the bench for most of the Houston game.
"When the game was over," he said, "Diron Talbert came by and said to me, 'I guess you're not a jinx after all.' " Sonny smiled. "I guess that's what they've been thinking," he said. It has been reported that Jurgensen will be out another six weeks. He says he "could play in a week" if they really needed him. His shoulder is still not 100%, but it is not his passing arm. He says he would not expect to move right in on Kilmer ("Billy's done too good a job for that, and I'd rather work in gradually, anyway"), but now that the defense has jelled, and it wasn't second-and-eight all the time, "I'd like to be a part of it. God knows I've waited long enough." Jurgensen is 37. "Besides, I think I could help Billy on the sidelines."
Last Sunday Jurgensen was upstairs in the press box, sending his suggestions down by phone, as the Redskins, in what Allen called their best game of the year, beat the Cardinals 20-0. "Some people have thought we've been lucky," Allen said. "There was no luck today."
There wasn't. It was instead the defense—"the old geezers," Allen affectionately called them—that again provided the impetus for the win, causing seven turnovers (Allen aphorism: "If you take the ball away five times in this league, you should never lose"), holding the Cardinals to a net 25 yards rushing and keeping them from crossing midfield after the half. Three times in the second quarter, when Washington led only 10-0, it stopped Cardinal drives, recovering a fumble on the 26, intercepting on the 4, then, with 15 seconds left, recovering a fumble on the one.
So complete was Washington's control of the game that Kilmer, who was nine of 17 for 126 yards, had to throw only five times in the second half. "If I have to pass over 20 times in a game," he said later, "you know we're in a desperate situation. Heck, we don't have to throw with the runners we have." There were no desperate situations and Kilmer was content to use his runners, especially Brown, who carried 25 times for a personal high of 150 yards.
"It was our first real money game," Kilmer said. "It's the first time we had everything to lose and nothing to gain. Before we were underdogs. This week we were supposed to win."
To which Charley Taylor, who, Allen says, "looks beautiful just walking on the field," added: "Some week we'll go out and get our butts blown off, but no one will start pointing fingers. We have a family here like no other team in the league has. It's like this: a loss will only pull us closer."
With a two-game lead over Dallas, "the last coach I will ever hire," in Edward Bennett Williams' immortal words, could afford a touch more togetherness. Meanwhile, have a Good Humor on him, boys.