Forget the players; next season NFL fans may not be able to tell the coaches without a scorecard. In the past month there have been eight head-coaching changes—five firings, three resignations. And at least one other coach, St. Louis' Don Coryell, is on hold for the moment.
Coaches, of course, are hired to be fired. Since 1975 24 of them—not to mention four interim coaches—have been hired by the NFL's 28 teams. And of those 24 new coaches, seven have already resigned or been fired themselves.
Until this season's upheaval, though, the NFL had not practiced the baseball pastime of musical chairs. No Alvin Darks moving from San Francisco to Kansas City to Cleveland to Oakland to San Diego to.... Of the 20 coaches hired by NFL teams between 1975 and 1977, before the current outbreak, only one—New Orleans' Hank Stram—had been an NFL head coach. Now, let's start the music, please.
After coaching Los Angeles to five straight divisional titles, Chuck Knox has tobogganed off to Buffalo with the blessings of Ram owner Carroll Rosenbloom. Monte Clark, hired and unhired within a 15-month period by the San Francisco 49ers, has moved from coaching limbo to Detroit.
January 30, 1978
And in one stunning swirl of 12 hours last week, Jack Pardee abruptly resigned as coach of the Chicago Bears in order to make himself available for the top job in Washington, where the night before it was announced that George Allen had been unceremoniously fired as coach and genera manager—while, as it turned out, he was en route home from Los Angeles after apparently meeting secretly with the Rams to discuss their vacant coach position.
In seven seasons in Washington, Allen had won 67 games, lost just 30 and tied one. He also had taken his Over-the-Hill Gang to the playoffs five times and to the Super Bowl once. Suddenly, however, after not getting the Redskins into the playoffs two of the last three years, he was just another unemployed head coach scrambling for a chair.
Allen's dismissal by Redskin president Edward Bennett Williams sparked some of the juiciest media rumors out of Washington since Elizabeth Ray last flunked her typing test. One theory, advanced by the sage Washington broadcast journalist Sonny Jurgenson, had Allen taking the Los Angeles job and then immediately acquiring his favorite quarterback, Billy Kilmer, in a trade with the Redskins—presumably for future draft choices.
Allen, Jurgenson predicted, would then deal Ram Quarterback Pat Haden to Tampa Bay—where he would be reunited with his former coach at USC, John McKay—in return for the draft rights to Texas Running Back Earl Campbell. Another rumor, obviously inspired by Williams' announcement that, henceforth, he would split between two men the positions of coach and GM that Allen had held, had L.A. General Manager Don Klosterman taking over the GM job in Washington.
From the Sans Souci to Georgetown the Allen-Williams controversy dwarfed Begin-Sadat, and the state of the Redskins became far more important than that of the Union. The Redskin situation was the lead story in The Washington Star the day President Carter made his address to a joint session of Congress, and that night one Washington television station headlined its news with film of Allen and Williams, then noted that "also in the news" was Jimmy Carter's State of the Union message.
At issue between Williams and Allen was a new contract the Redskins had offered to Allen last summer. Allen, in fact, had publicly voiced satisfaction with the details of the agreement as long ago as July 14. Nevertheless, he did not sign. Allen's original Redskin contract—for seven years at $125,000 per—was to expire on March 1. It included an option to purchase 5% of the team's stock for $500,000, which is less than half of the current market value. Allen never exercised that option. His new contract—reportedly for four years at $250,000 per—included no stock option. Allen and his attorney, E. Gregory Hookstratten, insist they verbally agreed to a stock option when they negotiated terms of the new contract with Jack Kent Cooke, the majority owner of the Redskins. According to Allen and Hookstratten, the written version of that contract proposal, which they did not receive until after July 14, contained no mention of the stock option.
Williams—along with Cooke, who always has been Allen's principal ally on the Redskins' board of directors—countered that no stock option had ever been negotiated for the second contract. All season long Allen quibbled over minor matters in the contract—one source says he wanted the Redskins to include in the document a provision whereby the club would agree to pay for a full-time maid for his wife Etty. All this time Williams, a trial lawyer in real life, suspected Allen was surveying other opportunities in the NFL. So, on the eve of the Super Bowl, six months to the day from Allen's announced acceptance of the contract. Williams gave Allen an ultimatum: sign it or leave. When Allen continued to stall, Williams pulled the plug.
"I want a coach who has Washington as his first choice," said Williams. "I was not going to be hustled by Carroll Rosenbloom. I know Allen wants that L.A. job and I hope he gets it, but I couldn't wait any longer. I was not about to leave him with an unsigned contract while he waited to see what the Rams were going to do."
To the delight of the media, Allen promptly retaliated with some of the capital's best mudslinging since Fanne Foxe's adventures in the Tidal Basin. Allen called Williams "devious and deceitful," "a Jekyll and Hyde" and "a cold-blooded fish." Allen's angry outburst also provided some rare insight into the sophisticated workings of a football team. "Another thing I don't appreciate," fumed Allen, "is having somebody call me up at 11 o'clock at night, getting me out of bed, and telling me that if I don't change quarterbacks, I'm not going to get a new contract." This was an apparent reference to the ongoing Washington debate over Billy Kilmer and Joe Theismann, the Redskins' quarterbacks. Allen favored Kilmer, Williams preferred Theismann.
Allen's choice of words for his attack seemed comical. After all, "devious and deceitful" often have been used to describe Allen himself. It was Allen, remember, who once was penalized by the NFL for trading draft choices he didn't even own.
Predictably, Allen began to hang himself with his own words. He protested loudly over the way he was fired, saying he learned of his dismissal from his son, who had heard the announcement on the radio. Allen sought sympathy. "I take my wife out to celebrate her birthday and we have this happen," he lamented. What Allen didn't say was that he had taken his wife to Los Angeles for dinner. In fact, at the moment his firing became public, George and Etty were en route from Los Angeles to Washington following his huddle with the Rams. The Aliens were riding in coach, not first class, because the airline had oversold the flight.
All the Allen-Williams charges and countercharges were just so much public posturing. Neither man was anxious for the association to continue. When it became public knowledge this fall that Allen had not signed his new contract, Williams let it be known privately that he wouldn't mind being rid of his coach. At the same time, it was confirmed that Allen, through Hookstratten, had been fishing for a new job for almost a year. The basic disagreement between Allen and Williams concerned Allen's spending habits. Several years ago Williams used to jest, "I gave George Allen an unlimited expense account and he has already exhausted it," but as the bills continued to pour in, that quip turned sour. When Williams finally fired Allen, he said. "I gave George Allen unlimited patience and he exhausted it."
If Allen and Rosenbloom do pair off, they will be the NFL's odd couple. Allen has spent his entire NFL existence alienating himself from his owners, while Rosenbloom has spent his alienating himself from his coaches. Allen demands total autonomy; Rosenbloom has a top-heavy front office and, as Knox discovered, loves to meddle in his team's coaching. What's more, Allen's theory of trading draft choices for proven veterans challenges the very foundation of the Rams, who pioneered the scouting of college talent.
Pardee, or whoever inherits the Redskin job, will discover that he has no draft choices until the ninth round this year, and although he will have a No. 1 pick in 1979, that will be it until the seventh round.
Maybe humorist Art Buchwald, a Redskin fan, best summed up the situation: "The two worst things that could happen to the Redskins now are, one, if George stays, and two, if he goes."
A little traveling music, please.