For Allen, This Is Alien Territory

March 15, 1982
March 15, 1982

Table of Contents
March 15, 1982

Reggie Jackson
SEC Tournament
George Allen
Special Report
Pro Basketball
Horse Racing
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

For Allen, This Is Alien Territory

The debt-ridden Montreal Alouettes have lured George Allen up north to do a job foreign to his free-spending nature

In French," George Allen says. "I want to say that in French." He's staring at a blackboard on which is written the entire roster of the Canadian Football League's Montreal Alouettes. The names appear in three different colors of chalk: orange for the American veterans, blue for the Canadian vets, white for the rookies. It's the most striking thing in a small and rather Spartan-looking office in Montreal's Olympic Stadium complex, an office befitting a man who has been brought in to mop up the sea of red ink that has engulfed the Alouettes.

This is an article from the March 15, 1982 issue Original Layout

At the lower right corner of the board Allen has written, "Meet and Cultivate French." On the left side is: "Discipline. Conditioning. Personnel. Coach." And in the lower left-hand corner is a motto—with Allen there's always a motto. This one reads, "To win without peril is to triumph without glory," and it's what he'd like to see in French.

"Can you translate that for me?" Allen asks a secretary, Diane LaRocque.

"Pour gagner sans péril," she says, "est triomphé sans gloire."

"Beautiful, just beautiful," Allen says. "Much better than in English. God, I love that."

It's early March. Olympic Stadium lies under two feet of snow. In the streets beyond the stadium, a wicked wind whips the drifts, kicking up little blizzards, blurring and dimming the quaint, old-world cityscape of single-story brick houses and small shops. It's a throwback, a child's glass ball—shake it and watch the snowflakes whirl—and it is into this improbable setting that Allen has come to make his last stand. Exiled from his own country, written off by the NFL as a man too high-powered to handle, despite his record of 12 winning seasons in 12 years as a head coach, Allen is in Montreal to bring credibility to the Alouettes and to clean up the financial mess that last year turned the team and its owner, Nelson Skalbania, into the biggest one-season money losers in the history of the CFL.

Will he coach? Well, maybe, but that decision is down the road. "Right now the chances are 60—40 against my coaching this season," Allen says. There's bigger game afoot, money to be made. For his efforts this year Allen will draw expenses, plus a modest salary. "Very minimal, I assure you," says his 25-year-old son, Bruce, a former head football coach at Occidental College whom George has hired as vice president of operations. Twenty percent of the ownership of the club is in escrow, waiting to become Allen's if he, Southern California real estate man Bill Harris and Chicago financier Tom King, with King and Harris putting up the bulk of the cash, pick up an option to buy another 31% by Dec. 31, 1982. That would give them a controlling interest. They would then have an option to buy the remaining 49% by Dec. 31, 1983. If they do, Allen will be the major stockholder.

"We'll simply have to decide whether this thing is salvageable," Allen says. "If I like what I see, I'll exercise my option; it's that simple. But right now you're going to learn just how frugal George Allen can be." The irony is that it was Allen's reputation as a free-spender that turned Redskin President Edward Bennett Williams against him during Allen's stay in Washington, and that helped scare away prospective NFL employers in recent years. But it's a different ball game now. This time Allen is playing with his own money, or what could be his own money.

So on this March afternoon, Allen addresses himself to the subject of challenge. "Absolutely the biggest challenge I've ever faced," he says. "Never seen anything close to it." He'll be 60 next month, and there's a little gray in his hair and his face is perhaps a bit more deeply lined, but he still gives off that tightly wired intensity. He looks fit.

"I've coached; I don't need to prove I can coach," he says. "But this is exciting, a chance to really do something I want to do—and in my own way. I've done it twice before. When I became the Rams' coach the first time, in 1966, they'd been averaging something like 40,000 a game. When I left in 1970 they were up to almost 72,000. What did [the late] Dan Reeves get the club for in 1962, $7 million? He was offered $20 million while I was there and he turned it down. Now it's worth more than $40 million. So are the Redskins. Seven years of sellouts in the seven years I was there and 10,000 on the waiting list, and that's with the highest priced seats in the league.

"O.K., this Montreal franchise is at rock bottom now. For a Canadian team to have a 3-13 record as the Alouettes did and lose as much money as they did [estimates run from $2.5 million to Skalbania's figure of $4.5 million] is unheard of. Well, I built up two franchises before and I can do it again. The NFL has gotten out of the ticket-selling business. The clubs have grown fat on TV money, but selling season tickets will be one of my jobs here. Six thousand season tickets weren't renewed after last season. O.K., I'm going to sit down and personally sign a letter to each of those people, and we'll send 'em one of these little key chains with the Alouettes' logo on it. I've never signed 6,000 pieces of paper before, but I'm going to do it now."

Fred Roberts, the Montreal P.R. director and a veteran of 30 years of CFL football, shakes his head. "He really means it," he says. "I told him, 'Look, George, figure you can do five a minute. That's 300 in an hour. You've got 20 hours of signing letters ahead of you.' He said, 'I don't care. I'll come in evenings and do it.' "

After one week in his new office Allen is still feeling his way around. Olympic Stadium, with its maze of corridors, is still a mystery. A secretary has to lead him to the elevator that will take him down to the locker room, where he will put on a brown jogging suit in preparation for his four circuits of the half-mile enclosed passageway around the stadium's fifth-floor level.

He pauses at the weight room. A young man is doing bench presses.

"Are you a member of the Alouettes?" Allen asks him.

"Yessir, I am."

"And what position do you play?"

"I'm Greg Batty, Mr. Allen. I'm your assistant equipment man."

"Oh." Pause. "And what does that door over there lead to?"

"The coaches' office, Mr. Allen."

"So new, so different, everything's so different here," Allen says later. "You call the Alouettes' office and they answer in French. And this clean, so beautiful. My wife, Etty, is going to love it. She's French-Tunisian. Speaks five languages. If I can just get this thing turned around."

Right now the thing that's bugging him most is the team's debt. "It has to be paid; that's the first thing," Allen says. "If not, then we'll always be running short of cash."

Last week Bruce Allen went over the figures with an accountant from Price Waterhouse, and the results left him stunned. "All told we're about $5 million in the hole," he says. "It's not really an actual debt. It's more of, well, there's going to have to be an income to cover it. There was no budget last year. Any time someone wanted to draw money or write a check, he just wrote it. If a player was unhappy, they said, 'O.K., here's 10 grand.' Bonuses of $25,000 were tossed around for no reason. There were those incredibly high salaries, but that was only part of it. The fat is everywhere—entertainment, game promotions. Two former employees ran up a combined expense account of $90,000. There was no supervision here at all. My little sister would have known better."

So far $300,000 has been trimmed in front-office salaries. Bruce figures that by the time his father is through with the player roster another $1.3 million will be chopped. Of Skalbania's half dozen high-priced American imports, two are already gone—Linebacker Tom Cousineau, whose contract ran out, and Wide Receiver James Scott, who was waived. Together, they represented more than $500,000. Box Office Billy Johnson, the other wide receiver, and his $185,000 tab may be on the way out. Quarterback Vince Ferragamo, whose $450,000 salary—$350,000 of it on a personal service arrangement with Skalbania—broke the bank, is going. The Alouettes have written to the Rams, giving them the right to negotiate with Ferragamo, L.A.'s Super Bowl quarterback of '79 but a bust in Montreal last year, who finished the season on the inactive roster. The matter will come down to how much of Ferragamo's salary the Rams will pick up, and how much the Alouettes will have to eat. As for the other two Americans, Running Back David Overstreet and Defensive End Keith Gary, first draft choices last year of the Dolphins and Steelers, respectively, Allen would like to keep them both, assuming that the rape charge brought against Overstreet on March 2 is cleared up. It has gotten the club a lot of bad ink.

Allen knows that the high-priced American formula seldom works in Canadian football. "The 19 Canadians on your roster determine how good your team will be, not the 15 Americans," he says. "You can always pick up enough Americans from the free-agent lists." And the trader in him warms to the idea that, under a new CFL rule, Canadian veterans can now become free agents after four years. "For the price of one Ferragamo," Allen says, "you can pick up a whole bunch of those guys."

The finances of Canadian football are surprisingly small potatoes for anyone accustomed to NFL numbers. Skalbania bought the Alouettes for $3.1 million, and there are franchises worth only half that—and that's in Canadian dollars, worth 20% less than U.S. greenbacks. TV rights, from Canadian television and ESPN, amount to $644,444 per team per season. Radio rights range from $10,000 (Montreal) to $100,000 (Edmonton). A CFL Players Association poll indicates that the league's average salary is $35,000 to $40,000, but 10% of the players—the higher-priced ones, naturally—didn't take part. Six of the stadiums hold fewer than 36,000. The biggest park in the league, Edmonton's, will seat 59,980 this coming season. Montreal, which drew 29,257 per game last year, is second at 58,367.

For Skalbania, whose reputation as a wheeler-dealer with the golden touch has been severely tarnished, to lose $4.5 million—or 50% more than the value of the franchise—in a single year would be comparable to an NFL team dropping $60 million. "My money was incompetently spent," Skalbania said last weekend. "I didn't know how bad it was until 10 days ago when my books were audited. I couldn't print the money fast enough the way it was shoveled out the door. I've been asked why I wasn't around to watch over things. I was back home in Vancouver doing what I know best—trying to make money faster than they were spending it. O.K., now George is here and I'm hoping things will change. They've got to. I've already been through that mad spending business and it made me sick."

But Bill Putnam, the Alouettes' executive vice president last season, demurs. "No money was spent last year without Skalbania's or his attorney's knowledge," he says.

It's 10 p.m. and Allen is enjoying a late dinner at the hotel where he has been staying, The Ritz-Carlton, an old and majestic establishment, "not like all those places in the States," he says, "that all look alike."

The waiter has served the wine—yes, Allen is a lover of fine wines—a 1970 Ch√¢teau Bouscaut, a Bordeaux: "Hmm, 1970," says Allen, "we [the Rams] were 9-4-1 that year. Beat the Giants 31-3 in the last game and knocked them out of the playoffs."

Allen continues to reminisce. The last four years, since the Rams' late owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, hired him away from the Redskins in '78 and then fired him after two exhibition games, haven't been happy ones. "My problem is figuring out each morning how to pass the day," Allen said soon after he was let go. "How many miles can a guy run? How long can he sit reading a book?"

Rosenbloom said he'd made a "serious error" in hiring Allen. There was grumbling about the trades Allen pushed on the Rams' management—especially one in which L.A. gave up two players and three good draft choices to get Redskin Defensive Back and Kick Returner Eddie Brown. There was a prospective deal involving a first-round pick for 39-year-old Billy Kilmer, Allen's quarterback in Washington. Then four veterans walked out of camp after they got a taste of his three-hour practices.

"When Carroll hired me, he told me, 'I want someone who knows how to beat Dallas,' " Allen says. "Then a week into training camp he said I was working the players too hard. I told him, 'I thought you wanted to beat Dallas.' Players were telling me to relax, we'd win the division. I said, 'What's so special about that? I could win this division with the Redskins' second unit.' They should've been thinking Super Bowl instead of division."

In his first stretch with the Rams, 1966-70, Allen was fired twice by Reeves, the first time in '68 (he was reinstated after a player rebellion), the second time in '70. In Washington, his and Williams' relationship rapidly went to the dogs. During Allen's four years on the beach he has been regarded as anathema by NFL owners—a coach who never put a losing team on the field but a guy who'd take the joy out of it for you.

"I've been accused of ruining the Redskins' franchise by trading away draft choices," Allen says. "All I did was give them the seven best years they ever had, seven years of standing ovations, plus I doubled the worth of the franchise. Ed had a purpose in what he did. He always said we had the biggest payroll in the league. When I got to the Rams, I found out the Redskins were fifth. He was very clever in what he did, though. That was the lawyer in him. Every time he raised ticket prices, and he raised them all the time, he said, 'Well, George is spending too much money.' I served a purpose for him.

"You know, you lay your guts out on the table. You sacrifice your family and health. You couldn't give any more of yourself if you owned the whole damn ball club. And all you get is criticism from someone trying to justify keeping his job."

Well, George Allen is back now, sort of. There's money to be made, a franchise to be turned around. And who knows? Someone back in the NFL might be watching.

PHOTOAllen knows the easiest way to fill seats is to bring the Grey Cup back to Montreal.THREE PHOTOSAllen's son, Bruce, will be his left-hand man as George tries to rid Skalbania (center) of red ink. One move will be to send Ferragamo (bottom with wife) back to the Rams.TWO PHOTOSAllen's winning ways in both L.A. and D.C. got him hurrahs from players, not owners.