This was a postgame locker-room scene of high jubilation, of the kind George Allen has starred in many times. His team, in this case the Arizona Wranglers, had won a big one, in this case the USFL Western Conference championship game, beating the Los Angeles Express 35-23. And, of course, it was all thanks to Ol' George. He had been the last Wrangler to run out through the arch formed by balloons and buxom cheerleaders in the pregame introductions at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., sprinting low and surprisingly well for a 62-year-old. He had received the loudest ovation, but a sign said it even better than the cheers:
WE CAN'T LOSE. GEORGE WON'T ALLOW IT.
Now, in victory, the Wranglers' chairman of the board and coach gathered his old fogies around him and cried hoarsely, "This is living! Winning is living!" He burst into rhythmic clapping, which he punctuated with little hippety-hops he has performed since before Michael Jackson was born. Thin, graying hair fell from beneath his white cap, and a gleam lit up his usually dull, distracted expression. Only the William Tell Overture could have done him justice at this moment, or maybe just a spoonful of vanilla ice cream. The players joined his mad little dance. George asked for three more cheers.
Hooray for Wranglers,
Hooray at last.
Hooray for Wranglers,
They're a horse's ass.
July 15, 1984
In his 22 years of coaching in the pros, this was one of Allen's finest hours. He has experienced so many triumphs since he began coaching offensive ends for Sid Gillman's Los Angeles Rams in 1957, it's as if he had been fated to be the centerpiece of such scenes. This one came at the expense of Gillman, the Express's special assistant coach, whose latest quarterback prodigy, Steve Young, was brought to earth with a crash (seven of 23 for 126 yards, two interceptions, one TD) by Allen's current beloved defense. "With the '63 Bears, we had a linebacker named Larry Morris," said Allen. "Stan White's like that. And Timmy Spencer is the finest running back I've had—no, he's right up there with Larry Brown, Redskins, '72."
Allen had said that Young "is the greatest running quarterback I've ever defensed" the day before the game, which had been scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Saturday but was moved to 8:30 p.m. to allow the July temperatures in the Valley of the Sun to drop to a reasonable 100°. The heat hadn't bothered Alien the day before, when he went about his daily rounds in shirt, tie and knit sport coat. "How do you stand this heat?" Gillman had asked him. "It's not hot," Allen had replied.
But it was hot, and getting hotter. John Hadl, the L.A. coach, had pushed for the time change, fearing his players would suffer in the heat. Hadl also suggested that Allen—not one to miss a trick of any kind in a championship game—had put a bounty on Young before the season finale, in which Arizona had also faced the Express. Hadl held Young out of that game, which the Wranglers won 35-10.
"That just shows the inexperience of John Hadl as a head coach," Allen said. "When I was with the Rams in '67, we beat Hadl and the Chargers 50-7 and got three interceptions off him, two for scores. After the game, Hadl came running up to me saying, 'Coach! Coach! What tip did you have on me? I know you had a tip!' "
And what tip did Allen have on Hadl? "We let him throw the ball," Allen said, deadpan, and that is precisely the strategy he used against Young. The week before, Allen had called Al Davis, the Raiders' managing general partner, to help get a line on stopping Jim Kelly and the run-and-shoot offense of the Houston Gamblers. Davis said pressure up the middle was the smart play, and the Wranglers' front four brought pressure up the middle, disrupting precisely timed pass patterns by forcing Kelly out of the pocket, an approach that was the antithesis of the one used against Young. "You really can't contain Steve Young," Allen said before the game. Then his team really did it.
The plan was for the Wranglers' four-man rush to encircle Young, to keep him in the pocket and prevent him from taking off with the ball, while the other seven defenders backed into a field-filling zone. Young runs a 4.52 40 on grass, but is still a rookie. "Make him think, not execute," Allen had said. But Young put a running back's move on cornerback Carl Allen on a third-and-five from the Express's 25 on the opening drive, cutting inside for 16 yards and a first down. That led to a 25-yard Tony Zendejas field goal. Arizona was unable to move behind 37-year-old quarterback Greg Landry, but on L.A.'s next possession Young was intercepted by safety Luther Bradley. This time the Wranglers had forced Young to stay in the pocket: He would run but once more, for eight yards, and would be sacked seven times.
Arizona had capitalized on two shanked punts to beat Houston 17-16 in the opening playoff round, scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter, but now Allen had another of his edges: conditioning. Had the game been played in the noonday sun, the Wranglers probably would have won even bigger. But the switch helped swell the attendance to 33,188. A day crowd would have been much smaller; the temperature on the stadium seats was 140° as late as 6 p.m. "We wore 'em down," Allen said.
After Bradley's interception, Spencer, the former Ohio State running back who in January '83 became the USFL's first blue-chip signee, cracked a curiously loose Express goal-line defense for a four-yard touchdown and a 7-3 Wrangler lead. Spencer would gain 94 yards in 18 carries and score three touchdowns, giving him 14 in his last eight games.
But the Express had legs as well. With 10:09 left in the half, Young had completed only three of 11 passes for 46 yards, yet L.A. had 194 yards, largely on runs by Kevin Nelson (18 carries, 72 yards) and Kevin Mack (14, 88). Nelson cracked over from the one midway through the second quarter for his second scoring run of the half, and Los Angeles led 17-7.
After that score Landry was intercepted by cornerback Darrell Pattillo. Not to worry. On the sideline Ol' George was acting as if he had the Express right where he wanted 'em. Landry had tried to force the ball to Trumaine Johnson, who had jarred the Express with 19 catches for 285 yards in two regular-season games, a win and a loss. Landry had missed last year's playoffs—when the Wranglers were the Chicago Blitz—with a broken right leg and torn ankle ligaments. No doubt the USFL brass wanted Young, the golden rookie, in their title game against the Philadelphia Stars in Tampa this Sunday rather than Landry, who was washed up in the NFL five years ago, can't throw long and is grayer than Allen.
But Landry came back after the Express's punter, Jeff Partridge, failed on a fourth-down pass to Troy West, who was double-covered. "We faked trying to block the kick and double-teamed the end because we knew they'd throw if they smelled block," Allen said. In truth, had Partridge punted, the kick would have been blocked. Hadl punted the yard marker instead, and Arizona took over at the L.A. 35. One screen pass and three Spencer runs later, the score had tightened to 17-14.
Arizona dominated the third quarter, and when Wrangler running back Kevin Long scored from the one on the second play of the fourth, Arizona led 21-17.
The Wranglers kept coming. They allowed L.A. just three plays, chasing Young out of bounds for a loss of six on third-and-two, before marching 55 yards to another touchdown. Spencer gained 15 on a trap up the middle, swept right end for 14 more, then broke outside to catch Landry's five-yard scoring pass. That sent Wranglers owner Dr. Edward B. (Ted) Diethrich into a paroxysm of joy.
Diethrich had stationed himself behind the end zone, and when Spencer scored, the doctor raced onto the field, throwing a high five in Spencer's direction, but wisely not making contact. Shoulders have been dislocated giving high fives, and Dr. Diethrich performs four to six open-heart surgeries every working day to help foot the bills of his Arizona Heart Institute in Phoenix, to say nothing of his football team. "I didn't see him," Spencer said, laughing, "or I would've given him a high five he'd never forget."
Young didn't get a second-half completion until 6:51 into the fourth quarter. "We let it slip away. They overpowered us," he said. "They drop seven into a zone and still give you only two seconds to throw. That was a professional defense, I have to say. I have to learn many more things, I think."
Dr. Diethrich asked for quiet in the winners' locker room. He had inspirational stories to tell his team, which wasn't in the mood. "At midseason," said Diethrich above the hoots, "when we were down [4-6 on April 28], Coach came to me and said, 'I don't know how we are going to do it.... I don't know how we are going to do it...but...we are going to do it!' "
"Oh, Doc, don't be so dramatic," one bold player piped up. Then Landry took over. "This game ball," the quarterback said, "is going to the Wranglers' organization." Allen, his eyes never leaving the football, gently lifted it from Landry's hands and said, "Isn't living great?"