George Allen was sitting in seat 1A, flying from Portland, Ore., where he had delivered a 25-minute speech for $7,500, to Los Angeles and trying his best to explain why he had agreed to become the football coach at Long Beach State. If the 49ers are not the worst team among the nation's 106 Division 1-A schools, they certainly make the short list. He stared out at Mt. Hood passing under the left wing, which may have inspired him to lofty thoughts. He then took a yellow legal pad and carefully wrote down his reasons:
1. Guts, confidence, impossible task.
2. Save the football program.
3. Dedication to profession.
4. Love of teaching.
5. Goofy, crazy, spirit of adventure.
But if he had to explain his thinking in one succinct sentence, what would he say? Said Allen, "I would say I should have my head examined."
Yes, indeed. Because at age 72, George Allen—the legendary George Allen, who never had a losing season with the Los Angeles Rams or the Washington Redskins—definitely doesn't need this. Long Beach State, however, definitely needs him. If Allen, the quintessential turnaround specialist who arrived on the job last December, cannot save the 49ers' program, it probably cannot be saved. Long Beach State president Dr. Curtis McCray already sees hope: "He has taken a mess and given it shape."
One part of the mess is that students call the school the Beach. As in, "Come on, Beach, be tough"—a classic contradiction. Further, Allen says of his charges, "Ninety percent are marginal students and marginal players. They are not good practice players, they don't work hard, and they don't know it. Our team is so bad that we can lose every game and we might be routed in most of them."
Before opening at Clemson on Sept. 1—the first time Allen had coached a college team since 1956 at Whittier (Calif.)—he pondered the 49ers' weaknesses: "We are outweighed 24 pounds a man. Not a single one of our defensive linemen has played in a college game. Our starting quarterback has never thrown a pass in college. Our backup missed spring practice because of grades. Our kicker has never kicked in college, and our punter has never punted. We have no long snapper, no speed whatsoever at cornerback, and the offensive line is rebuilt."
Allen looked ill. Then he quickly recovers and said, "We're going to lick this." Silence. "But I don't know how."
Allen said that he couldn't believe his team was a 58-point underdog to Clemson. Alas, if you took the Beach and 58 points, you lost. Clemson hammered the 49ers 59-0. It could have been 159-0. The Beach converted 1 of 13 third-down plays, and it rushed for-16 yards. In fact, a Tiger fan was right when he screamed at the wide-eyed Long Beach State players moments before the game, "You boys are in a heap o' trouble. This is reality."
Yes, this is reality. The players are awful, and few people on campus even care. Suzanne Wurzer, the athletic department's academic adviser, says, "There's an attitude of acceptance toward football here, not importance."
Long Beach State's average home attendance last season was 2,650. Advance ticket sales to students for the 1989 Utah State game numbered four. This is not a typographical error. Four. A total of 246 students out of an enrollment of 32,875 showed up. Last year, boosters were invited to fly on the team plane to the Boise State game for a low, all-inclusive package price of $200. Two went. This is not a typographical error, either. In 1988 the 49ers finished 3-9. Last year they were 4-8. Right now they are 0-3.
The stadium—an off-campus facility, with bleachers on only one side of the field, that belongs to Long Beach City College—seats about 12,000 spectators. The Beach has 125,000 alums and 2,000 faculty members. The city of Long Beach has a population of 419,000. Last year 369 season tickets were sold. This year it's up to 1,200.
In 1986, Stephen Horn, Long Beach's president at the time, announced that football would be dropped if $300,000 was not raised within a month. Miraculously, it was. Asked why the school continues to field a team, McCray says, "I don't know the mysteries of the human heart. But football has been on college campuses for a longtime."
Athletic director Corey Johnson says the football budget is only $1.4 million, which is why the school offered itself as fodder to Clemson in return for $250,000 cash ($183,000 net, after travel expenses). That's a stiff price for young bodies—and minds—to pay. Says Allen, "Nothing surprises me around here, especially if it doesn't work."
When Allen first arrived, he discovered that the school owned eight footballs. Eight. This is not a typographical error. He promptly bought three dozen more. He went out to take a look at the practice field and people were playing golf on it. Toilet seats were missing. Allen immediately started putting up signs: EVERYTHING HERE IS WAITING FOR YOU TO IMPROVE—GEORGE ALLEN.
When Allen's wife, Etty, saw his office, she wept. He had a nicer office for his first college head-coaching job, at Morning-side College in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1948. Those who pleaded with Allen not to take the Long Beach job included Etty and their four children as well as Bo Schembechler, Hank Stram and Barry Switzer. "That's the thing about advice," says Allen. "Sometimes you end up going against it."
He didn't accept the job for the money, though it pays him $100,000 a year. He had been doing fine speaking and writing since his last coaching job, with the USFL Arizona Wranglers in 1984. His lawyer, Carl (Tony) Capozzola, says, "Number one, George has plenty of money to live the rest of his life if he doesn't take risks. Number two, George will take risks."
Allen was already living the American dream. His $2 million home in Palos Verdes Estates—27 miles from his office—overlooks the Pacific, as far as Malibu to the north and Catalina to the south. The Los Angeles Basin glitters below. Growing on the two-acre property are figs, peaches, apricots, avocados, apples, pomegranates, loquats, kumquats and limes. It doesn't get any more spectacular. Is this reality? Inside are pictures of Allen with presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan and dozens of other celebs.
So, why did Allen do this to himself?
On one hand, the explanation is easy: No man who has ever coached is entirely happy again unless he is standing on a practice field with a whistle around his neck. But Dr. Bill Husak, head of Long Beach's physical education department, says, "I don't think you can leave out ego."
You cannot. Allen's ego stretches from, well, Malibu to Catalina. For example, many of the new signs around the athletic department contain one constant. See if you can spot it:
EVERYBODY TAKE CARE OF THEIR OWN JOB.—GEORGE ALLEN.
HIT HARD AND WATCH THE GOOD THINGS HAPPEN—GEORGE ALLEN.
IS WHAT I'M DOING OR ABOUT TO DO GETTING ME CLOSER TO OUR OBJECTIVE...WINNING?—GEORGE ALLEN.
Then there are the T-shirts: I PLAY TENACIOUS DEFENSE FOR GEORGE ALLEN.
Yet, this is not a case of ego run amok. Allen is one of the premier coaches in the history of the game, but he has never received his due. It's a joke that Allen is not one of the 13 coaches in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 12 years as an NFL coach, his record was 116-47-5, a winning percentage of .705, third only to John Madden's .750 and Vince Lombardi's .728. Guys like Earle (Greasy) Neale (.596), Sid Gillman (.550) and Weeb Ewbank (.502) are enshrined in Canton. Allen's road winning percentage of .679 (56-26-2) is better than the overall percentages of 10 Hall of Fame coaches.
Consider, too, that he achieved all this by taking over two poor teams. When Allen got the Ram job, in 1966, Los Angeles hadn't had a winning season in seven years. A year later L.A. was 11-1-2 and in the playoffs. When he took over the Redskins, in 1971, they hadn't been to the playoffs in 25 years. He immediately guided them to the playoffs, and the next year he had them in Super Bowl VII.
Allen was labeled a big spender while with Washington. You'll recall that team president Edward Bennett Williams said, "I gave him an unlimited budget, and he has exceeded it." Allen did spend about $500,000 buying land and putting up buildings for Redskin Park near Dulles Airport. It was the first team-owned training facility in the league. Williams hadn't counted on seeing that kind of money fly out the door. Today, the six-acre site is worth approximately $10 million, according to Capozzola.
Two games into the 1978 preseason, after having just been hired by the Rams for the second time (he had coached them from 1966 through 70), Allen was abruptly fired by owner Carroll Rosenbloom, who said, "George needs a rest." Some people took Rosenbloom's statement to mean that Allen had had some sort of mental crack-up. In any case, he never worked again in the NFL. Now Allen wants to redeem himself.
That means, among other things, he wants desperately to get a stadium built on the Long Beach State campus. He wants it to be his legacy—especially in case he never gets invited to join the Hall of Fame. Almost immediately upon arriving at the Beach, Allen asked McCray to authorize $24,000 worth of preliminary architect's plans for a stadium. McCray said, "George, we can't do that."
However, Allen is never deterred. If somebody says no to him, he considers it a definite maybe. "I want to accomplish big things here, major things," he says. No wonder that another of Allen's goals is to provide the football program with a $6 million endowment. The present endowment is zero.
Perhaps most of all, Allen wants to prove that he can still get the job done on the field. He wants—needs—to show that he can give life to yet another moribund football operation. To this end, he would like to demonstrate that as wedded as he is to his spectacular past, he is also a coach for the '90s, just as he was a coach for the '60s and '70s.
Speaking to the Long Beach Rotary Club before the season started, Allen conceded that life on campus has changed since he last coached in college 34 years ago. "I'm not used to players wearing earrings," he told his audience. "I'm not used to players with ponytails. And I'm not used to women trainers. I've gotten rid of the first two."
Allen intends to do things his way, but docs his approach make sense in the '90s? His athletes seem to think so. The team's best player, linebacker Pepper Jenkins, says, "Before Coach Allen got here, football wasn't just off in a corner. We were in the back room with the door shut."
Says wide receiver Jeff Exum, "Coach Allen's reputation is so good that even we can't hurt it."
Indeed, when Allen—who looks 50 and who runs three to five miles every day-stands to address his players, the room immediately becomes silent. Even McCray says, "One is inclined to defer to his judgment." That's why no one complained when Allen chartered a plane to Clemson for $60,000 instead of flying commercially for $50,000. "Besides," said Allen, "that will enable us to get out of there quick."
Allen has lots of good ideas. The other day, he did 101 sit-ups on the practice field, followed by 31 push-ups. "I always like to do one more of everything than I promise myself I will," he says.
Says quarterback Todd Studer, "There's a message in everything Coach Allen says and docs."
Allen got the bug to return to college coaching in the summer of '89, when Morningside College wanted him to come back, for old times' sake, and ride in a parade. Instead, Allen showed up for two weeks in August, coaching two-a-days, fund-raising, working his brains out for free in the sweltering heat. The Chiefs won their opener, snapping a 15-game losing streak. Allen discovered he still had the touch. Wouldn't it be fun to do it again?
Allen's celebrity alone, however, will not carry the day. After the Clemson debacle, Utah State defeated the 49ers 27-13, and then last Saturday, San Diego State beat them 38-20. Says Allen, "We have to get better players."
And that is reality.