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Alexander: How would George Allen have fit into today’s NFL?

The former Rams and Washington coach was innovative and a players' coach, but not a fan of front offices

Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen looks over Yankee Stadium on Dec. 19, 1970, a day before his team played the New York Giants in The Bronx, New York.(AP Photo/HH)
Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen looks over Yankee Stadium on Dec. 19, 1970, a day before his team played the New York Giants in The Bronx, New York.(AP Photo/HH)
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For those of us who have been around a while, it’s tempting to wonder after just a couple of days of the circus that is Super Bowl Week: How would George Allen have handled all of this?

The growth of the NFL’s championship game and the spectacle surrounding it, and not incidentally the more than 6,000 credentialed media members in Las Vegas this week, probably would have driven the Hall of Fame coach crazy. Allen served 12 sometimes turbulent but always successful NFL seasons with the Rams and Washington and reached the title game in Super Bowl VII.

And as author Mike Richman noted he railed at what he termed distractions in any case, and did not handle the media and promotional demands of what was a more modest a Super Bowl well at all.

Allen’s team finished the 1972 regular season 11-3 and beat the Packers and rival Cowboys to reach the Super Bowl at the Coliseum against Miami, which was attempting to and ultimately did complete the NFL’s first perfect season with a 14-7 victory.

“He was so annoyed with the media coverage at Super Bowl VII,” Richman said in a telephone conversation this week. “Today it would be even so much more overwhelming. If this (week) were his Super Bowl, who knows how he would handle it. … He was so uptight because of the media coverage there and that they were taking up his time.”

But while Allen reached the Super Bowl only once in his 12 full NFL seasons, 1966 through 1977, his winning percentage (116-47-5) is the fourth best in NFL history, behind Guy Chamberlain (who coached in the 1920s and won 78.4% of his games) and a couple of coaches you might recognize: John Madden (.759 in 10 seasons with the Raiders) and Vince Lombardi (.738 in 10 seasons with the Packers and Washington).

More than that, Allen was an innovator. He was the first to consider special teams aptitude in roster decisions; the first to stress offseason work (upon taking the Rams job in 1966, he held a camp for rookies that April, the forerunner of today’s minicamps); the first to launch a permanent dedicated training facility (Washington in 1971); the first to introduce five- and six-defensive back configurations; the first to introduce Tuesdays as days off during the season (now an NFL standard); … and, also, one of the first to sign a player who had recently been released by the upcoming opponent, the better for pumping him for information.

Winning was his sole objective, and he considered anything that didn’t directly contribute to winning a waste of time. (The legend, as Richman related, was that Allen’s favorite food was ice cream because he didn’t have to spend time chewing it.)

But such single-mindedness, epitomized by his preference for veterans and his willingness to pay them top dollar, caused issues with the people who employed him. In fact, while it was undoubtedly to his detriment, that might have been a feature rather than a bug because his players took the “us vs. them” attitude – them being management – and ran with it.

Allen left George Halas’ staff in Chicago to become Rams coach in 1966, and despite taking over a team that had gone 19-48-3 the previous five seasons and winning a division title in his second year in L.A., he was fired by owner Dan Reeves – twice. Reeves sacked him the day after Christmas in 1968 despite a 10-3-1 record, reconsidered 11 days later after Allen’s players objected, but fired him again after the 1970 season. It was part personality conflict (Reeves liked his cocktails, while Allen’s favorite beverage was milk) and partially the feeling that Allen overstepped his authority, including but not limited to spending too much of the team’s money.

Allen’s seven seasons in Washington were similar. As was the case in L.A., but with even more authority as the official general manager, he acquired as many veterans as he could (and paid them well), traded away draft picks (he didn’t trust rookies), sometimes pushed the envelope (he was accused of trading the same pick more than once), and again clashed with the team president, in this case Edward Bennett Williams. After the 1977 season, the team and Allen parted ways, even though his teams reached the postseason in five of his seven seasons in D.C.

The most bizarre firing of all? Carroll Rosenbloom brought Allen back to the Rams in 1978 to replace Chuck Knox, but from the introductory press conference the owner seemed uncertain that this was going to work. And when a new generation of Rams players resisted and complained, Allen was fired two games into the exhibition season.

“So many people had barked in (Rosenbloom’s) ear saying that George Allen was the wrong coach to hire,” Richman said. And it was generally understood that some of that discontent came from front-office people who had lived through Allen’s tenure with Reeves, as well as the discontent of holdover players.

“People stabbed him in the back,” former Herald-Examiner and Press-Telegram columnist Doug Krikorian said in a phone conversation.

“They (said), ‘He spent too much money,’ this and that,” Krikorian said. “All they did (when Allen got there in ’66), they went from 50,000, 60,000 a game up to 90,000. He brought the crowds back. Yeah, he was controlling in some ways, but all they did was win with him. And they (shafted) him with the Rams like you can’t believe.

“George made (the players) work too hard. Chuck Knox was a good coach, but they had a lot of freedom there. The players had their cliques and everything. And George went in there and cleaned house. They didn’t like it. … He was a giant. He didn’t give in, and that was a problem.”

Long Beach State head coach George Allen gives coaching instructions to his players before their opening game against Utah State on Sept. 1, 1990, in Long Beach. (Photo by Ken Levine/Allsport/Getty Images)
Long Beach State head coach George Allen gives coaching instructions to his players before their opening game against Utah State on Sept. 1, 1990, in Long Beach. (Photo by Ken Levine/Allsport/Getty Images)

That was his last NFL job. Allen coached two seasons in the USFL in the 1980s, was chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports for a time, and had one last hurrah as a coach at Long Beach State in 1990, taking a team that was 4-8 the year before and finishing 6-5. It was his last job, because Allen died of a heart attack on New Year’s Eve 1990, at the age of 73. The Long Beach program was discontinued after the 1991 season.

Twelve years later, he was inducted posthumously into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, and deservingly so. You could say he personified the template of head coach as the organization’s dominant figure, one most recently used by Bill Belichick in New England but maybe one we’ll never see again.

But could his methods work in today’s NFL?

“I think yes, his approach to the game would work today,” Richman said, noting that free agency would enable him to stock the roster with veterans, although the salary cap would act as a governor. Ignoring the draft and declining to work young players in could be an issue. But emphasis on special teams and the use of nickel and dime packages would fit right in today. “He introduced those schemes to the game for the most part,” Richman said.

And then there’s this:

“He was a players’ coach,” Krikorian said. “The players loved him in Washington.

“He was a very, very bright guy, and he was a defensive genius. He was a very good coach, and he got those guys to play. He always used to tell me, ‘The key is getting guys to play.’”

Lots of things may have changed in the NFL over the years, but that hasn’t.

jalexander@scng.com

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