George Allen came by limousine, a luxury he never imagined as a $4,800-a-year coach during the early 1950s at Whittier College. At age 70, he had returned to the college to be inducted, along with Don Coryell, into its Athletic Hall of Fame.
Both men were highly successful in the National Football League. With the Rams and Washington, Allen was 116-47-5 in 12 seasons. With St. Louis and San Diego, Coryell was 111-83-1 in 13 years.
But it was three decades ago at Whittier College when, as relative unknowns, they laid the foundation of their success.
Impeccable in a gray suit, Allen had arrived that Sunday morning from USC, where he said he ran the entire distance to finish first in a 3-mile walk for senior citizens.
“I was with Cesar Romero this morning and Mayor (Tom) Bradley and that guy that does the truck commercials, I can’t think of his name,” he said, referring to actor Claude Akins, as he walked into the Ettinger Faculty/Alumni Center.
Coryell had not yet arrived from El Cajon. He and his wife, Aliisa, were wandering the nearby streets, which, after 30 years, had become unfamiliar.
As some of Allen’s and Coryell’s old players gathered in a banquet room, Allen chatted with reporters, immersing himself in an earlier time.
He Wanted to Start With a Win
His most indelible Whittier memory was from his first game in 1951. Newly arrived from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, Allen had requested that the athletic director schedule a warm-up game.
“I wanted a game we could win to give the players confidence,” Allen began in the slow, gravelly well-known voice that fails to hint of his Midwestern birth.
A game was scheduled with the Submarine Forces Pacific Fleet (SubPac) team. “I said, ‘Oh, boy, these guys are on a submarine, no way they can play football, how could they work on their kicking game?’ ” Allen recalled.
Whittier lost, 51-0. Three Poets, including the captain, were knocked out for the season. For the Purple and Gold, it was a humbling day, one to which Allen traces the origin of his ulcers.
“After the game,” Allen said, “I went up to their coach and said, ‘How did you guys get so good out at sea?’ He said, ‘These guys have never seen a submarine. All they do is eat steaks and practice.’ ”
Allen said that after the game, when he was typing up the mistakes made in that shellacking, he began to cry. “I thought, ‘Holy Cripes, it was a mistake to leave Morningside.’ ”
But things got better.
Allen went from setting the record for most losses (seven) in a Whittier season to a 9-1 record and the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title the following year. The Poets still compete in that conference, although they haven’t won it since 1982. They were 3-6 last season.
“We were outweighed in every game, 21 to 24 pounds a man,” Allen said. “But we were quick and smart.”
In 1955, the Poets led the nation in blocked kicks, a not-surprising accomplishment, considering the special-teams success Allen had much later with the Rams and Redskins.
His overall record was 32-22-5. Among the 40 most memorable games of his career, Allen lists Whittier victories over San Luis Obispo and San Diego State and a tie with the Air Force Academy.
“One year we were 9-1 and I got a $200 bonus,” he said. “I was so excited I ran home, gave it to my wife and told her to put it in the bank.”
Etty Allen, who had accompanied her husband to the luncheon, said, “That was a big day, but I’m glad those days are over.”
The Allens lived near the campus . . . “612 E. Philadelphia,” Allen said, as if it were yesterday. “I always liked to live close to the job, so I could walk or ride my bike.”
A health advocate even then and now chairman of the National Fitness Foundation, Allen said, “I always ran, worked with weights, played basketball.” He is training for a triathlon. “Age is just a number,” he said. “I had players who were old at 24 and young at 38.”
The Allens’ apartment allowed no dogs, cats or children, so with the arrival of infant George, they bought a home at 8944 Hornby Ave. for $11,700.
Allen coached at Whittier from 1951 to 1956, an era when the Poets’ schedule routinely included San Diego State, San Francisco State, Chico State, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Pepperdine.
Games were played at Hadley Field Stadium. Long gone, Old Hadley was in a hollow and held crowds, Allen remembered, that were attentive, exuberant and sometimes numbered more than 5,000.
“ ‘Push ‘em back to Painter’ was my favorite yell,” Allen said. Painter Avenue was just beyond the goal posts.
Coryell, 64, finally reached the center. He wore a red sport jacket that fit snugly over Popeye arms--and the intense look, only slightly softened by the occasion, that identified him through his career.
Unlike Allen, he was devoid of verbosity, and had fewer stories to relate from his Whittier days. What he remembered, he said in the soft voice that always seems at odds with his nature, was “being associated with really nice people . . . I never worked with so many nice people, the players were all good guys.”
He admitted that at the time he never thought much about those associations. “As a coach, you have tunnel vision,” he said. “I didn’t think about much except what we had to do that day.”
Coryell was 23-5-1 with three league championships in his three years from 1957 to 1959, the best for any Whittier coach. He left for a coaching job at San Diego State.
Just as Allen had served notice at Whittier that he would become a pro defensive genius, the pass-minded Coryell had established himself as a rising offensive mastermind. In 1959 the Poets led the country in total offense.
From the men in the banquet room, the two old coaches commanded nothing but respect.
“I watched these guys on TV when I was a kid,” said Dave Newell, football coach at Bell Gardens High School and a member of Whittier’s Athletic Hall of Fame. “They’re real men.”
The ex-players, of course, recognized their famous coaches at once. Surprisingly, despite the long passage of time, Allen and Coryell recognized the players, too.
“I can name almost every one of that first team,” Coryell said as he looked down one of the tables.
Jim McCallister, 49, who played for Coryell before becoming a coach himself, said, “He was a great motivator who was ahead of his time. I never met a guy who didn’t like him. He was the reason I went into coaching.”
Bruce Martin, now head of the Whittier Chamber of Commerce, was a student at the college during the Coryell years. He asked Coryell, who had previously coached Army teams at Ft. Ord, whether he remembered a fight during a Whittier game with Occidental College.
He didn’t, although Martin reminded him how he had led his players in the charge across the field.
“He was fiery and spirited,” Martin said.
The players recalled that his nickname was “Mad Dog.” But when they related that to a reporter at the luncheon, they made sure Coryell was beyond earshot.
Dick Trueblood, who had been a quarterback for Coryell, said: “The chalk would disintegrate when he pressed it against the blackboard.”
A large window in the banquet room held a view of trees, lawn, red tile roofs, blue sky and hazy hills. It was the kind of campus vista that is as appealing now as it must have been then if the coaches, focused intently on building careers, had ever taken the time to look.
Allen had. “It was a serene place, conducive to developing good habits of hard work,” he said. “You could leave your books and pencils right out in the open and no one would take them. You could go all over and not see a liquor store. The campus was neat and clean.”
As Coryell went up to make his acceptance speech, his wife whispered, “He liked being here at Whittier College.”
In his remarks, Coryell chuckled over his $100 recruiting budget and how Aliisa would sit in the stands and implore him not to swear. “What’s really important is coming back here,” he concluded.
Allen told the audience how the college had prepared him for the NFL, but that he was far from alone as a Whittier success story. “I don’t know anyone who attended Whittier College and did not come out a better person,” he said.
And so the men had been enshrined, joining more than 100 others, including “Puss” Thompson (1924), “Oak” Pendleton ('28), “Swede” Nelson ('37) and Richard M. Nixon ('34).
Afterward, Coryell thrust out his chest, squared his shoulders and vigorously shook each of his former players’ hands, as if congratulating them on a great catch or tackle.
Allen lingered, too. His limo, sitting outside in the sun, would have to wait.