The Allen Mystique Rubs Off on Cal State
A harp was being played in an elegant salon with a high ceiling on the Queen Mary. “Gosh, this is exciting, this is the way to live,” said George Allen, who wore a dark pinstripe suit and a tie his daughter had purchased in Paris.
Allen, a legendary sports figure who some people still cannot believe is the new football coach at Cal State Long Beach, was the guest of honor at a reception Wednesday evening. It preceded a dinner that officially welcomed him to the city and raised more than $100,000 for his football program.
“I ran four miles today to relax for this,” said Allen, 72.
He held a glass of orange juice and mingled with men who had played for him in the pros, fans of the Long Beach team, entertainment celebrities and other well-wishers who were glad to be in the same room.
“This is the biggest sports dinner in the history of Long Beach--1,200 people,” said lawyer Don Dyer, a longtime money raiser for 49er athletics. “There’s a certain mystique to George’s name. It’s going to be fascinating around here for as long as he stays.”
Dan Barber, a professor in the Graduate Center for Public Policy, watched as cocktail sippers gravitated toward the man known as much for his eccentricity as for his 116-47-5 record as a National Football League coach from 1966 to 1977.
“George Allen is a legitimate American character, alongside Mark Twain and others,” Barber said. “It’s his values that make him so unique. He stops on campus when he sees a tree that’s dying and says, ‘Golly, what can we do about that?’ ”
Curtis L. McCray, Cal State Long Beach president, said the school has never received as much national publicity as it has since Allen’s hiring in December.
“It’s been tremendous,” McCray said. “I talk to chancellors and presidents across the country, and our discussions always open up with them asking, ‘How’s George Allen doing?’ ”
Milton Berle, 82, walked into the room, lit a long black cigar and said, “If George Burns were here, we’d have Burns and Allen, for Christ’s sake.”
He was quickly joined by McCray and Allen.
McCray was happy to be with Berle, whose show he had watched on a black-and-white Philco TV in southern Indiana as a boy.
“He’s a great coach, you’re a great comedian,” McCray said.
“He’s the greatest football coach in the world,” Berle said.
Among the old players who had come was Billy Kilmer. He was known as “Ol’ Whiskey Face” when he played quarterback for Allen in Washington, but it was a beer he accepted from a white-jacketed waiter.
“He looks alive, excited again,” Kilmer said after posing for a picture with Allen, who had been out of football for five years before his arrival in Long Beach.
With envy, Allen looked over at Dave Butz and Roger Brown, two of his former stars. He joked that he hoped they had some eligibility left.
“I only had four defensive linemen” for spring practice, said Allen, who canceled the 49ers’ annual intrasquad game for that reason. “Now I’ll have six.”
With Allen has come an inevitable re-emphasis on football at the university, which has had three consecutive losing seasons and almost dropped the sport in 1986 because of financial problems.
Asked whether all the sudden attention could provoke jealousy among faculty in other departments, McCray said: “It could, but I think that’s OK. It’s healthy. It means people are taking notice. I doubt we’d get 1,200 people for a conference on Chaucer, but the excitement (Allen) has brought can be generated in other departments.”
As a band played, the party-goers left the ship and went to the Spruce Goose dome, which was set up with tables for dinner.
Black-and-gold balloons formed three high arches but were easily overshadowed by the great white wooden plane of Howard Hughes.
Allen spotted McCray’s wife, Mary, and said, “That was a great piece of swordfish,” remembering a night when he and his wife, Etty, were dinner guests of the McCrays.
Allen, who was greeted by Mayor Ernie Kell, sat on the dais with Berle, Walter Matthau, Dabney Coleman, Cathy Lee Crosby and former players Kilmer, Brown, Butz, Dick Bass, Roman Gabriel, Deacon Jones, Tom Mack and Jeff Severson.
Sylvester Stallone was the only celebrity expected who did not show up.
“I get the feeling,” said Msgr. Ernest Gaulderon as he gave the invocation, “that (Allen) is the apple of your eye.”
Standing in the back, Donald P. Lauda, dean of the School of Applied Arts and Sciences, said: “I’ve been here seven years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. (Allen) seems like a real genuine person. I met with nine department chairmen recently, and they said they appreciate his concern for academics.”
Dyer, vice president of the 49ers Athletic Foundation, said half of the people who paid $100 to get into the dinner have been 49er boosters on and off over the years and the others, attracted specifically by Allen, are new.
“We’ve had a whole lot of interest from Orange County,” said Dyer, who is skeptical about whether the apparent new interest in the team will assure larger crowds at Veterans Stadium. The 49ers have consistently been at the bottom among Division 1-A teams in home attendance.
McCray was asked why a state university, one mostly for students who commute, needs to try to build a prominent football program.
“It’s not to draw more students,” he said. “We had 13,000 applications for 4,000 places in our freshman class. Taxpayers are saying they don’t want to pay any more taxes. I have to find other ways to raise money.”
He noted that the dinner audience included developers, financiers and industrialists.
“The fact that we’ve called attention to one of our programs means it will be easier for me to raise dollars for other programs,” he said. “Football is bringing attention to the university as a whole.”
Up on a huge TV screen, Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda, who had been videotaped, was praising Allen and vowing that he would be at Veterans Stadium in the fall. “Maybe we’ll have to build luxury boxes if these people start to come to the games,” said Merle Makings, promotion director for the athletic department.
Master of ceremonies Roy Firestone read a telegram Ronald Reagan had sent.
After all the celebrities had spoken, Allen finally took the podium for brief remarks. The crowd responded with a standing ovation as balloons drifted down.
“I invite all of you to join the team,” Allen said. “You can help in hundreds of ways. The bottom line is not just a better team, but a greater university. This is a great opportunity. We can’t lose, the future is really now. There’s no way we can go but up.”
When the cheers died, fans flocked around Berle and Allen.
A man handed over a football and said: “Coach, can you put, To Alex right here? Thanks, Coach.”
Bruce Allen came up to his father, said, “Hi, Dad, great show” and kissed him.
The party was finally over, but confetti still stuck to Allen’s carefully parted hair as he stepped down from the dais.
“That should buy 50 helmets . . . and some visual aid equipment . . . and some new shoes,” he said. “I hope.”