George Allen couldn’t be making a comeback as coach at Cal State Long Beach at age 72 without the support of his wife, daughter, three sons, boss and peers.
Of course, all of them, including his wife, Etty, and colleagues Hank Stram and Bo Schembechler, and Long Beach Athletic Director Corey Johnson, who was in the process of hiring him, tried to talk Allen out of it, at first.
And recently Etty said she’d just as soon skip Saturday’s opener at Clemson, seeing as how it’s a worse mismatch than Don King ever thought up. Clemson is nationally ranked. Long Beach’s program almost expired in 1986, and hasn’t made giant strides since.
However, things are looking up. Etty’s standing by her man.
“I know when the outcome is not very good, he doesn’t like to talk,” she says. “But then I thought, ‘I’m not going to go just when he wins.’
“But I’m not going to go there to be entertained, I’ll tell you that. Not with the heat, the humidity, the screaming meemees.”
In his golden years, Allen works from 7 a.m. to midnight. He’s been holed up in a hotel all preseason. He was supposed to make it back to their Palos Verdes home last week for dinner with his daughter, Jennifer, who was visiting from New York, but the nightly meeting ran long and he rolled in at midnight. Jennifer did what any considerate daughter of an arch-compulsive would do: she went to practice the next day to see him.
Allen’s voice is hoarse and he says he’s tired. He’s up against it, talent-wise (he compares this game to an amateur fighting Mike Tyson, and states unequivocally that he doesn’t have a defensive player who could start for Clemson), fan-wise and facilities-wise.
Of course, he isn’t complaining, although he does allow, “I haven’t had quite as much fun as I’d hoped I’d have.”
On the other hand, Etty says he looks better than he has in years, so go figure.
Whatever this is, it began a year ago, when Allen went back to Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, where he started in 1948, to help in preseason. He says he had a ball.
Next thing you know, he was confiding to Corey Johnson he would be interested in the Long Beach job. Johnson says he spent three hours trying to talk him out of it.
As did all of Allen’s friends and relatives.
“Nobody said to do it,” Allen says. “Nobody, I tell you. And there are times when I think they were right and I was wrong, see?
“Everybody said it’s an impossible job, including Bo Schembechler. And that’s why I took it.”
Out of the NFL since the Rams fired him after two exhibition games in 1978, out of football since his last USFL season in 1983, Allen kept busy as only he could. But it was never the same.
“He has to be productive,” Etty says. “He feels guilty if he’s not accomplishing something. I think that’s from childhood. He should have been a missionary, that’s what I keep telling him.
“Like, when we had that World Congress in Chicago for the Fitness Foundation (which Allen founded)--what a headache that was!
“He’d say, ‘I want to help third world countries.’
“I’d say, ‘Who cares?’
“He’d say, ‘Who cares? They need help more than Britain and France.’
“I wanted him to enjoy the fruit of his labors. I mean literally. He plants fruit trees but he’s never around to enjoy the fruit. He loves to plant trees.
“I wanted him to relax and not put so much pressure on himself. Now that he’s back in coaching, I think he knows best. He thrives on it. He looks better than he’s looked in the last four years.”
It’s Long Beach’s pregame press conference, at a Mexican restaurant near campus. An Eyewitness News van sits in the parking lot. Before Allen, the 49ers couldn’t have gotten an Eyewitness News van down here without hijacking it.
Before Allen, they didn’t even have press conferences, or conference calls, or national publications and TV networks lined up to see the coach. Corey Johnson figures they’ve gotten $7 million worth of publicity around the country.
Allen is fielding calls from Clemson writers. One of them says the Clemson assistants have noted a number of position shifts since the schools exchanged scrimmage films, suggesting they think Allen, the noted prankster who once traded a draft choice he didn’t have, is trying to pull a fast one.
“Where are you from?” Allen asks, irritated.
“Anderson, S.C.,” the caller answers.
“Cripes sakes!” Allen says. “Change ‘em around? We don’t have enough guys to change around.”
Obviously, his reputation endures.
If little else.
“We have a guy, I don’t know his first name but his last name is Rizzuto,” Allen says. “I call him Phil. And I said, ‘You like Rusty Tillman (one of Allen’s special team stars at Washington)?’ Well, he had never heard of Rusty Tillman.
“I said, ‘You like Eddie Brown (another Allen bomb squad stalwart)?’ Well, he had never heard of Eddie Brown.”
George, meet the youth of today.,
Modern youth, meet George.
“We’ve got some individual thinking we have to get over,” Allen says. “This sounds probably a little bit goofy but I already asked ‘em not to wear earrings, ‘cause I never had a player that wore earrings. And I think there are only two guys left with them, out of 107 or 109.
“There’s a player I’m going to talk to today. I don’t know if he’s dedicated enough. He has a scholarship. Unless he shapes up, I don’t want him on the team.
“I’m not used to players who aren’t gung-ho. We have a few players--maybe three, maybe not . . . If you’re not totally dedicated to doing your job, then that’s worse than stealing. This is a great opportunity for us all. This is an historic year. What are we going to do. Are we going to make excuses?”
At Morningside last year, he says he was was amazed to find that the kids seemed to have stepped right out of 1948.
At Long Beach?
He says it’s not quite the same.
“I never had a Morningside kid who was ineligible because of grades,” Allen says.
“I never had a Morningside kid that I had to talk to about putting him off the team. I never had a Morningside kid who had a problem going to class. And I think that can be done here.”
There are a lot of things they have to do. The physical plant is being upgraded with some of the $117,000 they raised at a banquet last winter--Walter Matthau, Milton Berle, Billy Kilmer and Roman Gabriel attending.
George has already started work on the old uniforms.
“Whoever designed those uniforms must have gotten his training in the Soviet Union,” he said.
He has a five-year contract. Etty hopes he goes the route.
“After that,” she says, laughing, “he’ll try to get a better job, he says.
“After that, he says maybe he’ll go back to the NFL.”