When Roman Gabriel’s wife, Lisa, told her husband the news about his former coach Monday in Charlotte, N.C., the former Ram quarterback replied, “How could George Allen die?”
Like many across the nation, Gabriel was shocked to hear that Allen, who had returned to college football and led Cal State Long Beach to a winning record this season, had died in his Palos Verdes Estates home at 72.
“There are certain people you have the opportunity to be around who you feel will always be there,” Gabriel said from his office.
“Much like my father, who . . . I never thought would die. I always thought he would be here . . . and now to have your wife come out of nowhere, pounding on the door and saying George Allen is no longer here . . .
“It’s hard to believe, it’s just hard to believe. George Allen is just not the person you would expect this to happen to. He was a teacher first, but he’d never ask you to do anything that he couldn’t do--and Lord knows that he could do a lot. Maybe this is what it will take to get him in the Hall of Fame.”
Gabriel last saw Allen Sept. 1, when Allen made his Long Beach debut against Clemson in South Carolina. Despite the 59-0 Long Beach loss, Gabriel said he told friends, “I guarantee you he’ll win more than he loses this season.”
And Allen did, posting a 6-5 record, his 17th consecutive winning season.
As shocked as Gabriel, who played for Allen in the late 1960s, was Nick Pantuso, a Long Beach linebacker who played for him this fall.
“What the hell do you say?” Pantuso said. “It’s devastating. The guy has done a tremendous lot of things for me. He always told us that if we do the best we can, we’ll always be winners.”
Despite his age, Allen put in 18-hour days seven days a week at Long Beach. He jogged daily and would always stretch and run sprints with his players during practice.
“He set an example for us, without a doubt,” Pantuso said.
Long Beach Athletic Director Corey Johnson, who hired Allen a year ago, said that he probably would not begin considering a new coach until next week.
“When I heard the news, I was in total disbelief,” Johnson said. “He was probably the greatest example for physical fitness and proper diet.”
Recalling a conversation he had with Allen a few days ago, Johnson said, “He was on cloud nine, excited about recruiting and the upcoming season. There’s a hole in my heart. A gentleman comes to your town, he’s here only a year and it’s amazing how many lives he touched.”
From the Allen home, his longtime attorney, Carl A. (Tony) Capozzola, said Monday: “We’ve been getting calls from all over the world. I had talked with him at 10:30 this morning to remind him about our traditional New Year’s Eve party.
“He sounded in good spirits. One of the last things he told me was that he was looking forward to next year with Long Beach.”
In New Orleans, where the Rams were preparing to play the Saints Monday night, Coach John Robinson said: “His last year was his finest. He was able to continue what he loved to do right until the end, which was something to be admired. He was obviously one of the great coaches.”
Jack Faulkner, the Rams’ administrator of football operations, recommended Allen for his first NFL job, as Sid Gillman’s assistant with the Rams in 1957.
“He was a good friend, and my heart goes out to Etty and her family,” said Faulkner, who had met Allen in 1955 when Allen was coaching Whittier College.
“He was a fitness guy and in terrific condition. He was the most disciplined guy in the game. He was thoroughly precise in every phase of the game.”
Referring to Allen’s season at Long Beach, Faulkner added, “Only George could’ve done that job. His enthusiasm for the game made those young guys successful.”
Former Washington Redskin quarterback Billy Kilmer, reached at his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., said: “I am just shocked. I am very upset. George was like a father to me. He showed so much interest in me and my family.
“We talked on Thanksgiving. I told him what he’d done at Long Beach was the best coaching job he’d ever done. George told me that they’d be better next year.”
Kilmer, who is from Azusa, where he played for Citrus High, added, “I told him I’d help him recruit in the San Gabriel Valley.”
Former Ram All-Pro defensive tackle Merlin Olsen said: “There was always something indestructible about George. He was so conscientious about his workouts. I saw him about three months ago, and he looked in excellent condition.”
When Allen came to the Rams in 1966, Olsen was a star entering his fifth season.
“George always needed a cadre of veteran players who were like his sergeants, his intermediaries to the rest of the team,” Olsen said. “I was one of those players.”
Others, Olsen said, included Gabriel, Deacon Jones, Maxie Baughan and Joe Scibelli.
“It would change from year to year, but there was usually about five of us,” Olsen said. “When he wanted to do something, you were involved. He wanted our input. Sometimes we told him, ‘George, you can’t do that.’ Sometimes he listened.
“The bottom line with George was, everywhere he went, every situation he got into, he turned things around. He seemed to relish that challenge.
“Often, people shook their heads and said, ‘You can’t do that.’ Then George would go out and prove them wrong.
“The No. 1 thing about George Allen, what he’ll be remembered as, is a winner.”
Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs said: “George Allen was a great football man and will leave his mark on all levels of coaching. He was a great motivator and helped establish the tradition of winning here with the Redskins.”
Redskin owner Jack Kent Cooke said: “He was a Trojan for work and for winning. He was one of the indestructibles.”
Allen’s hiring at Long Beach on Dec. 19, 1989, brought more publicity and national attention to the school than it ever had. And it did the same for the Big West Conference, a weak football league.
“People who wouldn’t have cared suddenly became more aware of Long Beach and the Big West, and they followed what happened in the conference more closely,” Big West Commissioner Jim Haney said.
“The shock of this is so sudden, one cannot put into perspective the accomplishment he performed this past year. It maybe wasn’t as triumphant as winning a Super Bowl, but it’s no less significant.
“I feel a loss, the conference feels a loss. The tribute to him is when you see how many people he’s come in contact with in his lifetime and how they keep coming back to support him. If he wasn’t loyal to those he touched, he wouldn’t receive it back. He was an inspirational person. The lives of those he came in contact with were enriched by crossing his path.”
Cal State Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy also spoke of Allen’s impact: “He brought the conference notoriety, no ifs, ands or buts. There were stories about him in Sports Illustrated, on CNN and ESPN, he was on every national TV station going. That was something Corey Johnson brought to the conference when he hired him, instant notoriety.
Allen’s team beat Murphy’s, 37-35, on Oct. 27.
“They beat us on recruits because of George Allen and not because of Long Beach,” Murphy said.
Iowa practiced for today’s Rose Bowl game against Washington at Cal State Long Beach, and Allen became friendly with Iowa Coach Hayden Fry.
He was planning to attend the game with his wife, son Greg, a grandson and Van Barbieri, a San Pedro realtor who was his administrative assistant when Allen coached the Chicago Blitz of the World Football League in 1983.
“The five of us,” Barbieri said. “We were going to go up on a bus with the Iowa Boosters from Newport Beach. I talked to him around 9 (Monday) morning just to confirm everything. Then between 11 and 11:30, I (checked in for messages) and he’d called me back.”
When Barbieri tried to return the call, Allen didn’t answer. Later, while watching the USC-Michigan State game on television, Barbieri learned of his friend’s death.
Times staff writers Tim Kawakami, Larry Stewart and Rich Roberts, and the Washington Post contributed to this story.
* ALLEN: The 72-year-old coach dies of natural causes at his home. A1.
The professional and college record, excluding postseason play, of George Allen, the football coach at Cal State Long Beach who died on Monday:
NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE
Year Team W L T 1966 Rams 8 6 0 1967 Rams* 11 1 2 1968 Rams 10 3 1 1969 Rams* 11 3 0 1970 Rams 9 4 1 1971 Washington* 9 4 1 1972 Washington* 11 3 0 1973 Washington 10 4 0 1974 Washington 10 4 0 1975 Washington 8 6 0 1976 Washington 10 4 0 1977 Washington 9 5 0 Totals 116 47 5
* Coach of the Year.
U.S. FOOTBALL LEAGUE
Year Team W L T 1983 Chicago 12 6 0 1984 Arizona 10 8 0 Totals 22 14 0
Year School W L T 1948 Morningside (Iowa) 3 6 0 1949 Morningside (Iowa) 7 3 1 1950 Morningside (Iowa) 7 2 1 1951 Whittier 2 7 0 1952 Whittier 9 1 0 1953 Whittier 6 3 1 1954 Whittier 3 6 1 1955 Whittier 8 2 0 1956 Whittier 4 3 3 1990 CS Long Beach 6 5 0 Totals 55 38 7
W L T Overall Pro Record 138 61 5 Combined Record 193 99 12