Remembering Washington’s “first couple” of the 1970s

There have been half a dozen or more NFL coaches who were more successful than George Allen, though only two have higher winning percentages. But other than Vince Lombardi, have there been any who were more vivid? And even Lombardi could not match Allen’s combination of fanatical intensity and innovative intelligence.

As a die-hard Redskins fan throughout Allen’s time here, I could post George Allen stories for days. One of my favorites came from a reporter who visited Allen in his office. According to the reporter, Allen took inventory of the items in the room — pencils, a lamp, a movie projector — rating each according to how much it would help him win football games and showing scorn for the less useful objects.

Allen once told his players that he wished the team’s upcoming game with the hated Dallas Cowboys could be settled mano-a-mano between him and Cowboys coach Tom Landry. This suggestion had little support from the players because Landry was the bigger man (I believe) and had been a much more successful athlete. But I suspect Allen would have fought Landry to no worse than a draw or died trying. Indeed, Allen did die winning for his team. After the final game of a season in which he resurrected the fortunes of a hapless college team (Long Beach State), the squad drenched him in Gator-Aide and the coach died of pneumonia.

As many Allen wannabes have discovered, coaching intensity alone won’t take you to the playoffs; you also need to be smarter than the other guy. Allen was much smarter. As an assistant coach for the Chicago Bears, Allen is said to have revolutionized the use of linebackers. His defense led the Bears to the championship in 1963 despite (what I recall to be) a mediocre offense. After the game, Allen got the game ball as his charges sang, “Hooray for Allen, he’s a horse’s ass.”

Allen’s next stop was Los Angeles where he turned a sick Rams team into a championship contender. It was here that Allen more or less invented special teams. Apparently, he was the first coach to figure out that something like one sixth of the plays in a football game consist of kickoffs, punts, and place kicks. So instead of just sending 11 guys out for these plays, Allen gave them the same emphasis as offensive and defensive plays. To reinforce that emphasis, Allen came up with the name “special teams.” His devotion to this aspect of the game paid huge dividends, most notably when his special team blocked a punt to turn around a must-win game against Lombardi’s mighty Packers and lift the Rams into the playoffs.

When Allen came to the Redskins in 1969, we had experienced only one winning season in more than a decade (coaxed out of the team in 1967 by Lombardi in his final year as a coach). [see corections below] In his second year in charge, Allen took us to the Super Bowl. Had we played a lesser team than the Miami Dolphins (the NFL’s last undefeated team), we might well have won the championship.

Allen built the Redskins so quickly by trading draft picks (including one that he didn’t have) for aging veterans. When the Super Bowl team went over-the-hill, he used the same formula to try to keep us on top. We remained a play-off team pretty consistently, but would not return to the Big Game under his leadership.

The Washington sports reporter corps never seemed to like Allen much. His fanaticism was off-putting and he may have reminded reporters too much of his fellow self-made eccentric and Whittier College guy, Richard Nixon. Allen contributed to this perception when (it was widely reported) he used an offensive play designed by Nixon in a play-off game against the 49ers (I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have allowed Nixon to interfere with his defense). The play, some sort of reverse, went for a big loss and helped stopped an important drive.

The press corps, on the other hand, seemed quite taken with Allen’s wife, Etty. How much do we generally learn about the wife of an NFL coach? Joe Gibbs has coached the Redskins longer than Allen did and the only thing I know about his wife is her name. But we heard a fair amount about Etty Allen in Washington during the 1970s, even though she does not appear to have desired the limelight. We learned that she was a sophisticated, cultured, multi-lingual woman with some sort of connection to the Old World. We also learned that every year during the off-season, she would take coach Allen and the family to Europe. As I read these stories I always pictured Allen in Pisa wondering how the leaning tower could help him win a football game.

This I’m pretty sure now was an unfair thought. The driven coach and the cultured lady must have had much more in common than my cartoonish image of them suggested. At a minimum, I think they shared a powerful intelligence. It’s no wonder that they raised such successful and interesting children.

Etty Allen, 83 years old, is back in the news, thanks to efforts by sleazy politicos to bring down her son. Her connection to the “old world” is even more intriguing now, but it’s less glamorous. We learn that she made the difficult and entirely understandable decision not to tell her children about a key aspect of that connection, and that her husband knew about (and I assume supported) the decision.

Because of the disclosure, we know more now about Washington’s first couple of the 1970s, but no more about their son the politician. Despite my long-time fascination with the couple, I’d be happier if their decision to keep their secret had been allowed to stick.

CORRECTION: I realized with horror when I woke up today that Allen came to the Skins in 1971, not 1969 and that Lombardi’s winning (and only) season here was 1969, not 1967.

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