The death of George Allen, who never won a Super Bowl, who's not in the Hall of Fame, who was, after all, only a football coach, was front-page news across the country.
There's an easy, if ironic, explanation for this phenomenon: Allen, the ultimate, driven, I-am-the-game-and-the-game-is-me coach, transcended the sport that made him famous.
In the final analysis, Allen, who was Dick Nixon's favorite football coach, represented the perfect, win-at-all-costs, situational-ethics model for the Watergate era. What kind of coach do you think Nixon would have made?
No, Allen wasn't banished from the NFL for whatever rules he might have broken -- unless you count being a nuisance to your employer -- but the course of his career did offer evidence that maybe winning isn't everything.
I asked a friend who covered Allen's Washington teams his enduring memory of the man, and he spoke of a Sunday afternoon locker-room scene in Philadelphia after a Redskins victory in which the team gathered around Allen in prayer. It was the same day on which Allen had traded a draft pick he no longer owned.
He traded draft picks he didn't own, and he sent people to spy on opposing teams. And there is this revealing Allen story involving a son, Bruce, who was, in the course of a game, insulting the officials from the sidelines. When a referee told Allen that he was going to throw a flag if the kid didn't shut up, Allen said he didn't know the young man and suggested that he was a ball boy sent over by the opposing team.
That was George Allen then, and, from all reports, the man he remained.
He was exiled, we know, not unlike Nixon. He was fired from his last job in the NFL, with the Rams, after two preseason games in 1978. There were two years in the USFL, but Allen, the third-winingest coach in NFL history, became persona non grata in the league that counted, the league that he loved.
And yet, he returned to football -- the new Allen? -- this last fall, at age 72, to coach Long Beach State, a football nonentity that seemed beyond salvaging. Allen died of cardiac arrest, and those who know him suggest that he worked himself to death coaching this woebegone team to a 6-5 record.
In the first game of his last season, Long Beach was playing against Clemson, a team that would go on to win, 59-0. Because neither team had film on the other, the coaches agreed to exchange scrimmage films. Except that the film Allen sent looked as if it had been taken through the Hubble telescope. It was blurry and revealed almost nothing about the Long Beach team. At 72, Allen hadn't lost a step.
He is remembered as an eccentric who ate ice cream and licked his thumbs and wore baseball caps and coached each game as if his life depended on it. He was loyal to those who were loyal to him, and, if he told the occasional lie, he also did many good deeds. He believed, in his own way. He believed in short hair and old players and that the future is now and that everything -- all efforts -- had to be concentrated on building a winning football team.
As his legacy, it is fair to offer up the Redskins of the modern era. In the days before Allen arrived, the Redskins had struggled though a quarter-century of lovable mediocrity. In his second season, he took them to the Super Bowl. He figured a way to steal John Riggins, who would lead them to a Super Bowl victory in the years after Allen's dismissal. He made winning fashionable for the Redskins, and they have been winning ever since.
You can't argue with the numbers -- a 49-17-4 record with the Rams, 67-30-1 with the Redskins -- but you can't argue either with the fact that, even with those numbers, he couldn't find a job. He wasn't worth the winning. He spent too much money, demanded too much control, broke too many rules.
Those who know him say he never understood why the NFL owners turned against him. Certainly he never considered that he might have been at fault. Maybe the most damning thing anyone ever said about Allen came from Dan Reeves, who owned the Rams when Allen first coached there. "We had more fun losing," Reeves said.
When finally he took the Long Beach job, this old man, an anachronism, shocked those in the football world, many of whom wondered what he could be thinking. Maybe Allen was looking for one last chance to prove that he was right all along. And, by his standards, he proably had. The team had a winning record, didn't it? What more could anyone ask?