By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009; D01
Standing behind a lectern at Redskins Park, Bruce Allen sported a smile and a tie striped with burgundy and gold, the hues that colored his atypical youth and that will tint his professional future.
"If you told me 35 years ago I'd be standing here at new Redskins Park, I don't think I would have bet on it," said Allen, hired Thursday to serve as executive vice president and general manager for the Redskins, the team he grew up loving when his father, Hall of Famer George Allen, coached in Washington from 1971 to 1977.
Charged with returning the Redskins to their glory years, Allen, 53, comes to the struggling franchise having posted mixed results at his previous NFL stops. Those who worked alongside him in Oakland, where he served in the front office from 1995 to 2003, and Tampa Bay, where he was general manager from 2003 until he was fired in January, reveal a complex portrait of an executive who's great with people and even better with numbers.
"Bruce is a guy who's hard not to like," said Doug Williams, the former Redskins quarterback who is the Buccaneers' director of professional scouting. "One thing he does have is people skills. Bruce has a good knack with coaches and a great knack with agents. He has a real presence. Bruce could sit down and talk with the best of them, smile at you and then tell you, 'No.' But he tells you no, and you're still going to like him."
Allen's chance for future success could largely hinge on his relationship with owner Daniel Snyder. In Oakland, Allen thrived and was considered the right-hand man to Al Davis, an owner known for putting his fingerprints on most decisions. Those familiar with those days say Allen's role was largely on the business side. He had little to do with the team's personnel decisions but was considered essential in contract negotiations and juggling salary-cap numbers.
"He's just a natural people person," said Ken Herock, who also worked alongside Allen in Oakland's front office. "Part of what he did for us was making sure the relationship between the coach and the owner was working well, making sure the players were tended to. He was always seeking the input of people around him."
Jon Gruden, who coached in Oakland and Tampa Bay during Allen's tenures, expressed optimism Thursday afternoon about his chances for success in Washington.
"His background and understanding of the Washington Redskins' tradition will be a huge asset to the Redskins," said Gruden, now an analyst for ESPN's "Monday Night Football," in a prepared statement. "He is a leader and a great fit for this job. He's a big reason why I had any success in coaching."
Allen cut his teeth in the NFL working in Oakland's front office, eventually winning the George Young Executive of the Year Award in 2002, the season in which the Raiders reached the Super Bowl.
"The Super Bowl year was a great year," said Michael Lombardi, a former NFL executive who worked with Allen in Oakland. "There was a lot of pieces that had to fall together -- signing Sam Adams in training camp, Rod Woodson -- there was a lot of elements that had to come together."
When Bruce Allen arrived in Tampa, Gruden played a central role in many of the Bucs' personnel decisions, but Allen was the one who moved the pieces around to create flexibility under the salary cap. Under Allen, the team parted ways with Warren Sapp and Jon Lynch, icons around Tampa Bay, and awarded big contracts to veterans who didn't pan out, such as running back Charlie Garner and offensive lineman Todd Steussie. His draft classes weren't well regarded, either: wide receiver Michael Clayton was a first-rounder in the 2004; defensive end Gaines Adams, since traded to Chicago, was selected with the fourth overall pick in '07; and wideout Dexter Jackson, Tampa Bay's second-round pick last year, still hasn't caught an NFL pass.
Along with Gruden, Allen was fired after the team posted a second straight 9-7 season in 2008.
"I wouldn't say things didn't work out here," Williams said. "We won two division championships. Bruce was a big part of that. I think what Bruce did here was help from salary-cap standpoint, put us in the position we're in today. When I first got here, when it came to free agency, it was hard to do anything because we didn't have the money."
Asked Thursday about his ability to assess and acquire personnel, Allen joked that with "the players who have performed well, I'm pretty good. The players who didn't, I wasn't so hot.
"I'm going to work hard. I've made some draft mistakes. I've made some free agent mistakes. But as a team, our teams did pretty well."
Allen is the first executive under Snyder to hold the title of general manager, but it wasn't immediately clear what Allen's responsibilities would be going forward. Those who've watched him build other teams say he'll assess the organizational structure and quickly identify areas that need improvement.
"He's been around the game. He understands the game. I love people that understand it," said Ron Jaworski, a veteran ESPN analyst. "Unfortunately, sometimes you kind of get pigeonholed, 'Oh, he's just a [salary] cap guy,' things like that. That's a perception that people have, I'm not sure that's a reality."Family ties
Allen has spent his entire life around football, serving in numerous capacities over the years. George Allen, a former U.S. senator and Virginia governor, joked that his younger brother might be the only general manager in football who was previously a ballboy, an unpaid equipment manager, a waterboy -- and that was before he played the game in college or coached it as an adult. All of the Allen children grew up around football teams -- childhood stories are sprinkled with tales of being tied to goal posts -- as their father hopped from coaching jobs in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington.
At the University of Richmond, Allen was a standout punter and was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1978. An injury ended his playing career but gave him a head start down the coaching path,
Starting at Arizona State as an assistant in 1979, Allen was hired just a year later as the head coach at Occidental College. He was just 22 at the time.
After dabbling in coaching and working later as an agent, Allen joined his father in the upstart United States Football League, where George Allen concluded his head coaching career. Bruce Allen served as general manager for his father's teams in Chicago and Phoenix.
"I think it gave my father a lot of comfort having Bruce right there with him," George Allen said.
Watching his younger brother's introductory news conference on television from his Alexandria office, George Allen couldn't help but feel a twinge of nostalgia.
"The Redskins have always held a special place in his heart," the elder Allen said. "That's part of our family's bloodline and heritage. It feels so natural. We all think of our father every day, and this is a day I know he's smiling down from heaven."
"I look at it this way: Bruce is coming home."
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.