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Bruce Allen returns to Washington, ready to build on experience

By Barry Svrluga and Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 20, 2009; D01

The most romantic of notions were easily conjured over the past few days, ever since Bruce Allen, who could hardly stop himself from smiling, strode to a lectern at Redskins Park wearing, naturally, a burgundy and gold tie. Since Thursday afternoon, when Allen was introduced as the new general manager of the Washington Redskins, there have been the following reactions from those who remember the heady days of the 1970s, when Allen's father George coached the team, when Allen himself hung around and learned:

"I think he's a perfect hire," said Richie Petitbon, a Redskins safety in 1970-71, the head coach in 1993.

"It feels really right," said Bruce's sister, Jennifer.

"This is a dream deal, to come back to all the history we had there," said Tommy McVean, the Redskins' equipment manager under the elder Allen.

"It's just a perfect fit," said Bruce's brother, George, a former governor of Virginia who later served in the U.S. Senate.

For so many people, this is the time, before Bruce Allen even begins to reshape his father's franchise, to reflect on his own ties to the Redskins, and how the position he just took over -- replacing Vinny Cerrato, who resigned under pressure -- is in so many ways his dream job. But Allen comes to his new position with a diverse and, at times, controversial résumé, a lifetime in football that includes stints as a punter, a coach, a general manager and an agent.

Allen's father may have coached the Redskins from 1971 to '77, leading them to a Super Bowl. But as Allen began his job last week -- watching as the coach he inherited, Jim Zorn, tried to prepare a 4-9 team for Monday night's game against the New York Giants -- what mattered more than his time as a teenage ball boy were his stints with the Oakland Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and even with a couple of teams in the old United States Football League.

"Bruce comes there with his own credentials," said Brig Owens, who played defensive back for the Redskins under George Allen. "He's got a commitment to excellence, a commitment to winning. Hours won't mean anything to him. He comes there with his own expertise, regardless of who his father was, and he's going to be successful."

A team spokesman said Allen was not available to be interviewed for this story. But at his introductory news conference Thursday, the man who has spent almost all of his 53 years in football described his philosophy thusly:

"It's getting as many good football players and great leadership and coaching. It's a real simple formula."

Father, son and the USFL

That, though, doesn't begin to address his complex mix of experiences. The portion of Allen's job history that seems most like an afterthought comes from those days in the USFL. In the 1970s, renowned Arizona heart physician Ted Diethrich gave a few lectures to NFL teams about the dangers of heart disease. He met and befriended George Allen, and bought the Chicago franchise in the USFL, the Blitz, which began play as a charter member of the league in 1983. Diethrich hired George Allen as the coach. George Allen hired his son, Bruce -- fresh off stints as an assistant coach at Arizona State and the head coach at Division III Occidental College in Los Angeles -- to be the general manager.

"The way all that worked out perfectly for Bruce and really, my father, too," Bruce's brother George said. "The USFL was created and it was something they went into together."

They worked in concert, father and son. Diethrich said in those days, when Bruce Allen was in his late 20s, he was much quieter than his father. His mind, though, constantly churned.

"I always had the idea that Bruce had something up his sleeve," Diethrich said last week. "He was responsible for all the players we drafted and got on the Blitz. He'd come in and he'd have this funny expression on his face, and I knew he had found somebody."

The USFL was a renegade league, seeking to challenge the NFL's dominance of professional football, so Allen had to be a renegade general manager. Diethrich lost so much money on the Blitz that he wanted a way out, so he sold that franchise and bought the Arizona Wranglers, in his home town of Phoenix. The Allens came with him, and, Diethrich said, Bruce Allen continued to serve as much as an agent as a general manager, because drafting a player into the USFL didn't mean he would sign.

"He'd go out, meet the guys, and a lot of them didn't have professional agents," Diethrich said. "He'd convince them to come. He really negotiated a lot of the contracts."

Both Chicago and Arizona made the playoffs in their one season with the Allens; Arizona lost the 1984 championship game to Philadelphia.

"My dad had a great time in the USFL," Jennifer Allen said. "He loved working in a trailer and having a challenge. Bruce was a great source of comfort for him, and made his job easier."

But after the 1984 USFL season, the Wranglers merged with the Oklahoma franchise. The Allens were out of their jobs. George Allen, 66 by that point, stopped coaching. (He later made a return at Long Beach State.) Bruce, looking for a way to further his career in football, became a player agent. His background came in football. But according to people who worked with him at different stops in his career, he had other attributes that helped him as an agent.

"He's a people person," said Ken Herock, who worked with Allen in Oakland's front office.

"He's a good communicator," said Michael Lombardi, another former Raiders executive.

So he started GBA Sportsworld with Bob Owens, a former assistant coach at Arizona State and UNLV. His stint as an agent, though, was controversial. He was accused of signing two players from UNLV before they were seniors, sparking an NCAA investigation. He later was fired by two of his most prominent clients, running backs Ickey Woods and Craig Heyward, who accused Allen of defrauding them and costing them money in bad real estate deals. Another client, Vince Amoia, was awarded $81,000 from Allen because of breach of contract in another bad real estate deal.

"I just left him," Woods said by phone Saturday. "We didn't have no ill will. He's an all right guy by me. I ain't going to dwell on the past. I ain't got no comment on it."

Most of the charges, which Allen denied, were revealed in a series of stories by the Los Angeles Times in 1990 and 1991. At the time, Allen blamed the disagreements on ill will from other agents who felt he had an unfair advantage because of his football pedigree.

"I would like to think I'm successful," Allen told the Times in 1990. "But if my father ran a bakery in Redondo Beach, there wouldn't have been any lawsuits, there wouldn't have been any story. . . . There's a lot of jealousy on the part of agents who are incompetent fueling this."

Time in Oakland, Tampa

Allen's career as an agent continued until 1995, five years after his father's death. Then, he was hired by Raiders owner Al Davis, just as the team was moving from Los Angeles back to Oakland. He was at first called a "senior assistant," then the director of football operations. Regardless of title, he got his first true taste of managing a salary cap, negotiating for the club on contracts -- and dealing with a strong-willed owner.

"That was such a dysfunctional situation," said Mike White, who was hired by Davis to be the first head coach in Allen's tenure. "But Bruce, I think he and I worked together really well. He has tremendous loyalty to the people that he's surrounded with. I know that he was miserable at Oakland. But he did his job professionally. He worked at the relationship with Al Davis."

Part of working with Davis meant doing his bidding. White's first two Raiders teams finished 8-8 and 7-9. On Christmas Eve in 1996, Davis had Allen call White and fire him.

"I gained tremendous respect for him, the way he handled it," White said of Allen. "I almost sensed an apologetic kind of tone because of the role that he was performing. I'm sure that he also realized that that's no way to run an organization. I've got to believe he learned from it. I have got to believe that he won't make any of those mistakes, and I believe the first person he'll communicate with will be the owner, and the next person will be whoever he selects as his coach."

Davis's next head coach under Allen was current Redskins offensive line coach Joe Bugel, who last week declined through a spokesman to be interviewed about Allen. Bugel was fired after one 4-12 season, and replaced by Jon Gruden, the young offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles. Together, Gruden and Allen brought in free agent quarterback Rich Gannon before the 1999 season. In 2000 and 2001, the Raiders won AFC West titles.

Gruden was, by that point, deemed valuable enough that Tampa Bay traded four draft picks and $8 million to Oakland to make Gruden its head coach. Allen was left behind. The Raiders' next coach, Bill Callahan, guided Oakland to the AFC championship following the 2002 season. After that season, Allen was named as the NFL's executive of the year. Also after that season, Allen faced Gruden and the Buccaneers in the Super Bowl.

Tampa Bay won that game, but fell to 7-9 the following year. Gruden subsequently persuaded Buccaneers ownership to remove longtime general manager Rich McKay and hire, in his place, Gruden's old buddy Allen.

What happened next might be the best indication of what could be to come in Washington: Allen and Gruden overhauled the roster, adding 30 new faces and ridding the team of safety John Lynch and defensive tackle Warren Sapp. Both were fan favorites and Tampa Bay icons. Neither approved of the way Allen handled their exits. When Lynch, a Buccaneer for 11 years, ended up in Denver, he said he thought of Allen every time he unpacked a box.

The results for the Buccaneers: division titles in 2005 and 2007, but an overall record of 38-42 in five seasons, with no playoff victories. Gruden and Allen were both fired this past January. Tampa Bay fans were left to debate their moves, both good (trading for wide receiver Joey Galloway in 2004) and bad (signing big-money free agents Charlie Garner, Todd Steussie and Derrick Deese that same year).

That led to Allen's first time away from the game. He spent the past year, he said, talking with different NFL teams about how they operate, investigating and preparing for his next job -- wherever it might be.

"It's been educational," Allen said Thursday. "I've been given access to teams in the NFL that you can't get if you work for another team because you're a competitor. I have seen some good ideas and I've heard some good thoughts by various coaches and front-office people that I've talked to.

"I'm not big into relaxing, though. Part of that was a burning desire to get better when I was doing that."

And as Bruce Allen tried to get better, not knowing where he might end up, others who remember the George Allen years in Washington watched the team slide. Jennifer Allen wore her Redskins jersey, the one her father made her for her 16th birthday, for Halloween. "I must have had a premonition," she said.

McVean, the old equipment man, watched the Redskins' overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints, "and I was throwing stuff all around my house."

Petitbon, who still lives in Vienna, watched Allen accept the job last week. He thought about the days when the kid used to run around Redskins practices as a ball boy. "He's got the right bloodlines," Petitbon said.

But given the variety of Allen's experiences, does that matter?

"I think so," Petitbon said. "I think that's probably one of the things that's been lacking. This fan base, they're a fabulous, loyal fan base. But they've reached a point right now where they're really fed up -- and rightfully so. It's been a long time, but I think there's light at the end of the tunnel now. If they let him do his job, I think it's perfect, just a perfect fit."

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