THEY WERE BIG MEN, balding, and they were sitting next to me in the restaurant talking baseball. The more they talked the more apparent it became that they coached kids and their problem, simply put, was how to get kids who could not hit to stand up to the plate with the bat on their shoulder and hope for a walk. After all, they agreed, winning is everything.
My friend and I listened and we conjured up this image of some little kid standing at the plate, wearing a plastic helmet two sizes too big for him. His mother and father in the stands, the kid just standing there, the bat heavy on his shoulder, watching the ball whiz by. We indulged ourselves a bit with this kind of thinking, working up a real hate for the coaches and making the usual observations about what was wrong nowadays with sports - this obession with winning, this business about how it really doesn't matter at all how you play the game, just so long as you win.
I bring this up now because it's the sort of thing heard about George Allen, the former coach of the Redskins, all the time he was in Washington and particularly at the end of last month when he was fired and wound up taking a job with Los Angeles. The rap against Allen was that he valued winning more as someone put it, than life itself, equating losing, as he once did, with death, and leaving you wondering if a tie was something like a coma. In his own terms, Allen lived much more than he died, although he died the biggest death of all - no victory in the Super Bowl. He must think of himself as one of history's tragic figures.
This kind of thinking, this sort of obsessive desire to win, did not make Allen a wildly popular coach here and won him few friends in the world of professional football. An informal poll, for instance, had him ranked as the most unpopular coach in the National Football League. That is losing of a sort and maybe another variation of death.
Anyway, when Allen was fired in Washington and then hired in Los Angeles, he became the subject of lots of articles and much conversation. I read and I listened and the more I did the more confused I got. I can understand why George Allen is not liked and I can understand why some people compare him to Richard Nixon - another obsessive personality who will win at any cost, not because winning is so important but because losing is so painful. There are other similarities, but it is mainly this winning thing that comes to mind - that and how they both are inept about disguising it.
Still, the more I thought about Allen, the more I had to admire the man. Sorry about that, but when you sit down and think about Allen you have to ask what all the fuss is about. He is not, after all, the first person in football to say that winning was the whole ball of wax. Even back in high school my friends who were on the football team used to talk about how the coach taught them how to gang-tackle - hit a man high and hit him low and maybe force something to break. It isn't pretty but it wins football games. If that's what they do in high school football, what do you think goes on in the pros and does it come as any surprise to you that professional teams are out to make money? Winning teams are the ones who do that.
So what is it all about? What is it about Allen that drives some people up the wall? What it is could be an unintentional honesty, an inability to play the game as it has been played, to think of football as anything other than a very serious business in which lots of money is at stake. At least on the coaching end, it has become a game for technicians, for men who think in inches rather than in yards, and there is something about all that that the fan does not like. Th fan is the last of the romantics.
He is the one, after all, who adopts a business corporation and calls it "we" or "us" or something like that. He identifies with a corporation owned by stockholders who might live in other cities and he roots for players who probably live somewhere else, whose association with Washington may be strictly contractual. And who may be more than willing to follow their coach to a new team. It is not too much to say that the fans are more loyal to the team than either the coach or the players or, for that matter, the owners.
The thing about Allen is that he sees through all that. What is romance and glory to everyone else is business to him. There is something about his manner that lets you know that a victory on a fumble is as good as one won on a heart-stopping pass or a run that leaves you breathless. In the end, it really is the score that counts and while it would have been terrific if George Allen had been fired because he played a boring game or because his philosophy was considered unsportsmanlike, the fact of the matter is that that was not the case at all. He did not leave Washington unpopular and much criticized because of his win-at-any-cost philosophy, but because at any cost he did not win enough. He set his own standards and he failed to live up to them. He proved his own point.
Winning, after all, is the only thing.