There have been coaches, a man once said, who passed for figures of greatness, who enriched the sport they taught. George Allen, the man went on, is the only coach ever to be smaller than the game.

Feeling such as this about the former Redskin leader are not uncommon around the NFL. An informal poll taken by Dan Jenkins in a recent Sport Illustrated had Allen as the most disliked coach in the league.

On meeting the man, is is at first hard to figure why. He seems pleasant enough, if a bit earnest, perhaps like some kindly college professor. And his won-lost record at Los Angeles and Washington of 116-47.5 is one of the very best in pro football. Despite the record, Allen has never achieved his ultimate goal: winning the Super Bowl.

It is not only this that led to Allen's departure. The feeling in the Redskin's hierachy was that this particular coach had taken the team as far as he could. More than that, his trade now, pay-later philosophy had quite conceivably built a bleak future - and at unprecedented expense.

"You must have young players coming in all the time to develop consistency over the years," Oakland Raider boss Al Davis once said. "I think with George Allen's system, you eventually ruin the team."

Allen's system excluded higher authorities. No man with such a spare-no-cost attitude had ever constructed such a powerful football empire: coach, general manager, absolute master of a personal fiefdom built to his specifications in suburban Virginia.

But the concept of giving Allen an unlimited budget and having him, in Redskins president Edward Bennett Williams' once joking words, "already exceed it," no longer seemed practical or amusing. After seven years, Williams felt the results no longer justified the expenditure.

Owners have a way of changing their minds about Allen despite his seeming successes. The late Los Angeles Rams owner Dan Reeves fired Allen twice before he made it stick. And Williams, on the night he introduced Allen in Washington, said I'll never hire another coach."

Truly there is something about George Allen and the way he operates that inevitably turns admirers into detractors. In no other coach do we see such a flipflop of opinion, of players loving him at first and later feeling quite bitterly the opposite.

Because Allen is the Snake Oil King, telling one and all about the winning they're going to do, how putting up with his rah-rah ways will lead them to greater glory. And, for a while, the players believe, so much so that when they find the promises turned to dust, when they find Allen not anove manipulating the English language to his ends, when they find that he is not the true friend he as much as swore he'd always be, that initial attraction sours terribly.

"To be perfectly honest," a Redskin said two years ago, "a lot of guys are sick of George. The rah-rah approach is getting old."

As it grew old in Washington, so it had gotten old in Los Angeles before that. Said Merlin Olsen, the all-pro Ram tackle, "Allen operates in a very pressurized atmosphere. At the end of a season with George, I felt like I had been beaten by one thousand war clubs. It's like you're on the inside of a giant bass drum.

"You can only go to the well so many times. The first time he says this is the most important game of your lives, you believe it. Maybe you'll believe it the second and third time, too. But the twentieth time, you start to wonder. If you ask for the superior effort week after week, after a while you don't get it. Sure, that's probably a major reason we never won the championship."

Super Bowl or not, one of the major ironies of Allen's departure from Washington - and, before that, Los Angeles - is that he put together an extraordinary record. Yet nothing Allen becomes involved in ever seems to have much to do with logic, or normalcy.

When he tried to quit his job as assistant coach with the Chicago Bears to take the Rams' job, crusty owner George Hales voiced a surprise objection, took him to court, and won his point, before grandly dismissing him. The reason Reeves's first firing of Allen didn't last was that several key players unexpectedly stood up for their coach, threatening to quit. Even when Reeves canned Allen a second time (and no one came to the rescue), the move, as in Washington, was not based on wins and losses.

How account for the repeated dismissals of one of the most successful coaches in the history of the game? Part of the answer is that Allen is victimized by his philosophy, by his relentless insistence that all you have to do is give him everything and he guarantees total success. Guarantees, yes; delivers, no.

But more than that, Allen and his peculiar philosophy sooner or later wear out their welcome. He is so megalomaniacal about winning, so insistent that victories are, is possible, more important that life itself, so willing to twist everthing twistable, to blame everyone blamable, that he shreds the last vestiges of illusion owners have about being involved in a sport.

When you work with George Allen, you know it's not just a game, you see professional football for the ruthless enterprise it really it. Faced with the chance of getting out of the sport or getting rid of Allen, owners inevitably take the path of least resistance: they kill the bearer of bad news and let their illusions live another day.

Gildea and Turan are coauthors of "The Future Is Now: George Allen, Pro Football's Most Controversial Coach."