The Los Angeles Rams were flying home from a road game early in the season when a reporter accompanying the team started needling first-year Coach Ray Malavasi about "going Hollywood."
A few years of success, the writer teased, and Malavasi would become a Mercedes man, shop for real estate off Sunset Boulevard and stop off for postpractice drinks at the Polo Lounge.
Team ownver Carroll Rosenbloom happened to overhear the conversation and joined in.
"You know," he told the writer, "I have this little hous in Bel Air, worth $4 or $5 million, they tell me. I'll bet you my house against that drink in your hand that this man doesn't ever change."
Rosenbloom still has his mansion. He also has a coach who could well become the idol of every working stiff in America. Asked today if he allowed his players to drink beer on the team plane, Malavasi said, "You couldn't survive if you didn't have that."
Malavasi, 48, a squat fellow with a furnace face and an easy smile, is one of the game's most proficient survivors. He had spent 22 years as an assistant -- with one 12-game shot as interim coach of the Denver Broncos in 1966 -- before Rosenbloom chose him to replace George Allen in those tumultuous days of last August.
Malavasi had been a leading contender for the Ram job before Allen was hired, and, he admitted today, "I did swallow some pride" when he accepted Allen's offer to remanin on the staff ater five seasons as the team's defensive coordinator under Chuck Knox.
But he had no reservations about replacing Allen.
"Oh, yeah, it was a crazy time last summer," Malavasi said."But at least I had two exhibition games to experiment with. Plus, I'd been with the team as a defensive coordinator, so the transition wasn't that hard. George was in a tough spot. The players were successful before him and the change was tough."
The Rams had been miserable for three weeks under Allen, Players moaned that practices were too long, that the playbook was too complicated. They also complained about Allen's switch to a totally different brand of defense.
When Malavasi took over, he went back to the basic defense he had taught so successfully in five previous years. Practices were shorter, players were allowed water breaks. The offense began to open up a bit, with more multiple sets and formations than Allen ever would have used.
And so, the Rams won their first exhibition game the week after the great switch. They won seven in a row at the start of the regular season, slumped toward the end but atoned last week with a decisive first-round playoff victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
Still, it is said that Rosenbloom will not be satisfied unless the Rams advance into the Super Bowl, and that Malavasi can count on job security only if he wins it.
"Look," Malavasi said. "I'm under a three-year contract. Every owner in the league wants to get to the Super Bowl and every coach is under that pressure. I don't feel it any more than anyone else feels it. They expect you to win. If you don't, you're gone.
"There's not too many virgins left in the NFL."
There also are not too many coaches who enjoy the sort of admiration and respect of his players that Malavasi does.
"He's just a really terrific guy," said former Redskin Eddie Brown. "There's nothing fake about him. I don't know anybody who doesn't like him."
Still, some of the media types covering the football team are not totally taken with the new coach, And the feeling is mutual. Malavasi, it is said, no longer reads the newspapers. During press conferences, he can be very gruff, often referring to the writers and broadcasters as "you people."
In a telephone interview the other day with the Dallas sportswriters, someone asked Malavari if he thought his team had any advantages over the Cowboys, his opponents in the NFC title game Sunday.
"I know where we're stronger," he growled long distance, "but I'm sure not going to give it out."
How would he compare personnel?
"I'm just not going to say," he grumped. "That's my business."
And yet, this is the same fellow who delights his players on charter flights to away games by making up dozens of Italian submarine sandwiches to be eaten en route, a tradition that started his first year under Knox.
"Italian subs," he says, "full of bologna, salami and cheese. I'd been eating them all my life."
He also has the reputation as a practical joker.
"When I was an assistant coach in different places and there was a new coach on the staff, I'd pick up the phone, call him and say, 'This is the mole and you nave five days left,' and hang up," Malavasi said in a recent interview.
"I was trying to get a strength coach, Clyde Evans, and the first day I did it, Mickey Dukich, our film guy, picked up the phone. The next day, I did the same thing: 'This is the mole. You've got four days left.'
"Now he got excited, so he went to our director of operations, Jack Teele, and he says, 'Somebody is threatening me.' They called the police out in Fullerton and the next thing I know, they've got two detectives at our camp.
"I went over to Jack and told him who it was, and he saughed."
Malavasi laughs uproariously when he tells the story on himself.He also is a man who admits that his approach to coaching has changed over the years, from the Lombardi-type screamer to a vioce of calm, reason and compassion.
"I'm tough when I have to be," he said, "but awhile back I began to see you could get a lot more out of the players with a different approach. On this team, I haven't had to get tough.
"It's a great group. I've got good assistants, and we're all in this thing together. You work hard, you don't look ahead and you don't look back. That's how I've always approached the game in the past, and thaths how I'll always be."
Like Rosenbloom said, some men never change.