George Allen, now in his 17th month of exile from the coaching profession he loves so much, admits there might be only one way for him to return to the National Football League.
He might have to buy his own team.
"It's a possibility," he said today while sitting in his luxurious hilltop home 1,000 feet above the blue Pacific Ocean.
On a clear day, Allen almost can see forever amid this picture-book setting of orange, olive and towering eucalyptus trees. He almost can see all the way to Pasadena, where the Rams and Steelers will play Sunday (6 p.m. EST) in the Super Bowl.
Allen will attend that game, not as coach of the Rams, who sent him into this unwanted exile in the summer of 1978, but as a television commentator.
"Little did I think that in 1980, I'd be making my living in a TV booth," he said without emotion.
He would rather be somewhere else in the NFL, watching endless films, singing those corny fight songs with his players and eating peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, gulping milk by the gallon.
But for 17 months, the constant phone calls to this Spanish estate near the sea have not included a bona-fide offer to return to the football wars.
He is puzzled by his lack of coaching employment. He produced 12 years of winners in the NFL, strong teams with solid defenses and playoff talent. It is an acknowledged record of success that he thinks should have owners knocking down his front door.
Instead, he finds himself on the outside of pro football, looking for some owner "who is so tired of losing that he will turn to someone who will produce a winner: me."
Yet, his admission that he might have to become an owner himself, most likely in partnership, to regain a key to the NFL door, is a sign that Allen, after months of bitterness about his predicament, finally could be coming to terms with reality.
As much as it is distasteful to him, he accepts the fact that the right phone call may never come, that his win-at-all-costs drive created too many enemies, that no one ever may ask him to return to the sidelines again.
"Owners," he said, "are afraid of my strong personalilty." They also have misconceptions, he says, about how he would build a winner. And his shocking dismissal from the Rams after two exhibition games " really has hurt me. People say, 'There must be something more to it than we know. He really must have done something horrible.'"
A month ago, Allen thought there might be a conspiracy in the NFL to keep him away, to blackball him from the league. His exile, he said, was ruining his reputation unfairly.
Now he claims he has changed his mind. No conspiracy exists. His reputation will survive. Meanwhile, he is enjoying a phase of life "that I never knew existed before. This could have been disastrous to me and my family. Instead, it's brought us closer together and opened up a whole new life that I would never have seen before. But my time will come."
Others in the league agree with him. "I have a gut feeling," said Gil Brandt of the Dallas Cowboys, "that George will get a job this year. No reason why I feel this way, but I just do.
"Some owner will come along and take a chance with George."
That's the catch. When you hire Allen, you don't hire your everyday, Garden-variety coach who is content to diagram plays on the blackboard while sipping an occasional drink with a doting owner.
When you hire Allen, you take a chance.
Hiring Allen means handing over control of football operations to him. "It's the only way you can win in this league," he said. "I don't have to be both coach and general manager. I really don't want to have to sign players. But I've won doing things a certain way, so why should I change?
"I can coach in other ways but it won't work, it won't be successful. The coach has to have the final say. If I came in with another general manager, I'm sure he would be apprehensive with me around.
"I don't mean this as being disrespectful to anyone in the league but coaches who don't have a say in personnel are figureheads. That is just reality."
Hiring Allen means putting up with potential disruptions within the organization -- what one owner termed "distasteful incidents" -- that have arisen in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington. Allen has been known to stretch or break league rules and demand unbroken loyalty from his employees.
Hiring Allen means acquiring that enormously strong personality and ego. It means spending money for improved facilities and player salaries. It means, in essence, turning over an owner's windup toy to a new keyturner.
"By now, most owners and general managers have said to themselves, "We don't need this trouble,'" said one NFL owner. "This guy is a classic example of a guy making the same mistakes over and over."
Continued the owner: "George has often been called insidious and he is. He will work around an agreement that left personnel up to the general manager. I would never have him in any capacity; coach, general manager, nothing."
And yet -- "Don't count him out. Some owner will get desperate and say, 'Maybe I can rein him in.'"
Other owners have tried. Allen clashed with George Halas, with Dan Reeves, who fired him twice, with Edward Bennett Williams and, finally, with Carroll Rosenbloom. They all were successful, strong men who thought Allen could function within their parameters. Ultimately, he couldn't.
Ironically, no one questions Allen's coaching ability. "He's one of the two or three best coaches around," said Joe Sullivan of the Cardinals. "He's up there with Shula and Noll and Landry. He's a brilliant coach, the tops.
"But things have changed in football. Teams now have to watch more closely what they spend and what they take in. Owners consider draft choices assets. They don't want them traded off all the time.
"Owners want to run their own show. They don't want to give up as much authority. They know Dan Reeves didn't feel he had his own team to run when George was in L.A.
"You also have to look at how George left the Redskins. I'm sure owners would have to think about the long-term effects he has with personnel. You can't think short-term anymore. With the way things are today, it's tough enough to build through the draft without worring about big trades." i
According to George Young of the New York Giants, owners also are becoming more convinced "that it's best to divide the jobs between the coach and the general manager. But George has always functioned best as both.
"One job doesn't befit the other. The business has become too big. You've got to be an expert in football and you've got to be an expert in business and contacts and negotiations.
"I'm sure George can't understand why he is out of a job. But this isn't a rational, logical business. There are a lot of people with ability who are out of work."
Brandt says that Allen's reputation "as a free spender is hurting him. Right now, if it wasn't for the television agreement, we'd all have money problems. And George has made a lot of enemies. They resent how he made all of us work harder."
Said one general manager: "The only way he can survive is to spend, spend, spend. He can't take young players and coach them. He has to have older guys who he can give big contracts to and motivate that way. He's got to have total control.
"Others win without using his ways. Owners see that. Why do they need his headaches? His name doesn't come up that much anymore. The question is, could he ever win under the draft system and make everyone happy with what he is doing?"
Allen, of course, has heard all these raps before. He defends himself vigorously. He can live within a budget, he says. He can build through a draft, he says, having already done so with the Rams in the late 1960s. He can win with a rebuilding team, an expansion team, or, he says, "any other team they give me."
"But why get back into coaching at all?" asked his wife, Etty.
The Allens were sitting in their family room, which is dominated by a huge stone fireplace and a massive wood-beamed ceiling.
"For the first time in your life, you are free to say what you think," she continued. "You can enjoy the game from a new vantage point. You can do anything you want. That is a luxury, that's something people work for all their lives."
"Oh, I want to coach, but if I never get back into coaching, it won't kill me," her husband replied. "But I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss it. I don't miss the second-guessing but I miss my relations with my players. And I miss the pressure. I thrive best under pressure."
Playing for Allen, said ex-Redskin Ron McDole, "was like following a cult leader. You'd do anything you could to get out and play for him. People think he's a maverick and maybe people are afraid of him. He'd have to have total control to make his system work, so he'll get a job only with a team that is tired of losing.
"The NFL is a little private club and the owners are going to do it their way. But he's a heck of a football coach. The game would be better with him in it."
Until the game calls him back, however, Allen says he is content working in TV, giving motivational speeches, possibly writing a book and spending more time with his family than he had ever imagined was possible.
"When I was coaching, I was like this," he said, cupping his hands around his eyes. "I had blinders on. That's all I had time for. I was completely dedicated. If we lost, all I wanted to do was go home and eat peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
"But I was thinking the other day, how fortunate I was to come out of this like I have. The family is all together. It's been a plus. I've been to Alaska, I've been marlin fishing in Mexico. I've had offers to play bits in "Fantasy Island" and business opportunities galore. Every week."
Allen has invested in homes and land and he still receives a salary from the Rams at $200,000 annually spread over 12 years, although his outside income reduces the club's payments. At 57, he doesn't need to coach again to guarantee a comfortable living.
Yet he is like Captain Ahab chasing the white whale. Allen needs coaching to be truly happy. You see that on his face and in the way he talks constantly about the past -- "I remember years by how many games we won and lost that season," he said at one point.
The man who once prepared his teams so well "we know what Roger Staubach ate for breakfast," the man who was hired by the Rams in 1978 "because Carroll Rosenbloom said I was the only guy who could beat Dallas," now expends his boundless energy granting interviews, running five miles a day, lifting weights in his garage gymnasium and swimming laps in his pool.
His world revolves around this dream house, designed by his wife and now being expanded to accommodate her newly domesticated husband.
Within its confines are the mementos of George Allen's past -- his Redskin trophies, his scrapbooks, his team photos. And within its confines is a smoldering bitterness that Allen tries to contain to avoid "looking like I have sour grapes and resent everything."
But he does resent how the Rams treated him. "A high school coach would have been given more than two exhibition games," he said. "Sure I had long practices and sure I was demanding. But Carroll told me to take this team to the Super Bowl. We had to outwork everyone else.
"One player told me, Coach, we never had to work like this before to win.' To him, it made sense. But that's not the way I do things.
"Would I take the Rams job again? Well, a lot of the same people who were in the front office when I was there the first time are still there.They are the people who blew everything out of proportion and got Carroll's ear. I never did anything wrong, they just ran to him with every little thing. I wouldn't go back if they are still there."
Outside, fog was closing off the magnificent view of the ocean, cutting off sight of the eucalyptus trees and the blueberry and rasberry bushes Allen has planted in the terraced garden. A friend had just brought over a punching bag and Allen joked about "how I take out my frustrations on this."
Then the phone rang.
"Stick around," he said. "Maybe this is an owner offering me a job."