LONG BEACH, CALIF. -- The light would not go out. No way. George Allen was about to move comfortably ahead into a new phase of a job nobody in the history of football ever tried to tackle. Obstacles seemingly insurmountable already had been hurdled; suddenly, a master of detail, the only coach who scouted the sun before a Super Bowl, was in fluorescent frustration.

The oldest rookie big-time college coach was a flicked switch from offering his first technical wisdom to the first players he had coaxed along for this wild ride -- and nobody could get the room dark enough for proper film study.

Some would see irony here. Four years ago, because it barely had enough money to turn the lights on, Long Beach State nearly dropped football; now, a contrary panel, the one directly over the movie screen, wouldn't go out for the savior coach.

Also, the next to last bulb of common sense inside Allen surely had clicked off about eight months ago to put him in this position. Anyone else into his 73rd year would have been over at Allen's dream house not an hour from here, soaking in the postcard view of the Pacific Ocean from the back yard.

Never a retiring fellow in any of his prior lives, Allen, who coached the Redskins from 1971 to 1977, chose to reenter football well past the time even legends get booted out. As best the NCAA can determine, nobody so old ever started coaching at the Division I level.

When he turned 72 April 29, Allen was well into realizing how difficult it would be to turn around a program that after the 1986 season had almost died for lack of funds. It had taken much arm-twisting just to be able to commandeer cluttered space janitors had used for coffee breaks and turn it into the handsome team room in which fall practice officially opened.

Allen last Monday evening had greeted his initial group of recruits, 17 from junior college and seven out of high school, plus about 25 walk-ons, by saying they would be "part of history."

"We face a tough opponent {top 10 Clemson} in the opener," Allen added. "That's to our advantage."

Soon these early-bird players (the upperclassmen didn't report until yesterday) broke into position meetings, the defense staying with Allen. And just as one of the most heralded defensive coaches was about to strut his stuff to players eager for the experience, a suddenly critical light at a place that had nearly suffered lights-out wouldn't go off.

"Another first," the old coach muttered.

Allen is almost 10 months older than the second-most senior college football coach, Grambling's Eddie Robinson. Like Robinson, Allen is in his sixth decade of coaching. Has anyone in big-time football been around longer than the school at which he coaches? Allen is 32 years older than Long Beach State.

Amos Alonzo Stagg didn't retire until age 84, so Allen still has a noble goal to shoot for. Besides, the husband and wife who run men's and women's golf for Long Beach State could call him Boy George. Del and Marty Walker are 75.

To anyone browsing through old NFL brochures lately, Allen has aged four years in only a few months. During his years with the Rams and Redskins, Allen's year of birth was listed as 1922. That would make him 68. He deflects questions about that, saying 72 is correct.

When order gets blindsided and two years of progress don't take place in two minutes, Allen up close looks all of 72. His welcome to his first class was surprisingly brief and without emotion; his voice was weary from instructing his staff and repeating his future-is-now pitch to anyone with a willing ear and a few dimes to spare. His frame was more bent at the top than usual.

"Everything around here is a donation," he said. "I've never run a football team so hit and miss."

The light problem forced Allen to move the projector to a decently dark part of the meeting room and caused a blurry view of film flickering across a whitish greaseboard; his first lesson had not gone well. Next morning, an aide instructed to fetch sun screen produced tanning oil.

Such glitches would age a 27-year-old.

Other times, when he finally is able to focus on football, Allen is animated and wildly imaginative. He becomes the Allen most Redskins fans adored and many around the NFL despised.

Walking to his first fall college practice in 34 years, Allen was stepping lightly and saying, "Every day I feel like I'm starting my career all over again."

In a parking lot several hundred yards from the practice field, Allen pointed toward one of the donations he received -- a trailer worth $25,000 given by one of the most prominent builders in Orange County. Allen wants it to occupy space in a small stand of palm trees nearby; school officals are balking, because a good deal of a brick wall would have to be knocked down to get it there.

"Did I ever ever tell you what I had in mind my first year in Washington, before Redskin Park?" Allen said. "I tried to get two of those people movers from Dulles Airport to use as office space. But the deal fell through."

Allen moved on, through a driveway flanked by small putting greens, along a street lined with horseshoe pits and finally onto a practice area larger and more lush than Redskin Park. No worry here. Three full-size grass fields are available, each fully lined and well maintained.

A few steps onto the first field and Allen joined a group of players practicing punt snaps. The night before he had said: "We will have great special teams, not good special teams." Now he looked at several bodies that seemed more suited to soccer and said: "If I can find a player who can snap well, nothing more, he'll make this team."

Melting from 72 to, say, 52, Allen stayed lively through a 90-minute workout, almost never leaving his beloved defense. Later, he skipped lunch to speak with a group of Indian children from various tribes about the west and spent 15 minutes running a small section of steps in Veterans Memorial Stadium for magazine photographers.

"I won't let anything get me down," he insisted.

Starting From Scratch

The office Allen has occupied since being hired is slightly wider than Diron Talbert's wingspan and about as deep as four golf clubs laid end to end. The portable air conditioner would not be there had a local columnist not written about Allen's hothouse and a sympathetic merchant responded. On the two greaseboards that dominate one wall is the essential Allen and the essence of his challenge.

In large letters, Allen has written: "Genius is the ability to reduce the complicated to the simple."

Nearby, genius George has compiled what he calls his "Future Is Now List."

It reads:

"1. Locker Room (in progress)

2. Equipment (Get it done)

3. Field gear (Get it done)

4. Fields

5. Charter (Done)

6. TR Table (Done)

7. Video (Done)

8. Meeting room (Done)

9. Trailers (2)

10. Assistant coaches

11. Academic Advisor."

Priorities. Almost everything for his players before comforts for Allen. The locker room is being done over, equipment upgraded and new uniforms will be on display soon.

"If we don't do some of these things," Allen said, "we're not going to win. And even if we do those things, it doesn't mean we're going to win."

Allen and his staff of nine assistants have displaced several minor-sports coaches who now occupy one of four fancy trailers outside the physical education building. But then the athletic director, the energetic Corey Johnson, whose own daring brought Allen to Long Beach State, has his office in the rear of a trailer.

Johnson's hiring of Allen evolved from a series of meetings. At first, all the athletic director wanted was advice on how to take a program he'd rescued to a level of easy recognition and increased support in a community of about 400,000. Later, when Johnson went back with a short list of candidates, Allen said: "I can help."

As an adviser?

"As coach."

Johnson asked Allen then what even casual football watchers are asking now: "George, why would you be interested? All your life you've established this reputation. All these successes. Why would you jeopardize any of that for the possibility of failure?"

The answer, Johnson soon realized: "George doesn't believe in failure."

Part of a deal that includes a contract covering three years at about $100,000 per is a car and driver. A graduate assistant, Ben Randolph, squires Allen to and from Palos Verdes Estates each day.

There is an exception during preseason camp, when Allen stays at the close-by Marriott and his wife, Etty, follows a routine established during their NFL period and visits her mother in Paris.

Allen's transportation is less fancy than with the Redskins, a top-of-the-line white Ford instead of a limo. Naturally, a phone is included. This excites most Long Beach State staffers and disturbs others: A program so close to broke now has a chauffered coach.

One person who might be upset at the money and adulation thrown Allen's way is the women's basketball coach, Joan Bonvicini, whose 301-63 record includes two trips to the NCAA Final Four in the last four years.

"He's very good for our program," she said. "George is very well-known; he's very well-liked. And he can do things with a phone call Long Beach State wouldn't have a shot at. I've never met anyone his age who has so much energy."

That also occurred to the National Institute on Aging, which will use Allen as part of a program aimed at getting others 60 and over similarly spry. Less than one person in three over 65, it said, or more than 10 million in all, exercises even moderately.

Allen's days last week usually began with a 7:30 a.m. breakfast with the team and rarely ended before 10 p.m. One of them had him running those stadium steps and dreaming as only he can.

With a dirt track around the field and all 11,600 seats on one side, Veterans Memorial Stadium resembles a harness track for Shetland ponies. Allen's idea:

"I'd like to build a special section across the way, for maybe 200 or 300 people. We'd call them the last of the Mohicans, take their pictures and charge them twice the price for tickets because they're a special breed of fans."

Johnson hears this, wrinkles his brow and says something like: "Ah, George. Don't you think we'd better fill the regular side first?"

Hard on Johnson's mind is this stat: For one game during the 4-8 campaign last year, Long Beach State and its opponent combined for more yards than there were fans in the stands. Something like 900 yards to 800 customers, not all of them paying.

Still, the insecurity of having been fired once on Christmas Day (by the Rams) has Allen fighting for as many upgrades as possible as soon as possible.

"The first year is so important," he said. "If you don't make changes the first year, you might have trouble making them at all. You might lose and somebody will say: 'Aw, that coach came in and everything's the same. All he does is talk.'"

As Spirited as Ever

The final staff meeting before Allen greeted his new players was tame enough for a reporter to be allowed in. The first impression brought a smile, for it was rife with something Allen abhors -- distractions. The five large windows next to the ceiling were open, which allowed fresh air in but also noises from airplanes overhead and children at play.

"This is what coaching is, whether you're at Long Beach State or Alabama or the pros," Allen told his aides. "There's always something that you don't have. So keep positive, don't complain."

To volunteer assistant Cedrick Hardman, former pass-rush standout with the 49ers of San Francisco and the NFL, Allen inquired about physicals. Did everybody pass?

Hardman chuckled: "Yes, coach. But a lot couldn't pass the fat test."

Conversation ranged from a psychologist explaining proper breathing and a way to relax in a hurry to the eligibility of a couple of junior college players to plans for practice the next morning. Special teams coach Gary Zauner said the new prospects would be timed for 40 yards, with one coach at the 30-yard interval and two more at the finish line.

Twinkling, but more than halfway serious, Allen interrupted: "Do we have that many stopwatches?"


There was one bit of wonderful news. Brian Sorenson, thought almost certainly to be a Proposition 48 casualty and thus ineligible, met the minimum standards necessary to play as a freshman after all.

Sorenson is 6 feet 6 and 240 pounds and, an assistant said, keenly interested in playing linebacker. Allen nodded and said: "We'll let him play wherever he wants. But he'll be a {down lineman}."

Whether Allen has players good enough to stay within five touchdowns of Clemson Sept. 1 or to be competitive in the weak Big West Conference remains to be seen. One source of encouragement derived from the addition of a stunning number of recruiting aides when he signed on. Call 'em Fathers For George.

"After my trip here," said 270-pound Kelly Schlegel, "I didn't visit anywhere else. My father said: 'Well, you're going there now.' "

"When Coach Allen called," said punter Ray Magana, "my dad answered. He was so excited he forgot three of the numbers {on Allen's phone}. If Bo Jackson or Michael Jordan called me, I guess it would be like George Allen calling my dad."

Schlegel again: "He {Allen} doesn't look crazy. But you know he's tough. Some guys, you look at them and you know they're tough. They have an earring on or have a Mohawk. He doesn't have any of that, but you can tell he's tough by the way he carries himself."

Allen has been recruiting almost his entire life, from players at small-college Morningside (Iowa) and Whittier (Calif.) from the late '40s through the mid-'50s to NFL owners in the '60s and '70s for massive contracts to well-connected fans named Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Whispered about the Long Beach State athletic department is this mind-boggling Allenesque tactic: An aide gently raps on the door while Allen is making his pitch to an impressionable recruit and says, "Sorry to interrupt, Coach, but the President is on the line."

For Allen, the full-time staff at Long Beach State has been increased by two, to nine, although every assistant coach also must teach three or four courses a week. As offices and facilities are being upgraded, associate head coach Harvey Hyde lays out the 49ers' recruiting bait:

"Son, it's not what the carpet is; it's who walks on it. . . . Son, it's not the chair; it's who sits on it. If it's beauty you're looking for, go marry a mannequin."

'I'd Rather Play Notre Dame'

The Over The Hill Gang still lives at Long Beach State. Films Allen uses to teach his Not Even Approaching The Hill guys are of early-'70s Redskins. Billy Kilmer and Dave Butz also will talk to the team, Allen said.

Allen in his classroom almost never uses the given names of his players and the familiar names of their positions. He will say: "Now what is Jill {the free safety} supposed to do on this play?" Or "How many Stubs {strong-side linebackers} are here?" Very quickly it's established: Learn the lingo or leave.

"So much to be done here," he said. "It's like a newspaper that doesn't have any readers, doesn't have much support and the machinery to put it out. Other than that, it's a good newspaper. This probably is the toughest Division I job in America."

Almost surely, if it weren't part of an established conference Long Beach State would be bumped out of Division I. That season opener, at Clemson, was scheduled long ago and strictly for money.

"I'd rather play Notre Dame," said Allen, figuring that if he got whomped it might as well be to a team the masses acknowledge as terrific. Or, turning it around, what if Long Beach State rises up and smites the mighty. Might as well be the mightiest. Only those with hardening of the spirits think small.

"Right now," Allen said, "we don't have one defensive lineman that's ever lined up. Not one. I don't think there's a school in America that's this thin in the defensive line."

These are the legitimate pleas of a man whose NFL history suggests he regards any player under 35 as a child -- and to whom bulky defenders he calls rushmen are a team's cornerstones.

After one meeting, Allen was walking down the corridor leading to the football offices. The scene smacked more of a large high school, what with the tiled floor and a sign proclaiming: "49er Soccer! We're back." Until fancier digs are ready, his office is next door to the fencing coach.

Allen suddenly spied several enormous bodies filling the hallway. He walked a bit more quickly toward them and, grinning, said: "These guys are the RRRRRRRushmen. Gotta say it, like a growl: RRRRRRRRushmen."

Skeptics who said Allen's hiring was a publicity gimmick and that he would quit after spring practice should see this giddy geezer now. He alternates between being hopeful and trying to correct the hopeless.

Late one night, special teams coach Zauner wanted to show special teams devotee Allen what he had done with a formally forlorn room off the main dressing area. High and to the center of the front wall was a caricature of the sort of player Allen admires most.

"The ideal special-teamer," Allen said, "has had his nose broken four times. See all those bandages? He's playing with bumps and bruises. He's broken his knuckles. He's got big feet and is not very good-looking. The glasses mean he's smart. He knows what to do."

Zauner waited his turn:

"Coach, you're sitting in the left end's chair. Notice all the chairs? They're set up for first and second punt cover."

Allen admired the renovation, saying the room went from resembling a derelict's den to a king's palace. Then he said: "I used to have floor plugs."

Recalling the so-recent hard times, Zauner replied: "Coach, I'm happy to have a floor."