A few days before Christmas, the telephone rang. It was George Allen, and as usual, he was looking to the future, and reveling in the past.

The 72-year-old rookie head football coach at Long Beach State had recently completed a 6-5 season, a stunning record at a school that had almost dropped the sport only a few seasons before, and had opened its schedule against Clemson, a 59-0 pasting.

"Toughest year of my life," George Allen was saying, "and the most rewarding too. I can't wait to get going again."

For George Herbert Allen, who died yesterday at his home in Palos Verdes, Calif., rewarding days were what it was all about. And over the course of his storied and controversial coaching career, from the days at Morningside College in Iowa through seven of the grandest seasons in Washington Redskins history to his final stop at Long Beach State, he left a legacy of total commitment to his life's work: winning football games.

His slogan when he arrived in Washington before the 1971 season was "the future is now," a policy that turned the previously woebegone Redskins franchise into one of the National Football League's most feared teams in the 1970s. His philosophy was simple. He never met a rookie he could trust, and preferred trading draft choices for old geezers almost from the first day he took the job.

He created the Over-the-Hill Gang of players no one else really wanted, people like Billy Kilmer, Diron Talbert, Jack Pardee, Ron McDole and so many more. In 1971, his first year, he got the Redskins to the playoffs for the first time since 1945. The next season, he took them to a Super Bowl, a 14-7 loss to the undefeated Miami Dolphins that eventually led to another of his more memorable messages: "Losing is like death."

"He had a great ability to find self-starters, including some renegades, and get them to play as a team," said Ray Schoenke, an offensive linemen who played for Allen in Washington. "He knew how to pick players."

And get as much out of them as humanly possible.

Always, George Allen did it his way, and he was not terribly appreciated by many of his peers around the National Football League. In truth, he'd do anything to win. If that meant trading away draft choices he didn't even own, so be it. If it meant insulting Roger Staubach ("they use the shotgun because Roger has trouble reading defenses") before a big game against the Dallas Cowboys, he'd do that too.

The late Edward Bennett Williams once said he gave Allen an "unlimited" budget, and the coach already had exceeded it. That was no exaggeration. When he was hired at the princely sum of $125,000 a year, he was the highest paid coach in the league.

It was there he spent so many long hours in his darkened office watching film, rolling the projector back and forth, back and forth, often until the midnight hour. His defensive playbook was thicker than the Manhattan Yellow Pages, and he lived to concoct the schemes that would render opposition quarterbacks virtually helpless.

He also had a peculiar penchant for paranoia. Most of his practices were held behind eight-foot chainlink fences surrounded by tarpaulin to keep potential spies from peering in. He had his own security man, a former Long Beach cop named Ed Boynton (the press corps named him Double O), patrolling the woods around Redskin Park. Boynton's only success came in shooing away the occasional 12-year-old hoping for a peek at practice.

Allen's relations with the press were not always cordial. Other teams regularly announced trades and cuts almost immediately. To Allen, these were guarded as state secrets, and leakers were subject to his wrath. I once interviewed Sam Wyche behind a tree in training camp because he was afraid to be seen talking with a reporter in public, lest he be branded a team source {he was}.

Allen preached an us-against-them philosophy to motivate his players. Almost every game was described as "the biggest of the season, the most important of our lives."

A fitness fanatic who still ran at least three miles every day, he was so intense his children reported that even when doing such mundane tasks as working on his lawn, he would bend down and say, "If I get this whole weed out in one piece, we'll beat the Cowboys."

Aaah, the Cowboys. George Allen lived to play them, and beat them. He'd taunt the saintly Staubach, he'd toss barbs at Tex Schramm, the team president. He'd even describe Tom Landry as "Old Stone face" in team meetings. Privately, he offered rewards of stereos and televisions for the hardest hit or the most vicious tackle against the hated Pokes.

He was a player's coach, rescuing many a man from the workaday world for one last year, often stashing a loyal graybeard on injured reserve just for an extra season's paycheck. One year, he even summoned the retired Billy Malinchak, a gifted special teamer by then working on Wall Street, back for the stretch drive, just to block a punt.

And he did.

Above all, George Allen was one of the game's great innovators. He was the first man to devote a significant portion of practice to his special teams and the first to hire a fulltime special teams coach. He was among the first professional coaches to use nickel, dime and quarter passes defenses, the forerunner of the situation substitution so prevalent today.

He was a master of motivation, a genius with a timeout. Redskin Park was his idea. Now everyone does it.

Allen left the Redskins under somewhat mysterious circumstances in a contract dispute with Williams after the 1977 season. He was hired by the Los Angeles Rams for his second tour of duty there. But he was fired even more mysteriously by the late Carroll Rosenbloom, the Rams' owner, before training camp had even ended, and he never again returned to coach in the NFL.

George Allen always thought he'd been blackballed, and that may well have been the case. He went to the old United States Foootball League and won there, headed the President's Council on Physical Fitness under Ronald Reagan and then stunned the country by agreeing to take over the moribund Long Beach State program last season.

In the years after he left Washington, Allen called often, a great irony considering he often kept reporters cooling their heels outside his dressing room or Redskin Park office for hours on end. Whenever he came to town, he usually touched base, to say hello, to suggest a story, or simply to talk about the grand old days of sellout crowds at RFK Stadium and so many memorable games.

And always, there was another project to complete, another goal to meet, another idea to execute, another situp to do, another lap to run. With George Allen, it was always something.