Of the hundreds of people I've encountered in 30 years of covering sports for The Washington Post, none had more of an impact on my professional life than George Allen, the head coach of the Washington Redskins from 1971 to 1977.
The late Edward Bennett Williams, who hired Allen, once said of his free-spending ways, "I gave George an unlimited budget, and he exceeded it." It was the perfect epitaph for a man who never met a draft choice he wanted to keep, who never saw a gray-bearded veteran he didn't want to keep, often at an inflated salary, just to say thanks for the memories.
When I was a young reporter covering the team in the 1970s, Allen often made my life miserable. He was one of those us-against-them coaches when it came to dealing with the media. I was among the thems, and many of his players bought into that mentality.
Billy Kilmer was Allen's workmanlike quarterback of choice, even though he had a far superior one, Sonny Jurgensen, at his disposal. Kilmer was a devoted disciple of Allen's tell-'em-nothing, trust-no-one philosophy, and the two of us often sparred verbally over stories written about him that he didn't like.
One year, he refused to talk to reporters after a game as long as I was in the group. I stayed, he clammed up, and then he snarled: "You want a piece of me? Come on, right now, right here." Cooler heads prevailed that day, but when he threw a football in my direction when I wasn't looking one day in practice, I couldn't resist.
"It was a typical Kilmer pass," I wrote. "High, wobbly and badly off target."
Allen was also a great football coach, a man who took Redskins football out of the dark ages and onto the front pages. With his Over The Hill Gang of rejects and castoffs combined with some terrific inherited talent, Allen got the team to the Super Bowl in the 1972 season.
He was carried off the field on his players' shoulders after a stunning victory over the hated Dallas Cowboys on New Year's Eve 1972. Two weeks later, they lost to the Miami Dolphins, 14-7, in Super Bowl VII during a week in which Allen, the perfectionist, actually charted the movements of the sun at the Los Angeles Coliseum to see how it would affect his punt returners. Many of his players have since said he made everyone around him a nervous wreck that week, and perhaps that's one reason the Redskins were so flat on game day.
Allen never got that close to the NFL's promised land again. His teams competed for division titles every year, but by the middle '70s, the talent cupboard was starting to get bare. Having traded away most of his draft choices following his "Future is Now" policy, prospects were mostly bleak by the time he left town late in the 1977 season.
He got a job coaching the Los Angeles Rams but was fired early in training camp after a dispute involving the owner's son. He spent a stint in the U.S. Football League and took his final job at Long Beach State, where he coached a running back named Terrell Davis.
After Allen left the Redskins, our relationship improved considerably. Any time I tried to reach him, a return call usually came within the hour, a far cry from the time he put me on hold for 45 minutes, then left the building, telling his secretary to call and say I could reach him the next day. He wrote an occasional note, and once sent a favorite defensive scheme scrawled on a postcard.
Allen always kept you waiting. Interviews scheduled for 4 were conducted at 5. After practice, he made reporters cool their heels while he ran laps around a track at Redskin Park and did sit-ups.
Allen died on New Year's Eve 1990. His Long Beach team had dumped a bucket of ice over his head to celebrate their last win of the season. Already run down from a long year, Allen got sick and tried to get back into his normal routine too soon. He went for a run at his California home, and when he came back, he collapsed in the kitchen and died.
I was an editor at The Post by then, and was just getting ready to put on my coat and head off to a New Year's Eve party at my house when a bulletin flashed across the Associated Press wire reporting his death. I never made it to the party. Allen had put us on hold one more time. I missed the party to help with the obituary and reaction stories and to write an appreciation. I meant it. Every word.
Leonard Shapiro has covered sports for The Washington Post since 1969.
CAPTION: George Allen, left, with Jack Pardee (32) and Chris Hanburger, made life "miserable" for this reporter, who remembers Allen fondly.