Before Joe Gibbs led the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and early 1990s, George Allen turned the once-woebegone franchise’s fortunes around in the 1970s.
The workaholic Allen coached the Redskins and the Los Angeles Rams for a combined 12 seasons. He earned a reputation as a master motivator and a coach who turned struggling teams into Super Bowl contenders.
Allen, who placed heavy emphasis on special teams play, eventually finished his 12-year NFL coaching career with the fourth-highest winning percentage (.712) in league history.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame eventually inducted Allen posthumously in the summer of 2002. It was a distinction this hardworking football lifer richly deserved.
This is George Allen’s remarkable football story.
George Herbert Allen was born to parents Earl Raymond and Loretta May in Grosse Pointe, MI on April 29, 1918. He had a sister, Virginia.
Allen’s father Earl worked in an automobile factory to make ends meet, per the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s official website. Loretta was a homemaker.
George’s family struggled even during the years prior to the Great Depression in the 1930s. In fact, he worked at a nursery and planted crops in their family basement to help his family survive, per his 2022 biography which Lee Elder wrote, George Allen: A Football Life.
When George turned 12 years old in 1930, he worked as a caddy at a nearby golf course. He woke up at 5:00 a.m. so he could write his name on the caddies’ list and caddy twice daily.
According to Elder, George Allen’s workaholic tendencies came bubbling to the surface even at a young age. His fiery determination helped his family survive hard times in the 1930s.
George Allen attended Lake Shore High School in St. Clair Shores, MI. He was a versatile athlete who excelled in basketball, track, and football for the Lake Shore Shorians.
Even though George earned All-Conference honors in basketball and established a school record in the long jump, he lived and breathed football from a young age.
George also set the bar high in the classroom. Elder wrote in Allen’s 2022 biography that he reportedly never missed a class during his high school days in Michigan.
By the time George was a college student at Michigan State Normal College (now known as Eastern Michigan University) in 1940, his family had moved to Rensselaer, NY, as both of his parents were born there.
George was running behind schedule in terms of earning his bachelor’s degree. He had to leave school occasionally to work because his father Earl’s health was deteriorating.
@ProFootballHOF August 3, 2002 Pro Football Induction Ceremony George Allen Head Coach Washington Redskins Los Angeles Rams (Michigan) Adopted “Future is Now” theme, made 131 trades in career. pic.twitter.com/4CdB3lrQRw
— Timothy C. Kulla (@TCKooo) August 3, 2019
Earl Allen severely injured his head while he was working on the Ford assembly line. Doctors had to insert a metal plate in his head to save his life. Unfortunately, Earl endured frequent and violent shaking episodes after the freak injury.
By his son George’s estimates, the repeated delays set him four years back in his studies at the college and postgraduate levels. Allen eventually earned his master’s degree at the University of Michigan.
Shortly after Japanese troops bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Allen joined the United States Navy V12 program for leadership training, per Elder.
Allen was one of several big-name individuals who joined the V12 program. Others included U.S. senator Howard Baker, football player Angelo Bertelli, astronaut Scott Carpenter, late-night talk show host Johnny Carson, Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, and movie stars Jackie Cooper and Jack Lemon.
Little did hardworking George Allen know that he was on the verge of joining the football coaching ranks in the late 1940s.
Football Coaching Career
Allen’s involvement in the V12 program landed him at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI. This was the place where George Allen’s iconic football coaching career was born.
Before long, Allen became a Michigan Wolverines assistant football coach under Fritz Crisler and Bennie Oosterbaan in 1947. Allen was 29 years old when he became a football coach that year.
When Allen broke into the football coaching ranks in the late 1940s, players of that particular era were a far cry from contemporary gridiron warriors who weighed at least 200 pounds.
Nobody among Allen’s Wolverines football players weighed more than 150 pounds, per Elder.
After a year of learning the intricacies of football coaching from Crisler and Oosterbaan, Allen became the head football coach of the Morningside Mustangs, a college football team based in Sioux City, IA.
Allen went through hell just to get his first head coaching job. He sent over 850 applications to various coaching vacancies in the country. Despite his efforts, only two schools responded: Trinity College and Morningside.
When Allen flew to Sioux City, IA in 1948, he had airsickness after he disembarked from the plane. It was so bad that he had to stay and recuperate in his hotel room for an entire day before his job interview with the Mustangs.
A turning point in Allen’s interview with Morningside was his ability to ask members of the school board various questions. He felt that gesture impressed them to no end.
Before long, Allen got the job. According to Elder, Morningside paid him an annual salary of $3,900.
— Morningside University (@MorningsideEdu) January 30, 2017
One of Allen’s Mustangs players was future high school football coach Joseph S. Vadini. The latter wrote a letter entitled Recollection for George Allen prior to his death in 1990.
In that letter (via Allen’s 2022 biography), Vadini claimed that Allen organized practices down to the last minute. For George Allen, wasted time was detrimental to winning football games.
Vadini also remembered Allen playing music on the football field and in the locker room to help motivate his players. When the Mustangs’ offense shifted from the “T” to the single-wing formation in practice, they did so to various tunes Allen played.
George Allen’s terrific writing prowess was on full display during his coaching tenure at Whittier College in the early 1950s.
According to Elder, Allen frequently wrote for various sports and athletic publications in the 1940s and 1950s.
One sample of Allen’s writing was Defensing the Running Pass, an article he wrote for The Athletic Journal in 1950.
“It is our belief that the running pass off the single wing formation is the most effective maneuver in football today. We have been confronted with the problem of defensing the single wing running pass for some time.”
One of the secrets to Allen’s exemplary writing prowess was his voracious reading habits. According to Elder, Allen regularly collected magazine articles focusing on drills, conditioning, football practice innovations, offensive schemes, and defensive schemes.
Allen also exchanged letters with his fellow football coaches such as Duffy Daugherty, Charles W. Caldwell Jr., Eddie Teague, and Al Johnson. Allen regularly asked them about the intricacies of football and how to plan scrimmages, among other things.
Allen went 17-11-2 in his three seasons as the Mustangs’ head football coach from 1948 to 1950. He crossed paths with his future wife, Henriette “Etty” Lumbroso, during this time period.
Etty, a native Tunisian with Jewish heritage, was in town visiting an American military officer who her family met during World War II.
54 years after George’s and Etty’s first meeting in 1948, their daughter, Jennifer wrote a book entitled Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coach’s Daughter.
Jennifer Allen recalled her parents’ first date over milkshakes and golf. George was already engrossed with football—he expressed his admiration for the game with Etty via football diagrams he drew on napkins.
For instance, George wrote “George laterals to Etty” on the napkin. Etty thought it was a sweet gesture. However, since George was not the best conversationalist, she thought their relationship would never reach the next level.
Etty was wrong.
#OTD 2/17/1969 George Allen, coach of the Los Angeles @RamsNFL, and his wife Henriette visited President Nixon in the Oval Office. The President is shown in this photo holding the signed Pro Bowl football presented to him by Coach Allen.
(Image: WHPO-0302-03A) pic.twitter.com/zrFztYJrxS
— RichardNixonLibrary (@NixonLibrary) February 17, 2019
George sent her a telegram that read, “As the 1951 football season approaches, I would like to have you as my teammate” two years later. George was in his first season as the head football coach of the Whittier Poets in California.
It was George’s wedding proposal to Etty. He boarded a plane bound for Tunisia where Etty accepted his proposal.
After George and Etty tied the knot, their marriage produced four children: George, Bruce, Gregory, and Jennifer. They raised them in Allen’s Roman Catholic faith, per Elder.
All four siblings became successful in their own right. The younger George became the governor of Virginia in 1994. He eventually served as a U.S. senator from 2001 to 2007.
Bruce followed in his father’s footsteps on the gridiron—he served as the Washington Redskins’ president from 2014 to 2019.
The third Allen sibling, Gregory, embarked on a sports psychology career. Finally, Jennifer became a successful writer who also worked at the NFL Network. She apparently inherited her impressive writing chops from her talented father.
Allen also forged a lifelong relationship with future president Richard Nixon in 1951.
Allen first met Nixon at an NCAA conference where the latter was the guest speaker. The two men hit it off immediately, thanks in large part to Nixon previously playing football for the Whittier Poets during his college days.
Allen and Nixon wrote to each other in subsequent years. When Nixon was re-elected to the presidency in 1972, Allen was on the verge of leading his Washington Redskins to an appearance in Super Bowl VII.
Allen’s first year with the Poets in 1951 got off to a rough start. The team went just 2-7 that year.
Fortunately, the Poets bounced back with a 9-1 win-loss record in 1952. Allen, a proponent of the single wing and “T” formations, continued to coach at Whittier College in Southern California until 1956.
Allen, who also employed the 5-2 and 4-4 defensive schemes as the Poets’ head football coach, amassed a cumulative 32-22-5 record, per Elder.
During Allen’s time with the Poets from 1951 to 1956, his assistants also had classes to teach. It wasn’t unusual for them to toil in the office until 10 p.m. or later. It was only after they left the premises that they realized they had to teach the following day.
Allen’s fame grew far and wide as his time at Whittier College wound down.
The legendary Oklahoma Sooners head football coach invited Allen to attend spring practice in 1956. Allen did not hesitate.
George Allen finally broke into the pro football coaching ranks one year later. He served as the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive ends coach under head coach Sid Gillman in 1957.
The Rams finished with a mediocre 6-6 win-loss record in Gillman’s third year on the job. Regrettably, the team fired Allen after just one season.
Fortunately for Allen, he didn’t have to wait long for another assistant coaching job in the NFL.
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) April 29, 2016
Chicago Bears owner George Halas hired his namesake, George Allen, prior to the 1958 NFL campaign.
Allen served the Bears in various capacities over the next eight seasons, including as consultant, assistant, head of player personnel, and defensive coordinator.
Although football experts knew Allen as a coach who prioritized experience over youth during his legendary career, he played a key role in the Bears’ selection of running back Gale Sayers and middle linebacker Dick Butkus in 1965.
Sayers and Butkus enjoyed stellar careers in the Windy City and eventually became members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Allen also selected Pittsburgh Panthers tight end Mike Ditka, another future Hall of Famer, in 1961.
Chicago averaged eight wins per season during Allen’s eight seasons with the franchise from 1958 to 1965.
The pinnacle was the memorable 1963 NFL season when the Bears won 11 games and beat the New York Giants in the NFL Championship Game, 14-10.
George Allen, who was the Bears’ defensive coordinator in 1963, helped Chicago win its eighth league title.
By the time George Allen earned his first NFL head coaching job with the Rams in 1966, coaching legends Sid Gillman and George Halas had become significant influences on his coaching philosophy.
Allen placed a premium on special teams play. He believed one key play on special teams could ultimately decide the outcome of a game.
For instance, when Allen’s Los Angeles Rams squared off against Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers toward the end of the 1967 NFL season, Allen instructed all 11 of his players to block the punt. Not a single Rams special teams player was set to receive it.
George Allen’s gamble paid off. The Rams blocked the punt, recovered the football, and scored the decisive, game-winning touchdown.
#RamsHouse are forced to punt.
The game looks to be over with the #Packers taking over with one minute left.
George Allen bets the house on blocking the punt and Guillory comes through, Crabb recovers the 🏈 and returns it to the #Packers 4 yard line. pic.twitter.com/p84esDbVfS
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) December 12, 2020
Ironically, they practiced that particular special teams play mere days before the game against the Packers. He also stunned one of the game’s greatest coaches, Vince Lombardi.
Prior to Allen’s arrival in Los Angeles, the Rams were a franchise in disarray.
Since moving to Southern California from Cleveland, OH in 1946, the Rams had been a huge draw— they routinely sold out their games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
However, the Rams won just four games during Harland Svare’s final season as their head coach in 1965. Los Angeles had not made the postseason in 11 years—they won a combined 25 games from 1959 to 1965.
Fans grew weary of their losing ways. Consequently, the Rams’ game attendance that year dipped below the league average for the first time since they moved from northeast Ohio 19 years earlier.
George Allen promptly righted the Rams’ sinking ship and turned them into winners.
In sharp contrast to Allen’s immediate predecessors, he led the Rams to 19 wins in his first two seasons alone.
Allen won eight games in his first year on the job in 1966. He averaged four wins per season in his next four seasons in Los Angeles from 1967 to 1970.
Allen led the Rams to two postseason appearances during his five-year tenure. Unfortunately, Los Angeles never made it past the NFC Divisional Round from 1966 to 1970.
Nevertheless, George Allen served notice that he was one of the best tacticians in football. He won the 1967 NFL Coach of the Year Award.
According to Jennifer Allen’s 2001 book, an intoxicated Dan Reeves was drinking at a California nightclub on Christmas Day 1968 when he called George and fired him.
When Reeves’s players found out, they threatened to hang up their cleats or not play at all in 1969, per Elder.
Among those players were Rams legends Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy, Roman Gabriel, and Jack Pardee. 38 of the 40 Rams players signed a petition threatening Reeves that they would not suit up in the 1969 NFL season if he fired Allen.
Fearing an all-out mutiny, Reeves reneged on his stance and let Allen continue coaching his team.
As for Allen, getting fired became a trend for him. According to Elder, his bosses fired him a total of four times from 1968 to 1978.
After Allen amassed a 20-7-1 record since Reeves first fired him in December 1968, he was again fired after the 1970 NFL campaign.
The Washington Redskins were waiting in the wings. They hired George Allen to become their head coach prior to the 1971 NFL season.
Veteran linebacker Jack Pardee, who became a head coach of the Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins, and Houston Oilers, also left the Rams and followed his head coach to the nation’s capital.
Allen orchestrated a trade that brought Pardee to Washington in 1971. Pardee eventually spent his final three pro football seasons with the Redskins from 1971 to 1973.
Pardee was also one of six former Rams players who Allen brought to Washington in 1971. That group became known as “The Ramskins.”
Not only that, but the 35-year-old Pardee also became a member of the “Over the Hill Gang,” a group of veteran players who helped the Redskins break a 26-year postseason drought in 1971.
That group also included Myron Pottios, Maxie Baughan, Diron Talbert, John Wilbur, and Jeff Jordan.
Allen’s revamp of the 1971 Redskins didn’t stop there. He also acquired offensive tackle George Starke, quarterback Billy Kilmer, strong safety Richie Petitbon, and defensive end Ron McDole that year.
The transactions George Allen orchestrated transformed the once-woebegone Redskins into perennial Super Bowl contenders in the 1970s.
Washington, which averaged barely five wins per season in the 1960s, won nine games during his first year at the helm in 1971. Allen also won NFL Coach of the Year honors for the second time in his career.
The Redskins averaged nine wins per season in George Allen’s seven years as head coach from 1971 to 1977. He led them to five postseason appearances, including Washington’s first Super Bowl appearance at the end of the 1972 NFL campaign.
Regrettably, the Redskins lost to Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VII, 14-7.
Another Allen masterstroke was acquiring safety Eddie Brown off of waivers in 1974. Allen signed Brown after Redskins safety Ken Stone sustained an injury that year.
When George Allen met Brown for the first time, the latter was shocked that he knew everything about him.
“He knew more about me than my mother,” Brown told Commanders.com in December 2017. “You think that’s funny, but he had everything laid out. ‘This is what I expect of you. This is what we want you to do.’ He had a plan.”
While Allen’s impeccable attention to detail impressed Brown, his new head coach’s ability to recruit the best players impressed him even more.
Allen had a penchant for signing players with dogged determination and heart.
“He had a way of detecting heart,” Brown said in 2017. “He didn’t want anybody that didn’t have heart…If you ever looked at it back then, we fought right to the end on everything. He just had a way of looking inside you and seeing what was in there.”
After the Redskins failed to resolve a glitch in the signing of Allen’s four-year, $1 million contract, the team fired him on January 19, 1978.
Team sources told The Free Lance-Star that Allen declined to sign the contract unless the Redskins granted his desire to have a bigger say in team matters.
Allen was locked in on football every waking hour of his coaching career. He rarely spent time at home. Instead, he was at work motivating his players, drawing up strategies, meeting with his coaching staff, and helping his team win at all costs.
Allen wasn’t one to waste time. For Allen, rest and recreation meant the five or six hours he slept at night. Simply put, football was his life.
“Every day you waste is one you can never make up,” Allen said (via ProFootballHOF.com).
Allen’s unrelenting commitment to the game paid huge dividends. He never coached a losing team in 12 seasons in the National Football League.
At the time of his final game with the Washington Redskins in 1977, his career coaching record of 118-54-5 was the tenth-best in league history.
As of January 2023, Allen’s winning percentage (.712) was also the fourth-highest in NFL history behind Guy Chamberlin (.784), John Madden (.759), and Vince Lombardi (.738).
Allen led his teams to seven postseason appearances in his 12 NFL seasons. His teams never fared worse than third in their respective divisions.
In the bigger scheme of things, Allen earned a stellar reputation as a coach who turned the Rams and Redskins into postseason contenders.
Allen returned for a third stint with the Rams in 1978. However, Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom fired Allen after the team’s poor showing in their first two preseason games.
A shocked Allen thought Rosenbloom had not given him a fair shake in his third stint in Los Angeles.
“Do you think I got a fair chance…two preseason games?” Allen asked the Eugene Register-Guard on August 14, 1978.
After Allen left the Rams, he went on a five-year hiatus from football. He eventually became the president and chief operating manager of the Canadian Football League’s (CFL) Montreal Alouettes in February 1982.
Regrettably, Allen resigned after financial issues plagued the Alouettes organization just three months later.
He coached the United States Football League’s Chicago Blitz and Arizona Wranglers in 1983 and 1984, respectively.
Allen finished his legendary football coaching career with the Long Beach State 49ers in 1990. He had a 6-5 win-loss record in his lone year with the team.
According to Sports Illustrated, the 72-year-old Allen’s annual salary with the 49ers was $100,000.
Post-Football Life and Death
Just six weeks after George Allen’s brief, one-year return to college football, he passed away due to natural causes on December 31, 1990. He was 72 years old.
Allen was a football lifer until the end. He passed away while watching New Year’s Eve bowl games, per the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s official website.
Allen’s sudden death shocked many football fans. Throughout his life, Allen ran marathons and participated in bike-a-thons.
NFL coach and Pro Football Hall of Famer George Allen died on this date in 1990. He’s at Green Hills Memorial Park, in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. pic.twitter.com/dvgZ4Qv94M
— Masked Mark Masek 🇺🇸🇺🇦🇮🇪🏳️🌈⚾️🍕 (@CemeteryGuide) December 31, 2022
Not only that, but George Allen also served as the chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports during the Ronald Reagan administration from 1981 to 1988.
“He was the greatest coach I ever played for,” the great Deacon Jones said (via ProFootballHOF.com). “He believed in discipline and conditioning. Totally dedicated.”
The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH inducted George Allen posthumously in the summer of 2002.
George Allen was also a member of the St. Clair Shores Sports Hall of Fame, the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Washington Commanders Ring of Fame. Allen is also one of the 80 Greatest Redskins.