When I took over as football coach at Long Beach State on Dec. 19, 1989, I was told it was the most difficult job in Division I-A. The word had been that there was no money, no support, no on-campus stadium, no facilities, no hope. All of that was definitely true. The Forty-Niners had been 4-8 the season before; they'd had two winning records in seven years. Worst of all, our first game would be against a powerhouse, Clemson.
What also turned out to be true is that my players learned things this year that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. They learned things they could not learn in the classroom, in church or at home. Long Beach State president Curtis McCray told me that the difference in the players from the beginning to the end of the season, on and off the field, was "amazing." No matter how difficult life gets for these athletes in the future, every one of them will say, "I can handle this. I can overcome adversity and succeed. After all, I played football at Long Beach State in 1990."
We lost our opener to Clemson 59-0 on our way to an 0-3 start. Incredibly, we ended up 6-5. Only two of the 106 Division I-A teams started off 0-3 and finished with winning seasons. Alabama was the other.
In my 35 years of college and pro coaching, I've experienced almost everything in football. In 1972 my Washington Redskins made it to the Super Bowl. My teams have been winners in 21 out of the 24 seasons that I have been a head coach. But the other day Billy Kilmer, who quarterbacked my Redskins, told me, "What you did at Long Beach is your best coaching achievement ever." And Dick Butkus said I hadn't lost any of my ability to prepare a team. And, yes, this was my most gratifying year in coaching.
That's because I learned two things. First, the players haven't changed a bit from the ones I had when I blew my first whistle as a head coach, in 1948 at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. About the only difference I noticed was that when I read my Long Beach players part of a speech by Theodore Roosevelt, most of them didn't know who Roosevelt was. So later, when I referred to Churchill, I said, "Winston Churchill, who was the prime minister of Great Britain...."
Second, I haven't changed a bit either. I'm 72 years old, and I still want to win as fiercely as ever. Once the season starts, I live to coach. No distractions. Grind away. Don't worry about meals. I still get up at 6 a.m. and work out. The more problems I encounter, the more I work out. I have worked out seven days a week since I took this job. It's midnight when I get home.
At a time when concepts like working together and being positive seem old-fashioned to some people, I can't tell you what a reassuring feeling it is that the players—and I—showed that those ideas still have value. I learned that players need the same things they needed in 1948—discipline, organization, conditioning, motivation, togetherness, love. It's true that my players this year needed more of all those things than athletes I'd coached in the past. They needed more attention because many of them had come up the hard way and lacked confidence. Frankly, they had plenty to lack confidence about. So no matter what a player did, I usually gave him another chance. It wouldn't have helped to kick players off the team, because then I wouldn't have had a chance to work with them and teach them. For example, offensive lineman Josh Schwager was involved in a dormitory disturbance. I suspended him from practice for a week, but I kept him on the team to help him do better. He did.
We had to start all over with fundamentals. My staff and I taught stance and starts, blocking and tackling, all the things you teach a Pop Warner team. By our last game, in which we beat UNLV 29-20, my Forty-Niners were playing almost like a George Allen team. More important was their improvement in preparedness, discipline, manners, confidence, punctuality and personal appearance. I asked them to cut their long hair and not to wear earrings. I said I wanted that for the good of the team. I told them that after the season they could do what they wanted, but I also said, "If you're going to apply for a job and you go in looking like some of you look now, you might not get the job because you don't make a good presentation."
What my staff did was to help a bunch of good guys who were drifting aimlessly. We gave them things they desperately needed as human beings. They are bigger, faster and stronger today than they were a year ago, but none of that would matter if they didn't also have character, dedication and loyalty. The other day I told my players, "Isn't it great to be a winner? I want you to put this on your resume."
I love it that my time-tested coaching techniques work perfectly today. As one of our wide receivers, Jeff Exum, said, "Coach Allen taught us that we are never out of a game, no matter how much time is left and no matter what the score is." And I love it that the players still respond to proper leadership.