George Allen, the new football coach at Cal State Long Beach, stood at the dais of the Airport Marriott, a brown school cap covering shocks of black hair, a 49er jersey in his hand. He grinned and waved to friends and former players who had come to wish him well in a job that he called "the toughest in America"--rebuilding a university football program that was on the verge of extinction three years ago.
But University President Curtis McCray and Athletic Director Corey Johnson made it clear that they were hiring the highly successful former National Football League coach to do more than win games. They also expect the 71-year-old physical fitness fanatic to give the university a significant financial boost.
"This wasn't purely a football hire," McCray said. "Football is the focus, but I expect (Allen) to do more."
As part of his three-year, $100,000-a-year deal, Allen has pledged help in raising funds for the school's athletic foundation, which will pay $34,000 of his salary.
"He has close contacts," McCray said. "We think he can draw the attention and resources we need."
Allen's hiring seemed to be in line with McCray's goal--announced when he took office two years ago--of making non-academic campus programs financially self-sustaining.
Of course, Allen's reputation as a winner also was a factor. The 49ers were 11-24 in the past three years, which prompted the resignation of Coach Larry Reisbig.
In 12 seasons in the NFL as coach of the Los Angeles Rams and the Washington Redskins, Allen had a record of 120-47-5, the third-best winning percentage in league history. He rebuilt both teams quickly. The Ram franchise was 51-87-5 before him, 49-19-4 in five seasons with him. He was voted NFL Coach of the Year four times. He led the 1972 Redskins to the Super Bowl, where they lost to Miami, 14-7.
Allen, wearing his National Football Conference championship ring from that Super Bowl team, admitted that he will need all of those skills to help the 49ers. He said he took the job because it was a challenge and because it is close to his Palos Verdes Estates home. He said he would help raise money to build an on-campus football stadium, solicit more support from alumni and get students more enthused about football.
Johnson said he intended to raise the budget of the campus sports information director to handle the increased media attention the school expects.
Long Beach, which plays a Division I schedule, shares antiquated Veterans Stadium with Long Beach City College and local high schools, which have preference on dates and times for its use. The facility has seats on only one side, which makes scheduling TV games there unattractive, thereby costing the university much-needed broadcast royalties.
The university's football program has held a tenuous spot in the community since 1986 when former university President Stephen Horn incurred the wrath of boosters by attempting to dismantle it. After drawing severe criticism, Horn changed his mind and challenged residents of Long Beach to raise $300,000 or lose a football team. A fund-raising drive was successful and since then Horn has consistently described himself as a strong supporter of athletic programs.
More than $315,000 was raised, but the program's morale sank. First the football coach, then the athletic director left for other jobs. Game attendance dwindled to an average of 2,650.
Horn, now a member of the faculty, praised Allen's selection. "I'm simply delighted," he said. "Anyone with (Allen's) background and personality will have a good leg up on funding. A vibrant athletic program obviously helps the university and the community.
"I think it's an excellent move. (Allen's) reputation and credibility will provide the excitement that people want to see.'
Allen's hiring comes at a time when McCray has made cuts elsewhere on campus, particularly at campus radio station KLON and in the arts. That didn't, however, seem to rankle Rick Lewis, KLON's general manager, who expressed support for Allen's hiring on the grounds that it will help make football self-sustaining and thus help everyone on campus.
"I suspect it will make more people attend," said Lewis, whose radio station suffered a 9% cut in its budget last year. "There's no jealousy. In general I think it's good to make a program as good as you can make it."
Allen said he had not met with the seven assistant coaches being retained by the school. He says he has two men, "one in the NFL right now" that he wants to add. The school will allow him two hires, but Allen wasn't sure what the jobs paid, or if that would be enough to encourage anyone he knows to join him.
As for building a winner, Allen said: "You say 'what is realistic' to me and you mention 5-5. That doesn't sound good to me. . . . Here it might be a heck of a season."
After 15 minutes of questioning he beckoned the crowd of reporters and well-wishers to "give three big hip, hip, hoorays" for the 49ers.
It will take more than cheerleading to help the 49er football program, yet McCray and Johnson, like boys with a new toy, joined in to lead a rousing yell.