On his first day of spring practice as football coach at Cal State Long Beach, George Allen was reminded of the time 42 years ago when he began his career at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa.
"We had our team meeting in the chemistry auditorium," Allen said as he walked to the practice field Tuesday afternoon. "Everybody was in nice comfortable chairs. I had a lot of blackboards, and I covered every blackboard."
Morningside was only 3-6 that year but did win two conference games. That was reason enough for Allen to call the season a success, because the school had not won a league game in the two preceding years.
At Cal State Long Beach he inherits a similarly woeful situation--the 49ers were 11-24 the last three seasons.
It might have still been yesteryear as Allen, who has not been a college head coach since 1956, gathered his 88 players around him Tuesday with the intent, as always, of covering everything.
First, though, he relaxed them by dipping into his bottomless barrel of nostalgia.
"What great weather, isn't it?" he said, the whistle around his neck glinting in the sun. "Gee whiz, when I was coaching in Iowa we had spring practice in March. We had a lot of snow and ice on the ground. This is like Hollywood."
The young 49ers, transfixed by the legend before them who never had a losing season in 14 years in the National Football League, laughed politely.
At 71, he was old enough to be their grandfather, yet he jogged along with them on the practice field's lush new grass in a frisky style that bespoke his reputation as a fitness advocate.
And when the players did stretching exercises, Allen, in a new brown, gold and white warm-up suit, also stretched. TV cameras, almost never seen at 49er practices in the 1980s, focused on him.
At a far end of the field, Allen instructed defensive linemen who were confronting the cushioned dummies of a blocking sled.
"More of a blow," he said. "More of a rip. Make it pop."
The players responded with a violent flurry of forearm blows that made the sled bounce.
Whenever Allen gave advice, one of his assistants was likely to repeat it.
"Like Coach said, elbows and thumbs up," said Rick Clark, a volunteer coach.
Allen kept using the words he had doubtlessly directed many times at the Washington Redskins, or the Chicago Bears, or the Rams: "Good defensive people move their feet. And keep their heads up."
On the sidelines, Athletic Director Corey Johnson watched the man he hired last December, a move that shocked a large part of the football world.
"He loves this stuff," Johnson said. "He was in my office this morning talking about defensive coverages. He's fired up."
Also watching the practice was Dave Radford, coach at Millikan High School, who has long viewed Allen as a source of inspiration.
One of Radford's players, end Brent Poppen, was paralyzed in February while playfully wrestling with friends at a church camp.
Allen heard about it and has since written three letters to Poppen and telephoned him twice.
"It's just something he does," Radford said. "He's right out of Norman Rockwell, old-fashioned sincerity."
On the field, while the offensive team was trying plays against the defense, most of them seeming to be incomplete passes, Allen walked over to players on the sidelines and said: "Instead of talking, watch the guys playing your position. Learn something."
He did not call them by their names because he admitted he does not know them yet.
Two fights broke out, although the players were padless and in shorts.
"Come on, you're on the same team, let's go," Allen said after the second scuffle was broken up.
When the two-hour practice ended, Allen met with his coaches, telling them: "These guys (mentally) would be ready to scrimmage tomorrow. But they aren't ready for pads. It's better to bring them around slowly, don't you all agree?"
No one disagreed.
"I thought they picked up a lot of stuff today," Allen continued. "Some of these guys might get to be players. They've got good spirit and enthusiasm. I'd rather have them this way than have a bunch of fat horses who are out to pasture."
What appeared to most concern Allen was finding a golf ball on the field.
"Cripes, someone could twist an ankle," he said.
He was not sure what to do about the golf class that is held earlier in the day near the field.
After the well-organized practice, Allen went over to a table that had been set up at the end of the field, near the tennis courts, for a press conference.
"I look for no mistakes," he told a questioner. "If I see a player make repeated mistakes, he can't play for me. You can't win if guys make mistakes."
A low-flying jet roared overhead, on its descent to the Long Beach Airport.
Planes have long been a distraction during 49er practices, but Allen does not see it that way.
"We're going to use these planes to our advantage. It's like crowd noise. We're going to have to get used to crowd noise. We'll be playing at Clemson (Sept. 1) before 84,000 fans. It will be like it was at RFK Stadium (in Washington). It was hard to hear the signals there."
A student, pausing in his tennis match, peered through the court fence and asked, "Is that the real George Allen?"
There was no doubt that it was.
NEXT STEP Cal State Long Beach's spring football practices will conclude May 12 with an intra-squad scrimmage at 1 p.m. at Veterans Stadium.