Monday will mark the 40th anniversary of George Allen’s first game as the head coach of the Redskins. On Sept. 19, 1971, they traveled to St. Louis, and behind Richie Petitbon’s three interceptions; Chris Hanburger’s 1-yard fumble return for a touchdown; and Larry Brown’s game-high 79 yards rushing and a touchdown; Washington beat the Cardinals, 24-17.
Over the following seven seasons, Allen would compile a 67-30-1 regular-season record, capture the 1972 NFC championship, and lead the Redskins to Super Bowl VII, where they fell to the destiny-bound Miami Dolphins.
Nineteen different assistant coaches spent time on his staff, and a total of 118 men wore the familiar burgundy-and-gold uniforms while Allen patrolled Washington’s sideline. Some shared their memories of the man who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002, in the Redskins book, "Then Gibbs Said to Riggins…".
“We knew that he was a player’s coach and he was extremely respectful, particularly of the older players. He valued our opinions. George Allen brought an atmosphere of confidence [with him from coaching the Los Angeles Rams]. He brought with him, ‘The defense is the side of the ball that wins games.’ Many of the players that came with him – Jack Pardee, Myron Pottios – these guys were defensive players who believed that the defense was just as important as or more important than the offense. And that we could make the difference in a game.
“We all knew that we probably couldn’t break 15-flat in the 100, but as a team working together, we made few, if any, mistakes. We could overcome virtually any other team and even dominate a lot of teams. And then of course, we knew, too, that scoring on defense is demoralizing to the other team. That was our goal in every game, to get one or two scores. These things led to a pride in ourselves with a dependency on our teammates.”
Mike Bass, cornerback
“[Having a third head coach in three years] didn’t bother me. The big adjustment one has to make, especially if you’re on offense and you’ve been coached by head coaches who have been basically offensive coaches, then there’s where the adjustment has to be made. You’ve got a defensive-minded coach now who thinks the defense can score more points than the offense can.
“We took advantage of the talent we had and put points on the board. So it didn’t change our focus or thought process in terms of how we performed. It did create a situation which probably the way some defensive players may have felt when you’re coached by a head coach who has a basically offensive coaching background. You’ve got a situation where you’ve got two kids and the defensive team will be the favorite child rather than the offense for the first time in your life.”
Larry Brown, running back
“[After starting every game at defensive tackle as a rookie in 1970] they named Allen coach, and I knew of his reputation for [preferring to play seasoned veterans]. I’d just bought a house, the first house I ever bought in my life, and I don’t know if I’m going to be on the team. So Allen called me up and said, ‘I need to see you.’ He said, ‘You know, Bill, I was watching film of you and I’m going to move you to defensive end. It’s your position to lose. We can build this defense around you.’
“About a month later, he has a press conference and says, ‘I’ve never played rookies. That’s not my style. I like veterans, and no rookie is ever going to play for me.’ And so just before training camp, he pulls me in again. He says, ‘Bill, I’ve been thinking about you. Even though you started all last year, I think the best thing for me to do is treat you just like a rookie.’ Of course, they had traded for Verlon Biggs and Ron McDole. So that was the end of my having a locked-up defensive end job. That’s the way George was. George would say things that he really believed at the time, but the statement quickly became inoperative.”
Bill Brundige, defensive lineman
“George was a very truthful, straightforward guy. He would tell you something and then turn around and tell someone else the exact same thing. He didn’t pull any punches. What he would say to you, he’d say to the press or anybody else. Whereas some of the other coaches I played for didn’t do that.”
Dave Butz, defensive tackle
“[When George Allen became my fourth head coach in four seasons, I sensed some stability] only because he surrounded me with old guys. You had to be suspicious, too. You look around, and the general feeling was you needed younger players. And he did keep some around, but he did create a different attitude, and he reached down to really deal with your desire to win. And he reminded us at the same time that our careers were at the threshold where it should be ending. He was a master of motivating people and reminding people of the value of playing together as a team. And he sold that idea!”
Pat Fischer, cornerback
“We knew that he was defensive-oriented and he wanted a very conservative approach to offense [when he came to Washington in 1971]. But it really wasn’t that conservative. He was going to take advantage of whatever a defense would allow him to do offensively. He just wanted mistake-free football on offense, defense, and special teams.
“He was the first coach that I’d had that really had a very comprehensive defensive system. Everybody else that I had played for up to that point, we really didn’t have an arsenal to work out of like Coach Allen brought here.”
Chris Hanburger, linebacker
“He followed after Bill Austin had it in ’70, after Lombardi died. Allen comes in and Allen was strictly a defensive coach. He wanted to win 7-3. Just don’t make mistakes offensively, and we’ll win defensively. That was his philosophy. And that was completely different from the way I had played.
“And Lombardi, being an offensive-minded coach, we had a lot of weapons and we just didn’t use them. [Allen] changed all the keys in the passing game. The things that we did were just backwards for me and it just didn’t work.”
Sonny Jurgensen, quarterback
“In those days, I think the draft was either late January or early February, and we rushed in [to Washington] in early January  ourselves and we were staying at a downtown hotel and getting ready for the draft.
“I remember the morning of the draft, George Allen asked me to meet him down in the lobby of the hotel and we’d walk over together. As we left, the doorman said to George, ‘I hope you have a good draft.’ He said, ‘We’re going to have the best draft we ever had.’ He didn’t say anything more to me.
“When we got to the Redskins facility, he called a meeting [with the assistant coaches] and said, ‘Fellas, about 4:00 this morning, I concluded a trade. I traded with the L.A. Rams.’ And then he gave a litany of names: John Wilbur, Jeff Jordan, Diron Talbert, Myron Pottios, Maxie Baughan, Jack Pardee, and Richie Petitbon. We sat there stunned. And then finally one of our coaches said, ‘What did we give?’ He said, ‘Our first, second, third, fourth, and fifth draft choices this year and next.’
“George, I think, traded away 20-some draft choices before the beginning of that year and brought in a lot of fine players. Ron McDole from Buffalo, Verlon Biggs from the Jets, Billy Kilmer. We came in with a great deal of optimism. I had great faith in George. I thought he brought in an outstanding staff. Guys like Ted Marchibroda, Mike McCormack. So we were encouraged. We came in with very positive feelings.”
Marv Levy, assistant coach
“I loved him. Even though it was just for one year, to play for a coach like that, especially as a defensive player, was really, really a great opportunity. He was definitely a player’s coach. He’d do whatever the players wanted. He’d work you hard and was a real stickler to make sure that mentally, everybody knew exactly what was going to take place. Not only playing for a coach like that, but with so many veterans, was really great for my career.”
Mark Murphy, safety
“I had retired from professional football because I was tired of losing and I didn’t think the [Rams] coaching situation [prior to Allen] was putting the effort into winning that should be put. So I retired and went back to play with George. Actually, I played eight years and retired and came back and played seven more with him.
“His dedication to winning, the way he treated the players, what he expected… He expected to win! We worked long, but it was still good for an old player to play for him.”
Jack Pardee, linebacker