George Allen was sitting in seat 1A, flying from Portland, Ore., where he had delivered a 25-minute speech for $7,500, to Los Angeles and trying his best to explain why he had agreed to become the football coach at Long Beach State. If the 49ers are not the worst team among the nation's 106 Division 1-A schools, they certainly make the short list. He stared out at Mt. Hood passing under the left wing, which may have inspired him to lofty thoughts. He then took a yellow legal pad and carefully wrote down his reasons:
1. Guts, confidence, impossible task.
But if he had to explain his thinking in one succinct sentence, what would he say? Said Allen, "I would say I should have my head examined."
Yes, indeed. Because at age 72, George Allen—the legendary George Allen, who never had a losing season with the Los Angeles Rams or the Washington Redskins—definitely doesn't need this. Long Beach State, however, definitely needs him. If Allen, the quintessential turnaround specialist who arrived on the job last December, cannot save the 49ers' program, it probably cannot be saved. Long Beach State president Dr. Curtis McCray already sees hope: "He has taken a mess and given it shape."
One part of the mess is that students call the school the Beach. As in, "Come on, Beach, be tough"—a classic contradiction. Further, Allen says of his charges, "Ninety percent are marginal students and marginal players. They are not good practice players, they don't work hard, and they don't know it. Our team is so bad that we can lose every game and we might be routed in most of them."
Before opening at Clemson on Sept. 1—the first time Allen had coached a college team since 1956 at Whittier (Calif.)—he pondered the 49ers' weaknesses: "We are outweighed 24 pounds a man. Not a single one of our defensive linemen has played in a college game. Our starting quarterback has never thrown a pass in college. Our backup missed spring practice because of grades. Our kicker has never kicked in college, and our punter has never punted. We have no long snapper, no speed whatsoever at cornerback, and the offensive line is rebuilt."
Allen looked ill. Then he quickly recovers and said, "We're going to lick this." Silence. "But I don't know how."
Allen said that he couldn't believe his team was a 58-point underdog to Clemson. Alas, if you took the Beach and 58 points, you lost. Clemson hammered the 49ers 59-0. It could have been 159-0. The Beach converted 1 of 13 third-down plays, and it rushed for-16 yards. In fact, a Tiger fan was right when he screamed at the wide-eyed Long Beach State players moments before the game, "You boys are in a heap o' trouble. This is reality."
Yes, this is reality. The players are awful, and few people on campus even care. Suzanne Wurzer, the athletic department's academic adviser, says, "There's an attitude of acceptance toward football here, not importance."
Long Beach State's average home attendance last season was 2,650. Advance ticket sales to students for the 1989 Utah State game numbered four. This is not a typographical error. Four. A total of 246 students out of an enrollment of 32,875 showed up. Last year, boosters were invited to fly on the team plane to the Boise State game for a low, all-inclusive package price of $200. Two went. This is not a typographical error, either. In 1988 the 49ers finished 3-9. Last year they were 4-8. Right now they are 0-3.