Lessons learned from his father and various jobs guide how GM Bruce Allen is rebuilding the team.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published September 10, 2004
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen added 30 new faces in 2004.
TAMPA - He has seen the game as a water boy, statistician, player, coach, sports agent and front-office executive. But for Bruce Allen, first-year general manager of the Buccaneers, one vantage point has shaped his approach more than any other.
As the son of Hall of Fame coach George Allen.
Sitting behind his desk at One Buc Place, Allen shares more than a passing resemblance to his late father: the squint in the eyes, the dark hair swept back from his forehead, the angular lines of his face.
He also reflects the lessons his dad - reknowned for his drive and attention to the tiniest detail - taught him from the time he was a child.
"Hard work and teamwork," Allen says.
"He always expected the best. No matter what you were going to be, you had to be the best. If my sister was going to be a teacher, he wanted her to be the best third-grade teacher there was. And you worked at it. If you were cleaning out the garage, you did it right. It wasn't a strictness, but you felt it."
In his new role with the Bucs, Allen embodies another philosophy and old catch phrase his father espoused as coach of the Redskins from 1971 to 1977.
"The future is now."
The situation in Tampa Bay is hardly the same as when George Allen, trading away future draft picks for grizzled veterans, rebuilt the long-suffering Redskins as the NFL powerhouse "Over the Hill Gang."
Still, Allen has arrived in Tampa Bay amid a similar future-is-now urgency, fueled by a flurry of veteran acquisitions on his watch.
Coach Jon Gruden and his squad are determined to rebound from a 7-9 campaign and regain their Super Bowl form of 2002-03. And since joining the Bucs in January - after nine seasons as right-hand man to Raiders owner Al Davis - Allen has been immersed in change and some controversial moments to go with it.
You know the play-by-play by now:
Allen and Gruden teamed for four seasons in Oakland, enjoying playoff runs in the final two. They then found each other on opposite sides of the field as the Bucs beat the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. But after last season, Gruden urged the Glazers to hire Allen as a replacement for longtime Tampa Bay GM Rich McKay.
Together, they have overseen a roster overhaul, with 30 new players acquired by free agency, trade and the draft. Allen, named the 2002 George Young NFL executive of the year by the Sporting News, knew coming in that was what the job would entail. By spring, 21 free agents had been signed.
"I know we all want to remember the Super Bowl," Allen, 47, says, then adds with a laugh: "I'm still trying to forget it. But we needed to upgrade in order to compete for our division. Wherever we could try to find players, we've looked."
The search, at times, has caused the Bucs to take some heat, but Allen says, "It means I'll take it."
Serving as a buffer to Gruden certainly seems part of the job. When veteran safety John Lynch was let go in the spring, saying he never received an offer, Allen was the public face behind the unpopular move - though clearly no moves are made without Gruden's blessing. Allen stuck to his policy of keeping his conversations with players private, even in the face of fan and media criticism.
"It's just the way I believe," he says. "I don't know if it's right or wrong. I know there's another part of the story, as Paul Harvey would say, that could be told. But I don't think that does a service to anybody."
So who is the man behind the no comment?
On one hand, the portrait is not all rosy. In the first few months of Allen's tenure, not only did the Bucs part ways with two icons, Lynch and tackle Warren Sapp, but also the manner in which the situations were handled has been questioned publicly by both players.
Each subsequently has heaped praise on Gruden but has been reluctant to do the same with Allen. Lynch has said that every time he unpacks another box in his new house in Denver, he thinks of Bruce Allen.
Others who have worked with Allen, however, rate him highly for his savvy contract negotiating and salary-cap work and easygoing personality.
"He can get along with anybody," says Ken Herock, who served two years with Allen as a personnel executive in Oakland. "That makes him very good in what he's doing with the agents. He's a tough negotiator yet still knows how to compromise and be friendly in the negotiations."
Herock attributes that quality to the years Allen spent as a sports agent in the mid-to-late 1980s.
"He knows how the agent feels and what kind of respect they expect from the general managers because, really, that's his expertise," Herock says. "He doesn't profess to be a great evaluator. When I was in Oakland, he said, "Ken, that's your job. You tell me who they are and that's what we do.' And he's going to do it the way Jon Gruden tells him to do it."
One of the top sports agents in the business echoes the sentiment. Leigh Steinberg has done many deals with Allen and has known him for years.
"Bruce is really a delight to deal with from a lot of different standpoints," Steinberg says.
He describes Allen as dedicated, resourceful and resilient as a negotiator. But there's another side, too.
"Bruce is one of the most hilarious and entertaining writers imaginable," Steinberg says. "He has one of the most creative abilities to craft faxes in the middle of a negotiation that I've ever seen. I've saved daily correspondences in several negotiations - he'll title his offers "The Triple Zinger,' "The Double Twister,' "The Offer You Can't Refuse.' His use of syntax and the language is deft and witty. He's a scream."
Steinberg acknowledges they have one key difference, politics, with Allen espousing conservative views in step with his brother, Sen. George Allen, R-Va. "He's endlessly teasing me because I'm a die-hard Democrat," Steinberg says.
Allen's politics also have surfaced with the Bucs, most notably when he defended the signing of ex-Raider tackle Darrell Russell. Russell was a repeat offender of the league's substance-abuse policy and had been charged with videotaping an alleged rape, though the 25 counts were dropped for lack of evidence. Allen told reporters that "Bill Clinton did worse things than Darrell Russell."
The remark triggered a wave of angry reaction from fans, who didn't appreciate the commentary. But it was the signing of Russell - on the heels of letting upstanding fan-favorite Lynch go - that caused the most consternation. Russell since has been released after testing positive for alcohol, a banned substance in his treatment program.
To Allen, the players are the best part of his job. "They're very special to me," he says. "I enjoy understanding what drives them. Because I think it takes a special person to perform out there."
Perhaps the connection goes back to his childhood.
Allen grew up in a home consumed with the sport. He had two older brothers, one younger sister, and they lived and died on the fortunes of their father's teams. "We were all in the same salad bowl," he says. "And we liked it that way. Our happiness was based on winning - and fortunately, Dad won 70 percent of his games."
Jennifer Allen, now an author, wrote a book about her father and family, Fifth Quarter. "When my dad got fired, it was like the whole family was fired," she says. "He was so emotional. Bruce isn't as dramatic."
She recalls how her brother was more under the wing of their dad than the other siblings, how he started attending training camp at 6 in Chicago when George Allen was a defensive coach under Bears guru George Halas. "Bruce and Dad had a really close relationship," she says.
Later, he served water to the likes of Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen of the Los Angeles Rams, revitalized by George Allen between 1966-70, and worked as a teenage team statistician for the Redskins.
"When we lost, which wasn't often, my dad would have Bruce read the play-by-play all the way home, and it was just penalty, ugh, fumble, ugh," she says.
Bruce Allen became a standout punter at the University of Richmond, where he earned a degree in business marketing. He was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1978, but an injury quickly steered him into coaching, first as an Arizona State assistant in 1979 and, at only 22, head coach at Occidental College in 1980.
Allen then tried a mix of jobs in and out of football. His most memorable stint was teaming with his dad in the upstart spring football league, the USFL. Between 1982-84, the younger Allen served as GM of the Chicago Blitz and the Arizona Wranglers, while his father was head coach. The result: two playoff teams. "It was a terrific experience," he says.
Allen's next stop: forming GBA Sportsworld and seeing the game from a new angle, as an agent.
In 1995, he returned to football management, becoming Oakland's senior assistant under renegade, lawsuit-pushing owner Al Davis. "I liked being in the foxhole with him," Allen says.
Adds Steinberg: "Bruce was able to exist in a politically difficult environment, with controversy and lawsuits with the city of Oakland and the league swirling around him, and emerge untainted."
Now comes his next challenge in Tampa, where he lives with wife, Kiersten, and two children, George, 7, and Mikayla, 6. But his thoughts never are far from his father. George Allen died of a heart attack in 1990 after returning to coaching at Long Beach State.
In Fifth Quarter, Jennifer Allen wrote about how her brother reads the sports pages aloud to their father when he visits his grave. Instead of leaving flowers, Allen leaves the paper. "Maybe he got that from reading the play-by-play to him coming home from Redskins games," she says. "When Dad died, Bruce said he had lost his best friend."
For Allen, the past offers endless fond memories, and the future indeed is now.