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THE LAST PURITAN
William Barry Furlong
January 31, 1966
He is George Halas, pro football's Papa Bear, who let out a terrible growl when Assistant Coach George Allen went AWOL. Halas won a point in court, but lost his man to the Rams
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January 31, 1966

The Last Puritan

He is George Halas, pro football's Papa Bear, who let out a terrible growl when Assistant Coach George Allen went AWOL. Halas won a point in court, but lost his man to the Rams

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George Halas is the most triumphant anachronism in sports, but it would be untruthful to say that his success has made him either lovable or serene. Something of an introvert in a field that exalts the extrovert, Halas has turned into an achingly bottled-up man, whose every public appearance is a torrent of smothered emotions. Over the years, his rivals in the National Football League have studied Halas as raptly as Greeks regarding an oracle, for he has prospered by defying many of the most common canons of coaching. He speaks to players and press in a voice like breaking bones. He smiles as if his shoes are too tight. He treats players who reach for more money with all the compassion of Ebenezer Scrooge. Yet he expects his players—like himself—to give their all. (" Taylor, we've run out of time-outs. Go in there and get hurt.") Somehow he has managed to parlay all this into 16 championships for the Bears he owns and coaches and to make them synonymous with everything that is muscular, malevolent and profitable in pro football.

Last week, the more venturesome spelunkers were probing Halas' mind again—dodging stalactites and stalagmites all the way—in search of the reason, and the profit, in his most recent series of moves. For in defiance of all tradition—a dubious tradition, to be sure—he was insisting that one of his assistant coaches, George Allen, live up to the terms of his contract, ignore an offer to become head coach of the Los Angeles Rams at something like twice his $19,000 salary and remain in Chicago with Papa Bear.

It was an insistence that sent tremors of apprehension through all of coaching—college as well as professional—for nothing jeopardizes a coach's own ambitions more than the notion that his contract is binding. When Allen, nevertheless, did jump to the Rams he also violated one of Halas' personal traditions. George likes to be the pusher, not the pushed. In the manner of Allen's leaving—and in the effort of Dan Reeves, owner of the Rams, to encourage him despite Halas' charges of tampering and the tendency of Pete Rozelle, commissioner of the NFL, to look benevolently upon the move—Halas suspected that he was being made the victim of a double shuffle. He thought it was time to demonstrate just who is running the National Football League, in case Pete had forgotten, and so he engaged in that most perilous of professional-sport maneuvers—a lawsuit. The suit did exactly what NFL leaders feared it would—it inspired the defense to pronounce that fearsome word, antitrust.

To understand what led this flinty, vital, crusty, visionary and thoroughly remarkable old man (he is nearly 71) to so hazardous a course, one must first understand the basic fact of George Halas: he is the last Puritan. It is not simply that his manner sometimes is as taciturn as a New England Yankee's (once when a barber asked how he'd like to have his hair trimmed, Halas said, "Silently"). It is not simply that he is paternalistic, purposeful, undeviating in his loyalty to those who are loyal to him, undying in his hatred for those who are not, or that he is a notably parsimonious man. (When one prospect, who was about to be cut, asked for some cash "to buy milk for my kid," Halas is said to have replied, "What's his address? I'll send him a quart.") It is that, in the great Puritan tradition, he defines respectability in terms of hard work and personal responsibility.

Hard work is as vital to Halas as the glass is to fine brandy. Even now he will work 15 to 18 hours a day during the football season and ease up only slightly in the off season. He was the first coach in professional football to hold practice sessions every day, the first to work at football 12 months a year. He drives his staff as hard as he drives himself and assumes they will not balk at the extraordinary pace. In the classic Halas tradition Allen was paid one salary for two jobs, those of assistant coach for defense and director of player personnel. Says an acquaintance, "Halas is one of those guys who feel that if you haven't got anything to do, you ought to be down at the office doing it." The concentration that he brings to long hours of work is complete and astonishing; it is not unusual for him to stare at filmed reruns of a single play 40 to 50 times to pinpoint the reason for a missed blocking assignment. His zest for the game's minutiae is as lively now as it was more than 40 years ago, when the Bears were the Staley A.C. of Decatur, Ill.

Halas' sense of personal responsibility is equally rigorous. He measures accomplishment, not words per minute or the decibels of salesmen. He has little use for the gaily trip-hammered monologues of today's hucksters of professional sports. He feels that his own monument is one of solid achievement—nothing less than the National Football League—and he protects it with evangelical fervor. He will not falsify a fact on his own behalf—though he has no objection to somebody else falsifying a fact in his interest. He has been fortunate in being located in Chicago, where the newspapers are not merely adulatory but utterly servile. In the pantheon of its gods the Chicago Tribune ranks George Halas above and slightly to the right of the late Robert R. McCormick, the longtime publisher of the paper. " George Halas, moving defiantly ahead in his one-man crusade to re-establish the integrity of professional football," trumpeted the Tribune in a news story on the Allen contretemps last week. One paper took two reporters off Bear coverage because they were not sufficiently "sympathetic" to Papa's problems. Not the least reason for his power is that his closest friend is Don Maxwell, editor of the Tribune.

Unquestionably the papers have perpetuated the great myths—e.g., that Halas is particularly gifted in discovering superior players from small schools ( Bulldog Turner from Hardin-Simmons, Harlan Hill from Florence State Teachers). Actually, he has made as many mistakes as discoveries; he once passed up Sammy Baugh in the draft for an All-America who fizzled, and he spent five years trying to prove that John Adams of Los Angeles State was a great football player. (" Adams was one of the most versatile players who ever came to the Bears," one insider has remarked. "So far we've found he can't play six different positions.")

But the papers have never been able to dispel the notion rampant among Bear fans that Halas is an unusually frugal man. His treatment of the fans has sometimes been cavalier. When P. K. Wrigley ordered new and wider chairs for the box seats in Wrigley Field—reducing the number of seats in every box from 10 to eight—Halas put the older, narrower seats in storage, then hauled them out to be re-installed every year for the football season. Last year when the Cubs put in permanent box seats, thus cutting his revenue in the highest-price section, Halas was quite upset and did not sign his rental contract with Wrigley Field until after season-ticket applications had been mailed out—and ticket prices raised. His reluctance bothered Wrigley not at all. He needs Halas' money somewhat less than Halas needs a place to play. As recently as last week the Bears acknowledged that they were not going to pass along to the fans the savings on the discontinued 10% federal excise tax, which means another 10% off the top for Papa.

From this it should not be deduced that Halas has hardened in mind or attitude. Indeed he can be as flexible as a bull whip. Some three years ago a now-defunct Chicago magazine printed a bluntly objective appraisal of Halas and the then parlous state of the Bears, who had lost 10 of their previous 14 games, including exhibitions. Halas managed to contain himself and make no public comment on the criticism. (It is not that he doesn't have rabbit ears; he watches and notes everybody who's critical of him—and, indeed, first spotted the girl who became his wife when she razzed him during a high school football game.) But the Tribune rushed nobly to his defense. In a hilariously obsequious column David Condon, one of the paper's sportswriters, assured his readers that the Bears would respond to the criticism by rising up and smiting the Green Bay Packers the following Sunday. The Bears rose up for seven points, but the Packers smote back with 38, facts that somehow escaped Condon's notice.

But Halas himself responded remarkably to the magazine's appraisal. Within days he ended a rancid feud that had been racking the Bear coaching staff. The Bears joined the Players Association after years of being the only outsiders. The team was warned that Halas would no longer "carry" players who did not produce. The result was that the Bears won five of their last six games in 1962 after Halas' changes and in 1963 went on to win the NFL championship.

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