The saying, “behind every great man is a great woman,” was common when women had many fewer professional opportunities than men. From that perspective, one cannot ignore the greatness of Henriette “Etty” Allen as a force behind three great men.
When Allen was a young adult, her father Felix Lumbroso led anti-Nazi efforts in Tunisia during World War II.
After she married George H. Allen, he coached 15 football seasons without ever having a losing season, including teams for the Los Angeles Rams, Washington Redskins, and most impressively a final season with a Long Beach State team who he inherited after they went 2-9 and were in danger of disbanding, which they did after he passed away.
Her son George F. Allen changed the history of politics in Virginia when he was redistricted out of his Congressional seat only to take on a Don Quixote run at Governor – where he went from 30 points down to defeat the incumbent Attorney General 58% to 41% in 1993. That race was the pivotal moment in a decade that saw the Republicans go from 7 of 40 Senators and 32 of 100 Delegates (Representatives) to majorities in both Chambers.
In the book, Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coach’s Daughter, her daughter Jennifer Allen described a bond she developed with her mother that was strengthened by their inability to crack the football fraternity the men in the family enjoyed.
Yet her mother was an avid and enthusiastic football wife and mom who could harangue opposing teams and game referees with language almost as colorful as that used in the locker rooms.
The drive she instilled in George F. Allen was evident when I first met him and I was lucky to catch a glimpse of the family during the final couple of years of George H. Allen’s life.
While working for the Charlottesville Daily Progress in 1989, I mentioned to a State Legislator for whom I had gone door-to-door that I would like to work in the political arena at some point down the road after my journalism career. The exchange that followed is very vivid in my memory to this day;
Legislator: “Have you talked to George Allen yet?”
Me: “Is that the football coach?”
Legislator: “No, it is his son. He is a young legislator that managed to surprise them and sneak out a very close election, and now I do not believe they will be able to beat him. He is going places – you should try to connect with him.”
The timing was perfect, as George F. Allen had just lost a legislative aide and so there was a part-time position available – and after a four hour interview I was suddenly accepting a part-time job to replace a full-time job with a young baby on the way.
While the Democrats retained the Gubernatorial Mansion in 1989, the buzz in the household family was that George H. Allen had decided to return to football to coach the lowly 49ers – not San Francisco but Long Beach State.
All of Etty’s four children ended up working in football, and the family travelled to South Carolina to see Long Beach State take on No. 10 Clemson. A 59-0 loss was the beginning of an 0-3 start. However, the team then beat Pacific and snuck out narrow wins over Boise State and New Mexico State before competitive road losses at San Jose State and powerhouse Fresno State. At this point, the 49ers would have to win their last three games or the Allen family would witness their first losing season.
Allen had kept the Fresno State game close with an unbelievable 2-man defensive line, and while the 49ers eventually fell in that game, the innovation continued as they won their final three to maintain the Allen family’s perfect record of 15 straight undefeated seasons.
The family liked uphill battles, and they won some dramatic ones in both sports and politics, as George F. Allen went onto serve as US Senator.
According to a statement from the Allen family, she died Jan. 2 after a long illness. She was 90. A private funeral is planned for Tuesday in California.
She met George H. Allen after immigrating to Sioux City, Iowa, where she met and married George H. Allen, then the head football coach at tiny Morningside College.
Over the next four decades, Allen coached winning teams with the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins and earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He died in 1990.
Her son Bruce Allen is now the Redskins’ general manager.
In addition to George and Jennifer, her other two sons were Gregory and Bruce, who is general manager of the Washington Redskins.