Long before he became the youngest head coach in the NFL, Dennis Allen was — in a football sense — the oldest kid on his second-grade team. Grady and Kay Allen knew coaching ran through their son’s blood by the way he lined up his teammates in the Colleyville Youth Football Association, giving them specific instructions on what to do.
“That’s really what he was always good at,” Kay Allen said from her home in Hurst. “He’s just always had an instinct for it, knowing where to be and what to do. He was like that coach on the field from the start.”
Allen’s first official coaching job came just before his 24th birthday when he returned to Texas A&M as a graduate assistant after his playing career ended. The Oakland Raiders hired him as the franchise’s 18th head coach 15 years later, when Allen was only 39.
Allen is the first NFL head coach in the league’s post-1970 modern era bred in Tarrant County. Bo McMillin, from Fort Worth North Side High School, coached the Lions and Eagles from 1948-51.
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Today Allen will coach the Raiders in Tarrant County against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.
He was born in Georgia but started kindergarten in Hurst after the family’s move in 1977. Allen played in the Mid-Cities PeeWee and Mid-Cities Little Dribblers Leagues, attended Shady Oaks Elementary and became a multisport star at Bedford Junior High and L.D. Bell High School.
Allen never wanted to be a fireman, a policeman or even a doctor, like his older brother, Geoff, ended up becoming. Instead, Dennis declared in junior high that coaching was his future, a calling he wonders whether his now-deceased father regrets not heeding.
Grady Allen, who died last December of a heart attack at age 66, went into the industrial chemical business after retiring from the NFL. But he always found time to help coach his children’s teams, a passion that rubbed off on Dennis.
“I think it’s important for all players to know who they are,” Dennis said at the Raiders’ training facility. “I think sometimes players don’t recognize who they are. They think they’re something they’re not. I knew I wasn’t the biggest. I wasn’t the strongest. I certainly wasn’t the fastest. But I thought I could be smartest. I would use my football smarts to try to help other people. I always took pride in being a little bit of a coach on the field, even when I was real little. For whatever reason, it came natural to me. It probably came more natural than 10 times 10 or 7 times 9. I still don’t know if I know those answers.
“I just always looked up to my coaches, and I love sports. When you can’t play anymore, how else are you going to be involved in athletics? Coaching, I thought, was a great avenue for me.”
Like father, like son
Grady Allen played defensive end for A&M from 1965-67. He earned All-Southwest Conference honors in ’67 when the Aggies won the conference title and upset Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. Grady, who won the prestigious Aggie Heart Award as a senior, continued his career for five seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.
While growing up, Dennis imagined his father’s career akin to that of Hall of Famer Dick Butkus. The truth is: Grady’s intangibles turned him into an overachiever. He was a part-time linebacker and a core special teams player, with no starts in 59 NFL games and two career interceptions.
“He was a guy you’d look at and think there’s no way he’d ever play,” said Ralph Smith, Grady’s position coach at A&M who now runs the Fort Worth office for Bourland & Leverich Supply Co. “He was a tremendous high school athlete — an old, rugged East Texas boy — but he was slow and always had knee problems. I’ve told people I could outrun Grady backward. But he just kept beating the ones out we brought in. He just had a knack, which is the same thing Dennis had.”
Dennis, Geoff and their younger sister, Ann Marie, grew up with sports. The four-bedroom residence bears scratches from the sock baseball and Nerf basketball games played in the family room while a Cowboys, Rangers or some other game on TV provided background noise. They used a basketball goal in the driveway and a neighbor’s vacant lot to take their games outside.
The family’s social activities revolved around sports, too, with Grady and Kay never missing an organized game.
Dennis’ favorite sport was whatever season it was. He once scored 63 points in a Little Dribblers game. His mom remembers the unassisted triple play he turned in Little League. It was big news one field day at Bedford Junior High when he was beaten out in a foot race. He was a catcher in baseball, a safety in football and a forward in soccer.
Dennis lettered in three sports in high school, but as the Class 5A state defensive player of the year in 1990 when he had 10 interceptions, eight forced fumbles and 107 tackles, he followed his father to A&M on a football scholarship.
“He had great instincts, but he also had all the tools to make the plays,” said Tim Edwards, Bell’s head coach from 1977-96. “He had enough speed, enough size, but I think one of the biggest things was he was just hostile. He was the opposite of what he was in the classroom and off the field. When he’d get there, he’d light you up.”
It was in college that Aggies defensive back Michael Hendricks started calling Allen by his initials — DA — a nickname that has stuck.
Allen, a safety, started the final 21 games of his career on the Aggies’ Wrecking Crew defense. The Aggies finished in the NCAA’s top five in total defense in 1994-95 while posting a 19-3-1 record. Most Aggies remember Allen for his fourth-quarter interception against Texas in 1993 that iced an 18-9 victory.
A&M coach R.C. Slocum saw the coaching potential in Allen soon after he arrived on campus.
“He was more than a player,” said Slocum, who was 123-47-2 in his 14 seasons at A&M. “He was like a coach on the field. Dennis always showed a little more maturity than the average player. He’d come up to the office and watch tape, studying it like a coach.”
After failing to catch on with the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1996, Allen returned to A&M to begin coaching. He spent four years helping with the Aggies’ defensive backs as a low-level assistant before Keith Burns, a 1979 L.D. Bell graduate, hired Allen as the secondary coach at the University of Tulsa.
Allen moved up the ranks quickly — two seasons at Tulsa, four with the Atlanta Falcons and five with the New Orleans Saints — before the Denver Broncos hired him as defensive coordinator.
“There’s a presence that comes with Dennis that is that of confidence,” New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said. “ Dennis is and was very highly thought of while he was here and was on track to be a coordinator here. Those plans never work out, though. Those guys get hired very quickly. Dennis got an opportunity to go [to Denver], and so it’s not surprising to see the position he’s in now — that of a head coach. I think the world of him and a lot of his ability.”
Allen doesn’t regularly wear his Aggie Ring or his Super Bowl ring from the 2009 Saints, but both mean a lot to him. They represent the two places he “grew up” as a football coach.
After only one season as the Broncos defensive coordinator in 2011, Allen earned interviews with St. Louis and Oakland. The Raiders offered him their head coaching job, and Allen didn’t hesitate even though Oakland’s last winning season came in its 2002 Super Bowl season.
“I was aware of what the challenges would be coming in,” said Allen, who is 8-19. “Now, maybe to what depth the challenges were, I don’t know if I fully understood that, but I knew what the challenges were coming in here. I have never been afraid to step up to a challenge.
“I went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and that team was 3-13 and had been displaced and everything’s chaotic. I was like, ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves and go to work.’ That’s kind of the way I’ve approached this. Just roll up my sleeves and go to work and try to do the best I can and keep these guys motivated, try to teach them, try to have a team that’s going to be tough, smart, disciplined, and we’ve made a lot of progress in that area.
“We haven’t won as many games as I would have liked to have won, but I see a lot of great signs of where this thing is going, and it’s heading in a positive direction.”
The Raiders have started three quarterbacks this season and six in three seasons. Their biggest-name players are aging safety Charles Woodson, who is in his second stint with the Raiders, and longtime kicker Sebastian Janikowski, leaving Allen as the face of the franchise.
Raiders safety Usama Young, who had Allen as his position coach for three seasons in New Orleans, calls Allen the “general” and the “captain.”
“He’s positive. He’s intuitive. He challenges you,” Young said. “He’s a players’ coach. He takes care of his guys. He’s always been that guy who understands where we’re coming from. He’s got so much knowledge of the game. I respect him. He went through some rough times in New Orleans, and we won a Super Bowl. He definitely has what it takes to win here.”
On this day, the team’s white knight is dressed in all black — sweat pants, a Raiders sweatshirt, a visor with a red Sharpie attached and sunglasses atop his head. Allen, though, presents the picture of cool, with not a hint of sweat.
Allen not only inherited his father’s rugged good looks — a modern-day John Wayne as former Bell coach Edwards portrays him — but also Grady’s demeanor. He said his dad was “cut-and-dry, black-and-white, this-is-kind-of-the-way-it-is,” but also a “big teddy bear.” Dennis admits he just as easily could be describing himself with those words.
“I think he should have been a coach,” Dennis said, “and, because of that, everything I did, I wanted to try to make him proud. He was a guy who really didn’t show his emotions on the outside. Yet, you always knew. Within the family, there was a lot of love, a lot of caring, a lot of emotion.”
Allen grew up 16 miles from Texas Stadium, watching another coach he admired. Dennis’ sideline persona sometimes reminds Geoff Allen of Tom Landry.
“I think Dennis is pretty cool all the time,” said Geoff, the division chief for Pediatric Critical Care Medicine and the medical director of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.
“He’s got a little fire in his belly, but he doesn’t get all bent out of shape if things don’t flow exactly the way he wants it to. He rolls with that and adapts to what he needs to adapt to. But you’re never going to see him wear that outfit Landry did. I don’t think he could pull that off.”