boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe
BOB RYAN

This nice-guy coach got a very bad break

Back in 1993, Halloween fell on a Sunday. Boston University sports information director Ed Carpenter was in his office that day, preparing for an upcoming football game with the University of Buffalo, when he saw the assistant coaches heading out of the building and into their cars. Sunday being a major workday in the world of college football, he asked head coach Dan Allen what was going on.

"Today is Halloween," he said. "I told them that it was more important for them to go home today and trick or treat with their kids than to be breaking down more film."

"That," Carpenter was saying yesterday, "was Dan Allen. "What made him special was that he didn't talk `coach-talk.' A lot of coaches talk about things like `family first' because they think it's what they should say. Not Dan. He didn't just talk it. He lived it."

Carpenter remains at BU, where there is no longer any football. Allen had moved on to Holy Cross in 1995. There was never any question which local football team Carpenter has rooted for this past decade or so.

"As I said to his wife, Laura, just a little while ago," Carpenter sighed, "we didn't have him long, but we were lucky to have him at all."

Now no one has him. Allen died Sunday, the curious and tragic victim of something diagnosed as multiple chemical sensitivity. Left behind were Laura, Mark, Taylor, and Danielle, as well as scores of saddened former players and work associates. He was 48.

Allen's final two years on this earth were, frankly, hellish. It is bad enough to have your body quit on you the way his did, to be placed in a daily circumstance where you need to be carried about for everything, including bathroom trips. But how much worse must it be to carry around the unending frustration of not really knowing what is wrong with you?

Is there really an identifiable medical condition known as multiple chemical sensitivity? Or is that a handy catch-all description based on assumptions and theories, not proven facts?

The truth is, the medical community, which includes nontraditional practitioners, never really knew for sure what was causing Allen's system to break down. The best explanation anyone could provide, as detailed in a heartbreaking story written by my colleague Jackie MacMullan in September 2003, was that "exposure to toxic chemicals and other irritants in the environment" had disabled him completely, causing, in addition to a breakdown of his body, "short-term memory loss, headaches and neurological problems."

Imagine being hit with this. And then imagine being told by members of the medical establishment that you did not have a certifiable disease and that you may instead be suffering from "a psychosomatic disorder brought on by stress."

Some psychosomatic illness. The man is dead.

This shouldn't happen to anybody, of course. But how cruel is it to happen to a man who had always prided himself on his physicality? He had been a Tedy Bruschi-style linebacker at Hanover (Ind.) College. He was all football player, all man. As he told MacMullan, "When I was a player, I wanted to rip your head off."

But Allen was able to separate the game from real life. Was he a competitor? Absolutely. "Nobody wanted to win more than Dan Allen," Carpenter declared.

It was, however, never a win-at-any-cost deal. There was one thing he valued even more than winning football games, and that was his relationship with the players. Players knew there wasn't a hypocritical bone or corpuscle in his body, that when he told them he cared about them as people, it was the gospel truth.

"He was the kind of guy you say, `Are you really a coach?' " said Carpenter, who has known more than his share.

He was loyal to the proverbial fault. Go back to that 1993 season. BU was coming off a 3-8 season, but when Carpenter visited training camp up in Bridgton, Maine, he sensed that something very good was about to happen, except that there was one problem.

Allen had recruited a junior college quarterback by the name of Robert Dougherty, and it was clear he was going to inject life into the program with his quasi-Flutie abilities. The problem was that there was an incumbent QB named Greg Moore, a somewhat immobile kid with a very strong arm. Coach Allen was plagued by what was laudably noble but foolish loyalty to Moore. His head knew very well what he had in Dougherty, but his heart was with Moore.

"Dan had a really tough time pulling the trigger on that one," Carpenter explained. "I know for a fact the coaches sat up till 2 or 3 in the morning talking it out, and there really was no question who should be playing."

Dougherty was the goods, all right. He quarterbacked BU to an undefeated regular season and a Division 1-AA playoff victory over Northern Iowa -- outplaying a QB named Kurt Warner. It was the last great BU gridiron success, and Allen would never take credit for any of it.

There was a brief period when Allen thought he was getting better. He wasn't. He was not able to do anything for himself, and it would end uncomfortably for both him and Holy Cross when the administration felt it had no choice but to remove him as coach after last season's 1-11 campaign. It was a lose-lose deal for everyone. There were no good guys or bad guys, only one shockingly unfortunate guy.

Laura and the kids must now cope with the loss of a devoted husband and father whom she described as her children's "idol." If it is any slight consolation, they should know that Ed Carpenter isn't the only one who feels privileged to have known and worked with Dan Allen.

Dan Allen gave coaching a good name. That's a pretty nice legacy.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com. 

SEARCH GLOBE ARCHIVES
   
Globe Archives
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months