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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Up against it in many ways

You just knew there would be no happy ending to this story.

All of us were rooting for Holy Cross football coach Dan Allen, who has been struck down by a mysterious and unrelenting illness called multiple chemical sensitivity. The illness has robbed him of his ability to walk and taken away much of his strength, but it did not crush his resolve.

He vowed to continue coaching the Crusaders, even as many quietly urged him to step down. He was there at every practice and every team meeting. He allowed his assistants to carry him up and down the stairs to his own office because the field house is not handicapped-accessible. The only time he wasn't beside his players was on the bus for road games, because the exhaust fumes were hazardous to his already-compromised health.

Dan Allen managed to do everything he could to inspire, cajole, and motivate his players -- except win.

Allen was relieved of his duties as head coach yesterday in the wake of an emotionally draining 1-11 season. The decision, said Holy Cross athletic director Richard Regan, was a joint one between himself and the school's president, the Rev. Michael C. McFarland S.J.

"Our football program has been under a lot of pressure," said Regan. "We felt that a change was needed. We felt a new coach was one of the first steps."

It is a not a coincidence that the change was made at the height of the recruiting process. Regan conceded he had doubts that Allen could recruit effectively given his physical limitations.

"Realistically speaking," said Regan, "what is the likelihood of the recruiting process being effective under these conditions? We needed to make a decision to do what was best for Holy Cross. We have an obligation to our student-athletes."

Yes, Holy Cross does have an obligation to its student-athletes, but those obligations vary depending on what sport you play. When the school decided to join the Patriot League, a conference that planned to emphasize academics and eschew athletic scholarships, those guidelines, it turned out, applied only to the football program. The basketball team continued to give out scholarships, both on the men's and women's side, thus satisfying the requirements of Title IX.

There was one other little problem with Holy Cross's formula for football success. Recruits that Patriot League rivals Colgate, Lehigh, and Fordham were willing to admit -- and around whom those programs were built -- did not meet the academic requirements in Worcester. Other schools, too, proved to be far more "creative" with their financial aid packages.

Then there's Fitton Field, which at best could be called "quaint." Holy Cross's facilities are clearly lacking. They are outdated and cramped.

In other words, if the powers that be at the Cross think the only reason the football team went 1-11 is that their coach was in a wheelchair, they are kidding themselves.

In a fine article on the state of Holy Cross football by Jennifer Toland in the Worcester Telegam last Sunday, McFarland was quoted as saying, "I don't know that we can commit the resources or flexibility it would take to really dominate [the Patriot League]. We're pretty stretched on athletics as it is, so we're certainly not going to increase [the football team's budget] beyond inflation. That's just an unfortunate reality."

McFarland went on to say the school was "as flexible as we want to be in admissions."

Regan was asked yesterday if Holy Cross football can be successful under its current constraints.

"That's what we need to find out in the next five years," Regan said. "We've done it before, but it hasn't been easy. We need to look at everything. Is it the coaching? Is it the recruiting? Is it financial aid? We'll evaluate all of that."

Maybe Holy Cross will relax the requirements for key recruits. Maybe it will spruce up the field a little. In other words, maybe some of the things Dan Allen lobbied long and hard for will finally be done -- for his successor.

Allen did not make himself available for comment yesterday, but you can be sure this was a devastating blow to a proud and courageous man who has endured a nightmare. His solace through it all had been his ability to connect with the kids he loved so much, and to teach the game that has been his life. Yet there was no doubt coaching was physically and emotionally taxing, on him and his team.

Regan and McFarland understand there will be fallout from this decision. To loyal Allen followers -- and there are many -- it seems downright heartless. For the school, said Regan, it was a painful yet necessary decision.

"I don't think we are heartless," said Regan. "I think we've been pretty compassionate. We allowed him to coach this year, against the advice of many. And I want to make it clear that Dan Allen has not been fired by the school. He's still employed here. He's simply no longer the head coach."

Regan declined to comment on what Allen's options are, but school sources said he is being encouraged to take a sick leave, which would pay him in full for six months, then go on long-term disability, which would pay him two-thirds of his salary until retirement age.

Whether Allen goes that route remains to be seen. If he does not accept those benefits, and cuts his ties with Holy Cross, it could open the door for legal action against the school over the onset of his disease.

Allen's friends report that the coach's health continues to improve, albeit in tiny increments. The other day, he crossed his legs, something that would have been unthinkable five months ago.

You wish that Dan Allen could will his way out of that wheelchair. You hope that, someday, he'll conquer MCS and seize his life back, bounding into a new recruit's home, talking and moving and speaking like the wonderful coach he has been for most of his adult life.

That would be the happiest ending of all.

Jackie MacMullan's e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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