The day Randy Allen retired as the fourth-winningest coach in Texas high school football history, his son Zac called.
“Because Dad has been at Highland Park for the last 19 years and won three state championships there, everybody thinks Highland Park shaped him as a coach. But he was shaped at Ballinger and Brownwood and Abilene Cooper,” Zac Allen said.
Randy Allen retired March 21 after winning back-to-back Class 5A Division I state championships at Highland Park, including a 53-49 come-from-behind win for the ages against Manvel in his final game. The 67-year-old Allen coached 44 years, including 37 as a head coach, and experienced only two losing seasons.
Allen finished with 376 career victories.
Because 226 of his wins and all three of his state titles came at Highland Park, it’s the school with which he’s most often associated. At Highland Park, Allen won a state championship with current NFL quarterback Matthew Stafford and two more titles with John Stephen Jones, the grandson of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
Those rarefied accomplishments at one of the state’s wealthiest and highest-profile schools have pushed Ballinger, Brownwood and Abilene Cooper into the background of Randy Allen’s coaching biography. But as Zac Allen noted, the roots for his dad’s coaching success were planted and nurtured at three West Texas schools.
Making magic at Ballinger
Many successful coaches seem to have some magic about them – an ability to pull out improbable playoff wins or develop unlikely players into stars. With Randy Allen, the magic was both tangible and intangible, starting at age 30 and his first head-coaching job at Ballinger.
“It was the spring of my freshman year when he was introduced to us, and he did a magic trick. He took a balloon and stuck a needle all the way through it without popping it,” recalled Aaron Keesee, who became the first of multiple magical quarterbacks tutored by Allen.
“I guess he thought it was going to take a magician to turn Ballinger’s program around.”
Another Ballinger player who witnessed Allen’s early magic was Brent Brevard, who was a year younger than Keesee.
“He did a magic trick where he took a page from a newspaper, tore it apart and then put it back together. I still don’t know how he did that,” said Brevard, who played for Allen four years at Ballinger and coached with him 11 years at Cooper and Highland Park.
“There was symbolism there. He did some magic with a lot of the guys who played for him.”
Zac Allen said there was a message to the magic.
“Everything with dad was calculated. He saved his pep talks for when he thought they were needed most. He contained his emotions on the sideline until he felt he needed to show them. Calling plays, he always tried to be two series ahead of the defensive coordinator’s adjustments,” Zac said.
“The magic tricks were calculated, too. He weaved a story with tearing up the newspaper. Maybe it was a story about the next opponent or a story from a game we lost.”
The magic tricks may have contained a planned message, but they – along with other unique tactics used by Allen – helped his players relax and have a little fun while playing the most serious high school sport in Texas.
“You’ve got to remember that when he came to Ballinger, we hadn’t made the playoffs in 15 years. We weren’t used to playing 12 or 13 games,” Brevard said. “Players can get bogged down and worn down with the routine of practice.
“One day before practice, Coach Allen came into the locker room wearing a brown paper bag over his head. It had two eye holes and a hole for his mouth. It had a face drawn on it. He said something to us and then he said, ‘All right, let’s get out on the practice field.’
“We were all laughing. It got us out of any rut we were in,” Brevard said.
After a hard-fought district game at Odessa in the 1990s, Allen took his Abilene Cooper team to the well-known Barn Door Steakhouse for a postgame meal. He often played the guitar and sang at Fellowship of Christian Athletes gatherings, but this was different.
“They had a dance floor, and he got out there with his guitar and played Johnny B. Goode,” Brevard said of the Chuck Berry rock-and-roll hit from late 1950s. “He had everybody laughing and joking after a tough ballgame.
“He was passionate about football, and he believed you had to do your work. But he could still make it fun.”
While at Ballinger and Brownwood, Allen often did calisthenics with his players. Push-ups. Sit-ups. All with perfect form.
Allen’s unusual tactics – along with his solid X’s and O’s and the fact that he won everywhere he went – positively impacted hundreds of players. Perhaps none more than Keesee some 35 years ago in Ballinger.
“He had a way of making you believe in yourself,” said Keesee, now a 22-year coach. “He started FCA meetings. He created an atmosphere of family and trust. I trusted Coach Allen. I always felt like he had my best interest at heart.”
Allen and Keesee led Ballinger to a 9-3 record in 1982 and a 12-1-1 finish in 1983, including the Bearcats’ first state quarterfinals appearance in 30 years. The 1983 season also included an 18-16 regional playoff win over No. 1-ranked Littlefield that Ballinger fans still remember as magical.
Keesee developed from not starting on Ballinger’s JV as a high school freshman to earning a football scholarship and starting as a college freshman at Texas Tech.
Following a legend
After winning 42 of his final 51 games at Ballinger, Allen accepted the unenviable task of going to Brownwood in 1986 and following Gordon Wood – the state’s winningest coach at the time. Wood had been at Brownwood for 26 seasons – a full generation – and won seven state championships between 1960 and 1981.
One of those Brownwood family generations was Jerry Jones, who played tackle on Wood’s 1965 state championship team, and David Jones, who played two varsity seasons for Wood in the 1980s before playing his senior season for Allen in 1986.
“I went to Coach Wood’s retirement news conference. It was pretty emotional. It was an impactful time for Brownwood,” said David Jones, who recently returned to the Lions as an assistant coach.
“Not many coaches could have taken over for Coach Wood like Coach Allen did. I never sensed any apprehension over the transition. I didn’t feel like the job was bigger than him. He came in and worked us so hard that we didn’t have time to think about having a new coach.”
The Lions won the district championship in Allen’s first season.
“We didn’t miss a beat,” Jones said. “If Coach Allen felt any pressure in following Coach Wood, I couldn’t tell it. It was seamless. Being a coach now and looking back, I can see what a tall order Coach Allen faced.”
Sammy Burnett, recently hired as Brownwood’s head coach, played his sophomore season for Wood and his junior and senior seasons for Allen.
“I don’t know if anybody other than Coach Allen could have followed Coach Wood,” Burnett said. “Coach Allen led FCA with his guitar and singing. He taught a class to get to know us better. He did pushups with us.
“I got a note from him one day that said something like, ‘Great job at the baseball game last night and moving that baserunner over.’ He was involved with us. He got to know us as people.”
One year at Christmastime at Brownwood, Allen rounded up about 20 football players and went through the hallways and into the classrooms singing carols.
“It made us feel like everything was going to be OK during an uncertain time because all we had known was Coach Wood and his way,” Burnett said.
Jones said Allen possessed a magical way – both in how he handled the coaching transition and through the tricks he performed.
“In our first meeting with him, he did a magic trick. It got our attention. He just had a way of captivating you,” Jones said.
“He sang and played his guitar at pep rallies. He wrote a song about the Brownwood Lions to the music of ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ Kids were dancing. His personality was infectious.”
Jones said Allen kept in touch through the years. Last spring, Jones watched as Allen appeared on the NFL Network after he received the Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year award following the 2016 season.
“There he is on the NFL Network, and the next day, he’s texting me, asking how things are going in Ballinger,” Jones said. “He’s one of the top high school coaches in the country, but he never forgot his roots. He’s very humble in that way.”
Allen finished 43-15-2 at Brownwood and made the playoffs all five seasons from 1986-1990. When Allen retired recently, he was one spot and 18 wins behind Wood on the state’s all-time coaching wins list.
Final West Texas stop at Abilene
Then it was off to Cooper, his alma mater, which hadn’t made the playoffs in 12 years and was coming off a 1-9 season in 1990.
The challenges at Cooper were to get the best athletes playing football again, and then get them believing they could beat district powerhouses Odessa Permian, Midland Lee and San Angelo Central. Allen suffered one losing season – 4-6 in 1991 – before turning the Cougars’ program.
Zac Allen quarterbacked his dad’s Cooper teams in 1993 and 1994, when the Cougars went 20-5-1 and won five playoff games.
“Those were the greatest years as a son that I could ever imagine,” Zac said. “We used to pray together before every game. I knew he was under a lot of pressure to win games, but he always prayed for God’s will to be carried out over a victory. He always had perspective beyond wins and losses.”
From 1992-1997, Randy Allen’s Cooper teams won 57 games and made the playoffs every year, including the 1996 Class 5A Division II state championship. It took an Austin Westlake team led by current NFL quarterback Drew Brees to beat Allen’s Cougars for the state title.
In 1999, Allen made his final coaching move, leaving Cooper for Highland Park. Unlike the rebuilding jobs at Ballinger and Cooper, Highland Park already was winning. Still, Allen elevated the Scots from a 12-win program to three-time state champions.
In blue-collar West Texas, Allen was coaching future ranchers, coaches and local businessmen. At wealthy Highland Park, he suddenly was coaching future corporate CEOs, Wall Street executives and governmental leaders.
Even though Allen had to grow into a different role at Highland Park – where he was leading 300 players a year instead of the 70 at Ballinger – the overall message of his program remained consistent.
“The biggest thing about Coach Allen is that he was interested in you more as a person than as an athlete or an assistant coach,” said Brevard, who played both roles under Allen. “His program was more than football. It was about values you took with you after football.
“When you left school after playing for him, you were a better young man. You were equipped to be a productive citizen and a good husband and father.”
Which may be a more impressive legacy than 376 career wins.