George Perles resigns as Michigan State trustee

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Former Michigan State head football coach George Perles

George Perles, the former Michigan State University athletic director, football coach and longtime Board of Trustees member, resigned Thursday because of his growing battle with Parkinson's disease.

The resignation means outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, will appoint a replacement for Perles, a Democrat, instead of Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, who takes office in January.

 It also comes soon after Perles was accused in a lawsuit of covering up a sexual abuse complaint against Larry Nassar in the early 1990s, though another board member said the litigation was not a factor in Perles' decision.

Perles did not immediately respond Thursday to a phone message seeking comment but said in a letter that he was stepping down for health reasons.

"This decision was not easy nor was it made without consulting my family and medical advisers," Perles, 84, wrote. "Michigan State University has been a home to me and my family for nearly 65 years ... 

"It has been no secret that I have been living with a number of health challenges. Despite the limitations, I continued to support the university and remained focused on fulfilling my commitments as a Trustee.

"As this year comes to a close, so begins a time of reflection. At age 84, my mobility is compromised and I live with the effects of Parkinson's every day. The ramifications of my health issues continue to grow."

Trustee Dianne Byrum said it was "not a total surprise" that he resigned.

"If he was going to resign, I had thought it was going to be after Whitmer was seated," Byrum said. "But I do understand he has battled health issues over the last year or so."

In November, voters elected two new board members, both Democrats, following the decisions of Chair Brian Breslin and Trustee Mitch Lyons, both Republicans, not to seek re-election. The newly-elected board members, Brianna Scott and Kelly Tebay, put Democrats in control of the board with a majority of 6-2. 

Even if Snyder appoints a Republican to finish Perles' term, which expires in January 2023, Democrats will still control the board, 5-3.

But Board Vice Chair Joel Ferguson — a Democrat who was discussing Perles' resignation in a meeting with Chair Brian Breslin and Interim President John Engler — said partisanship is not an issue on the Michigan State board.

"Everybody I have served with have been a Spartan," Ferguson said. "We haven’t looked at parties. We are going to make decisions based on what his best for the university."

Perles, Ferguson said, couldn't always attend board meeting and was struggling at a recent football game. 

Perles' resignation comes two months after California resident Erika Davis alleged in a lawsuit that Nassar, a former MSU sports doctor and convicted sexual predator, videotaped himself in 1992 raping her when she was a 17-year-old field hockey player. The suit also alleges that when her MSU coach complained about it, Perles intervened and covered it up.

Perles, 84, a former MSU head football coach who was athletic director from 1990 to 1992, was not named as a defendant in the suit and denied the allegations in a statement issued in September.

Byrum said the controversy is not the reason Perles is resigning and said she understands that investigators have cleared him in the case, though she did not have any more information.

"We are anticipating ... that George will be cleared," said Byrum.

But MSU spokeswoman Penny Davis said: "No conclusion has been reached at this point."

Davis' attorney Jordan Merson, who's based in New York, could not be reached for comment. Her other attorney, Detroit-based Brian McKeen, declined to comment.

Perles came to MSU after his stint in the Army, according to his resignation letter. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1960 and a master’s degree in educational administration in 1961, according to his MSU bio.

"I met and married my wife, Sally, while at MSU and we lived in married housing with our first two children," Perles wrote in his resignation letter. "I continued to be an ardent MSU supporter and proud Michigander even as I began my professional career and resided outside of the state."

In 1982, Perles returned to MSU as head football coach, leading the Spartans for 12 seasons, highlighted by two Big Ten titles and a Rose Bowl victory.

"Sally and I were delighted to return to our dream job when I was asked to lead the football team and serve a short term as athletic director," Perles wrote in his resignation letter. "After attending the university and serving as an employee, the next step was to serve as a member of the Board of Trustees. As a trustee, my goal was to help navigate the challenges of maintaining and growing an institution that, in my mind, is the finest university in the county."

In a statement, Breslin hailed Perles' commitment to MSU.

“I have known George for many years and his dedication to the university is beyond compare,” Breslin said. “He cares deeply about the people here and has worked selflessly over the years — whether that was as a player, coach, athletic director or board member — to push MSU to its greatest potential.”

Ferguson added that Perles will be remembered both for his toughness on the field of competition and his love of all things Spartan.

“George and I go way back, and his dedication to our great institution has endured,” Ferguson said. “He has given more than 60 years to our beloved institution. The entire board wishes nothing but the best for George, Sally and their family.”

On twitter, Trustee Brian Mosallam said: "Coach Perles brought me to @michiganstateu. I was raised to never forget that and I never will. Wishing Coach, Sally and their family health and happiness. Get well."

Perles said his concern for his wife prompted him to resign now.  "At this juncture, I feel that Sally deserves some respite," he said. We need to make our life smaller as we age and consider our quality of life. Our family has bled green and white for the better part of our lives. It's time to step back and allow the next generation to carry the MSU torch."