Former Michigan State football coach, athletic director George Perles dies at 85

Matt Charboneau and Lynn Henning

George Perles, the former Big Ten-winning football coach at Michigan State, athletic director and Board of Trustees member, died at age 85 Tuesday night.

Perles played football at Michigan State under the legendary Duffy Daugherty before returning to become an assistant coach under Daugherty. He soon ended up in the NFL and USFL for 10 years before becoming Michigan State’s head coach from 1983-94.

George Perles

During his time, Perles led the Spartans to two Big Ten Conference titles and seven bowl games. His best team was the 1987 group, which won the conference title and beat USC in the 1988 Rose Bowl.

"I will forever be grateful for the impact he has had on my life,” current Board member and former player Brian Mosallam said. “He will forever be my coach."

Although they coached opposite each other, Lloyd Carr at Michigan and Perles at Michigan State, Carr had a deep respect for Perles.

"I loved that man," Carr shared in a text to The Detroit News on Wednesday after learning of Perles' death.

“It certainly is a sad day for me because he taught me a lot and molded me and prepared me for life in the National Football League,” said former quarterback Jim Miller, who played for Perles from 1990-93 after coming to Michigan State from Waterford Kettering. “Not only life in the National Football League, but life in general.”

Perles also served as Michigan State’s athletic director from 1990-92 and after his coaching days, he joined the board as a trustee in 2007. But he resigned in November 2018, two years after the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal began to unfold. He cited health reasons.

"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. "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."

Perles made MSU his home for 65 years, adding a flourish to his Green and White resume by functioning for a brief time as both head coach and athletic director. He managed during that moonlighting era to incite hostility from the university president, John DiBiaggio, who wanted him to forgo either the coaching or AD jobs.

He ultimately gave up on AD, and later was fired as coach, a 12-season tenure that, consistent with Perles’ extremes, saw his Spartan teams win the Rose Bowl in 1988 and receive NCAA probation in 1996 for misdeeds that all occurred during Perles’ years.

But as was his unique way, Michigan State was so intertwined with his heart and with his life that, like spouses remarrying following a bitter divorce, he invariably found his way back to campus and to an ardor he and the university seemed mutually and eternally to share.

“My heart is with the entire Perles family,” MSU President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. said in a statement. “Former Trustee George Perles dedicated most of his life to service – service to our country and our university. From the classroom to the playing field, and athletic director to trustee, Mr. Perles embodied what it means to be a Spartan. The university is grateful for his decades of faithful service.”

Throughout his 85 years, color and colorful moments seemed to pour from Perles like a long, hearty libation. He loved family, friendships, and, in no set order, a glass of Scotch, food, fun, and money that could help achieve security for his wife, kids, grandkids, and friends, all of whom knew that to be with George Perles was to be with a loyalist who placed no price on honor and kinship.

He was a robust, rotund, mass of gregariousness whose good humor and cordiality was matched by a reputation for toughness hewn from his Vernor Highway days in Detroit.

There he had grown up, not far from old Tiger Stadium, an only child of Lithuanian parents who might have wondered where their son ultimately was headed. George was a bruiser in a no-frills neighborhood, a man accustomed in the way of this culture to settle differences instantly — and, in the young men’s view, honorably — with fists that upheld the region’s street ethos.

He also was a good athlete whose football skills were significant. But college was not an immediate goal, nor a practical objective, when he graduated from Detroit Western High. He instead opted, with a good many classmates, to enlist in the Army.

George Perles

After he was discharged, Perles understood the Army had changed his perspective and his potential. School, as well as football, was on his mind. He headed for East Lansing and for a place on Daugherty’s football team, which ended when Perles hurt his knee in 1958.

He finished school, became a graduate assistant coach, got his masters, and went to work crafting a career coaching football. There was initially a stop at Chicago St. Rita’s, and then to Detroit St. Ambrose, where his team won the Catholic League Championship during an era when Catholic League prep football was an entity as storied and as filled with genuine characters as the Old West.

Daugherty knew of Perles’ skills as a coach and as a recruiter and wanted him back in East Lansing as an assistant. He remained until 1971. In his final year, he was paid a typical assistant coach’s salary, $11,000, which was at least slightly boosted when Steelers head coach Chuck Noll invited him to Pittsburgh.

His timing was impeccable.

Perles arrived as a defensive line coach just as the Steelers were about to stitch together a dynastic run with a defense known as the Steel Curtain. The assistant overseeing Noll’s defensive front was about to inherit a group that would, at its peak, unleash Mean Joe Greene, Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood, and Ernie Holmes.

Perles later would become defensive coordinator and assistant head coach under Noll, with four Super Bowl victories now making him a natural to move elsewhere, this time as head coach.

In January of 1980, it appeared to most at MSU that Perles was set to become the Spartans head coach after Darryl Rogers left abruptly, with athletic director Joe Kearney, for Arizona State.

Perles wanted passionately the Spartans job he had dreamed about for all his coaching life. But at the last moment, MSU stunned all of college football when it opted for Muddy Waters, who had previously coached at Hillsdale College and Saginaw Valley State.

Perles was devastated, but returned to Noll and to the Steelers. Two years later, pro football’s new entity, the United States Football League, arrived and Perles was recruited as head coach of the Philadelphia Stars. It seemed a natural fit for an upstart league and a man hungry to lead his own team.

But there had been developments in East Lansing — three years after Perles’ heart had been crushed by a phone call from Doug Weaver, then the Spartans athletic director.

Waters had been fired in November of his third season at East Lansing. The Spartans this time were intent on getting it right. Perles would be their choice.

There was one issue: Perles’ contract with the Stars, which owner Myles Tanenbaum was not interested in forgoing.

“I don’t care if I have to walk to East Lansing,” Perles had told Tanenbaum, “I’m taking that job.”

The parties eventually agreed on a settlement and Perles was freed to accept, as a measure of MSU’s sincerity, a salary that in December of 1982 would make him the highest-paid coach in the Big Ten, with a yearly salary of $90,000, or less than Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh makes on a weekly pro-rated basis in 2018.

He was viewed at the time in East Lansing as truly messianic, with bumper stickers proclaiming, “Let George Do It.” His love for the university, coupled with vibrant in-state recruiting and coaching credentials, gave the Spartans a sense of hope they had not enjoyed since the Daugherty heyday of the mid-60s.

The Spartans got an immediate boost, helped by a defense he imported from Pittsburgh: the stunt 4-3 alignment, a looping, interchangeable scheme designed to make the most of personnel that, compared with the rest of the Big Ten, was still inferior.

But the recruiting corridors he vowed to restore were paying off. Perles made the Spartans bowl-eligible in his second and third seasons, 1984 and ‘85. Then, after losing four three-point games in 1986, he made good on his pledge to make MSU a Rose Bowl team inside of five years.

The Spartans put together a defense in ’87 that was a testament not only to Perles’ toughness and design, but also to a young defensive coach Perles had hired four years earlier: Nick Saban, who had been assigned at age 33 responsibility for coordinating MSU’s defense.  

“George Perles meant a tremendous amount to not only me, but the entire Saban family," Saban said in a statement Wednesday. "He was one of my mentors in this profession, and he gave me my first opportunity to be in a position of leadership as the defensive coordinator at Michigan State. George was always a great friend and someone who I turned to for advice on many occasions. I learned an incredible amount of both football and life from him over the years."

More: Former players, coaches: 'Blue-collar' George Perles was great leader, mentor

More: Henning: George Perles adored life, and those who made his so full

The Spartans won the Big Ten championship in ’87 and headed to their first Rose Bowl in 22 years, where they bested Southern Cal.

Perles, though, was now a hot ticket, nationally — again.

The Packers had just fired Forrest Gregg and believed an old Steel Curtain architect, who had just returned the Spartans’ luster, would fit wonderfully in Green Bay.

Perles knew winning in the Big Ten, with Michigan and Ohio State in his backyard, would remain complicated. He also had a yen for a fifth Super Bowl ring. He was prepared to head for Green Bay when his boss, Weaver, worked out a 10-year rollover contract that would ensure Perles all the money and multi-generational security he was endlessly seeking for his family.

Perles stayed — and a campus partied.

Although there were no Rose Bowl follow-ups, football remained relatively strong in East Lansing. But now the head coach had new responsibilities that were about to bring added duress and drama to his and to the Spartans’ collective lives.

Weaver retired following the ’89 season and Perles was wary of who might be his new boss. The best answer, he concluded, would be to work as his own AD, which was not the route favored by then-MSU president John DiBiaggio. Perles won by way of a fortuitous sequence of events, and perhaps a measure of chicanery.

The New York Jets wanted Perles as their new coach following the ’89 season and DiBiaggio was happy to see him leave. MSU’s political superiors, the MSU Board of Trustees, had different notions. They wanted Perles to remain in East Lansing, denied permission to deal with the Jets, and offered him his ultimate sweetener to stay: remain as head coach, as well as become MSU’s new AD.

DiBiaggio fumed and determined to later settle scores. Two years later he forced Perles to take one job or the other — football — and hired, just before he departed for Tufts University, a new AD: Merrily Dean Baker, who was destined to have with Perles much the same relationship he had endured at the end with DiBiaggio.

Perles now had a new boss and president, M. Peter McPherson, who didn’t know football but who knew from his constituents that Perles needed to do better than probation and a 6-6 record in 1993.

An “outstanding season” was McPherson’s decree, which Perles didn’t come close to reaching with a 5-6 record.

Out went Perles, a non-employee for the first time in 12 years, and in came Saban, who was the new head coach.

Perles seemed happy in retirement, even if it had been forced. He remained close friends with former Michigan attorney general Frank Kelley. He was tight with his old coaching pal, and one-time Spartans star, Hank Bullough.

He had a new home at Pentwater, on the Lake Michigan shoreline. Always a sharper businessman than people tended to appreciate, he got busy with another venture, The Motor City Bowl, a day-after-Christmas bowl played at the Pontiac Silverdome, and later at Ford Field, from 1997-2014. It became a business and TV-ratings hit, despite the fact teams paired typically were lower-rung Big Ten schools and Mid-American Conference champions.

Still, Perles was restless. Still, he was committed to a university in East Lansing he could not cease loving, whose affairs he wanted to be part of.

He ran for the MSU Board of Trustees in 2007 and won. He would remain a Board member for 12 years, until resigning in November of 2018 when Parkinson’s disease had turned serious. 

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter; staff writers Kim Kozlowski and Angelique S. Chengelis contributed.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau