East Lansing — Jim Miller remembers the day he decided he was going to play at Michigan State.
The former quarterback from Waterford was, of all places, on his official visit to the University of Michigan when he knew he was going to be a Spartan. Miller and his parents entered Bo Schembechler’s office and minutes later, Miller found a phone and called George Perles.
“He was the whole reason I went to Michigan State University,” Miller recalled on Wednesday upon hearing the news of Perles’ death at the age of 85. “I actually committed to Michigan State when I was on my official visit at the University of Michigan. That's how much George Perles meant to me.
“I’ll never forget, I was basically on a phone outside of Bo Schembechler's office and my mom and dad looked at me said, ‘Jim, you made the right decision.’ I think even they knew after our visit to Michigan State that was the right place for me. They knew I was going to be in good hands under George Perles’ guidance.”
The memories came flooding in from every corner on Wednesday as news started to come out that Perles, the former coach, athletic director and later member of the Board of Trustees, had died. Perles, who played under the legendary Duffy Daugherty, brought the Spartans back to relevance on the football field, winning two Big Ten titles, including a victory in the Rose Bowl after the 1987 season.
But it was his relationship with his players that endured.
John Miller, a standout at Farmington Hills Harrison who was a safety on the Rose Bowl championship team, was overcome with emotion when he was told of Perles’ death.
“I've got five people in my life that influenced me that I can name and Coach Perles is definitely one of them,” Miller said. “I had a fantastic relationship with him, and I absolutely fell in love with Michigan State because of George Perles. People always asked me why I chose Michigan State over Michigan and I’d say I chose George Perles over Bo Schembechler. He surpassed everyone.
“My parents loved Bo, but there was something about George Perles that sparked me the first time I met him and I said, ‘This is the kind of guy that I want to play for.’ It kind of goes back to that blue-collar mentality. I can't tell you how many times we sat in the locker and he said, ‘We might go out there and get beat, but we aren't going to go out there and lose the fight. If that means that we gotta take our helmets off and go to fist throwing at the 50-yard line that's what we'll do, but we will win the fight.’
“That was his mentality, and it’s something that has driven me my entire life and molded me into the man that I am, that mentality of never give up and always be tougher than the guy in front of you.”
Not only did Perles mold the lives of his players, he did so for his coaches, as well.
One of those coaches is Alabama coach Nick Saban, who was the defensive coordinator for the Rose Bowl team before returning to succeed Perles as the Spartans head coach.
“George Perles meant a tremendous amount to not only me, but the entire Saban family,” Saban said in a statement. “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.
“George did an outstanding job at Michigan State building that program. He was a great leader who impacted that transformation at Michigan State from the top down. Those five years at Michigan State, which culminated with a Rose Bowl victory at the end of the 1987 season, showed us the type of foundation necessary to build a program. We are so very close to his family, his wife Sally, and their children, Kathy, Terry, John and Pat, and they are in our thoughts and prayers. It is a sad day for the Sabans when it comes to losing one of our great mentors and the fantastic memories that we had with them.”
Current Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio first came to Michigan State as the defensive backs coach under Saban in 1995. And while he never coached on the same staff as Perles, the two enjoyed a close relationship over the years.
“Coach Perles exuded confidence, conviction and toughness. He really gave his life to Michigan State, all the way till the end,” Dantonio said in a statement. “He welcomed me back to MSU when I first became the head coach here. Not many people have been in these shoes, but he was one of them, and was always extremely supportive every step of the way. He was someone you could lean on. Many times over the past 13 years he would speak to our team.
“George was one of the most renowned coaches in America; everybody knew who Coach Perles was and what he brought to the game. He had tremendous success, winning the Rose Bowl and two Big Ten titles, and developed countless NFL players. I first got to know his reputation when I was a graduate assistant at Ohio State. He always brought a blue-collar mentality and really we’ve embraced a lot of things in our program over the years that came from him. He left a legacy and was an impactful figure.
“George was a true Spartan and will be deeply missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Perles family during this difficult time.”
Perles’ reach was not limited to football. He served as athletic director from 1990-92 and later on the Board of Trustees from 2007 until he resigned in November 2018.
It was when Perles was still coaching football, though, that he interacted with then-assistant basketball coach Tom Izzo and developed a close bond over the next 30-plus years.
“George Perles embraced me from the moment I arrived at Michigan State,” Izzo said. “He showed me what it meant to be a Spartan, and how to be loyal. Throughout my career, especially as I was getting started, he was one of the people I consulted on any major decision I had to make.
“Lupe and I send our deepest condolences to Sally and the entire Perles family. George is the truest Spartan I have ever met.”