You would have been forgiven for wondering how, exactly, George Perles squeezed 85 years from his long, robust, and rollicking life.
He carried for decades way too many pounds. He ate lots of food that wasn’t a great deal healthier than the native Lithuanian dish he relished, kugelis, a cardiac-on-a-plate staple made with bacon, eggs, potatoes, and cream.
And he favored a drink or two, or maybe three if the company was right, and which might not have always been a routine tight to American Medical Association guidelines.
But, ah, on second thought, that, in part, is exactly why for so many blessed decades we had such a splendid man and football coach in Perles, who died Tuesday night.
It’s because he adored life. And the elements that made life for him so blissful: people, above all; family even more so; friends right there with family. Good days with blessed company were all he needed, all he ever wanted.
Michigan State was fortunate to have known him in so many roles, first as a player who learned from Biggie Munn and Duffy Daugherty how football and souls could intersect to elevate a game and a university.
Because he valued people and their individual gifts, and understood innately how personalities made people fascinating singularly and as football teammates, he was a natural to coach, beginning in the glowing Wild West era of the Detroit Catholic League, then at St. Rita in Chicago, and on to Daugherty’s staff, all before he left to help Chuck Noll unleash hell on the NFL with a Steel Curtain defensive front that George coached and steered to four Super Bowls.
The next move, his and MSU’s collective grand prize, should have been easy and wasn’t: head coach of the Spartans.
He had the job by virtual acclamation in January of 1980, after Darryl Rogers left. It was the easiest coaching call MSU could have made this side of anointing Nick Saban, ironically, as Perles follow-up act in 1994.
But the Spartan execs botched it, cruelly, with a blindside choice: Muddy Waters. The moment Perles got the news was devastating — for him, for a weeping wife, Sally, and for MSU’s fan base that knew, absolutely knew, a man with Perles’ ardor for MSU, and with his recruiting knack and savvy in Detroit, could effectively bring his Steelers luster to East Lansing.
And he did. Three years later.
Loyal to Michigan State
But something else, something more transcendent, about that crushing 1980 blow tells you about the life Perles lived, unfailingly.
He did not lash out at MSU’s bosses. He did not decry the Waters choice, as many of us did, instantly. He would not allow his rejection, a harpoon to heart and soul, to in any way taint his affection for Michigan State.
This was easily explained in the context of Perles’ remarkable life. And in a certain paradox to it.
A man naturally combative, whether along Vernor Highway’s mean streets or on a football field, understood there was an overarching value at work: people. For all their foibles that Perles understood and at times himself carried out, he believed too much in the inherent goodness of human beings, and of his university, to have ever taken an impulsive, emotional swipe at those he loved.
He remained a Spartan. Until his final breath Tuesday night.
This made his 1982 hiring all the more triumphant. And, you might say, just, in that MSU came to him hat in hand with an offer to make him the highest-paid football coach in the Big Ten — with a then-astounding salary of $90,000 a year.
Perles by then was a head coach, with the USFL Philadelphia Stars, and under contract. But as he told Stars owner Myles Tanenbaum: If he had to walk to East Lansing, he was taking that Spartans job, and he did, with MSU writing Tanenbaum a fat reparation check.
It was the right call. For all parties.
Perles was like a kid who had been cooped up suddenly freed for the playground. He recruited like mad, instantly getting hotshots like Pat Shurmur, Andre Rison and John Miller — players who more naturally would have been Ann Arbor-bound before Perles showed up.
He had a promising first season in East Lansing, then had breakthrough moments as well as stumbles, ahead of the grand 1987 autumn, when Saban was coordinating his defense and the Spartans gouged their way to the Rose Bowl and to a knockdown of Southern Cal.
It was as if a college team, and coach, had done what Sir Edmund Hillary did 34 years earlier in cresting Mount Everest.
And from there, just as it had been for Hillary, it was somewhat downhill for Perles.
He had doubts about being able to sustain Rose Bowl seasons. He still liked NFL football. He loved money and security. He was vulnerable to offers that didn’t always leave him at an elevation as noble as he had occupied when he was crowned coach in 1982 or had surpassed in 1987.
He decided to stay in East Lansing, after he got a luscious contract extension. But he wanted more autonomy. He wanted leverage against MSU’s president, John DiBiaggio, which meant he wanted something the MSU Board of Trustees never should have granted him: the athletic director’s seat as well as head-coaching tasks.
There was the mistake, his as well as MSU’s. It set him up for a spate of bad landings: losing the AD’s job, losing his steam as head coach, and finally, losing his job. With even a lawsuit against his alma mater in the stars.
Not that in Perles’ merry world of camaraderie and bonhomie and eternal passion for MSU he was going to slip away and let a few years of rift with DiBiaggio and any follow-up presidents sully his life or his love for Michigan State.
He would simply get elected to the Board of Trustees. And while this was happening, he, of course, became a natural choice to pump a bowl game that could have been dead on arrival, the Motor City Bowl, into a happy and prosperous slot on the holiday schedule, replete with some of the better TV ratings of any game on the bowl lineup.
He did it with his people skills, primarily. He was a salesman. He had established that skill during his recruiting days. George would make you feel giddy about writing a fat sponsor’s check. He would treat you as if you were one of the old Vernor Highway fraternity, at least the ones he hadn’t previously treated to a dental rearrangement.
This was George Perles.
He celebrated people as the essence of life and as the gift that he would gleefully accept, and share, with a surrounding world.
There were casualties along the way. Merrily Dean Baker, the athletic director who followed him as DiBiaggio regained control, deserved far better from Perles and from George’s tight allies.
He was not in any way or at many moments considered politically correct with his takes on gender.
And yet many women, progressive women, would testify to his virtue, to his amiability, to his unceasing decency, no matter how clumsy or infuriating he might have been during a conversation that demanded something other than a Vernor Highway take on feminism.
He was like all of us, yes: flawed. And yet he never demanded from anyone a higher standard than he placed upon himself. He could forgive, or try to understand, all because he so often required mercy or indulgence — or, as we all do, to simply be heard.
The man was a marvel. Husband? Father? Grandfather? Family was his most treasured gallery.
And yet one hallway lined with artwork rivaled for Perles the splendor of family: friends.
It is why he had so many of them, why friendships were perpetual and for him eternal. It is because friendship was for him life and breath and blood.
His kinship with Michigan State embodied the enormous content of his love, and his legacy. We all were blessed to have had him for 85 years, which, as Perles would agree, is worth a splash of something strong, and a hearty toast to an extraordinary man and friend.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.