George Julius Perles, the polarizing and outspoken former Michigan State University football player, coach, athletic director and Board of Trustees member, died late Tuesday night, the Detroit Free Press reported. He was 85.
Perles died peacefully in East Lansing with his family surrounding him, according to multiple people close to family. He announced he was battling Parkinson’s disease in 2017.
Perles was born July 16, 1934, in Detroit’s west side and was a football and baseball star at Detroit Western. He earned all-state football honors as a junior and senior and graduated in 1953, then briefly attended the University of Tennessee before returning to Detroit and joining the Army with a number of his friends.
He served in the Army from 1954-56 and was stationed in Hawaii, where he continued to play football. After returning from active duty, Perles joined Duffy Daugherty’s football team at Michigan State as an offensive and defensive tackle in the fall of 1956. Perles lettered for the Spartans in 1958 before a knee injury ended his playing career.
“He’s a tough kid. It was a tough neighborhood,” Danny Boisture, a former Daugherty assistant coach who grew up in the same neighborhood as Perles, told the Free Press in 1982. “He was a great football player, a typical red-blooded young kid of that day.”
After getting his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State in 1960, Perles joined Daugherty’s staff as a graduate assistant. He received his master’s in educational administration in 1961 and went on to coach high school football first at St. Rita in Chicago and St. Ambrose High in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, which went 23-2 in three seasons and won the 1962 City League championship with Perles as head coach.
After a two-year stint as an assistant coach at the University of Dayton, Perles returned to Michigan State and Daugherty’s staff, coaching defensive line from 1967-71.
Tom Landau, one of Perles’ players at St. Ambrose, told the New York Times in 1990 that Perles was a “streets of Detroit guy.”
“That’s where he was from and it shaped the way he acted,’’ Landau told the Times. “He was tough, but he was very loyal. If he thought you were with him, he stuck by you. But if he thought you weren’t, you were his enemy for life.”
Chuck Noll, the legendary NFL coach, poached Perles in 1972 to coach the defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Perles became one of the architects of Pittsburgh’s vaunted Steel Curtain defense that dominated the decade, with his innovative stunt 4-3 formation helping the Steelers win four Super Bowls. He became Noll’s defensive coordinator in 1978 and assistant head coach from 1979-82.
That led Perles to a head coaching job with the Philadelphia Stars of the upstart United States Football League. He helped build the team throughout 1982 but never coached a game when the league began in the spring of 1983 because his alma mater came calling for the job he coveted most.
Michigan State hired Perles to replace Muddy Waters on Dec. 3, 1982, giving the 48-year-old a five-year contract three years after he was bypassed by Waters for the job. He also applied for the job in 1976, after Denny Stolz was forced out and the school was placed on probation.
“That’s the only college job in the country I would be interested in,” Perles said in 1976. “I think anybody is interested in going home if he’s not running away from something. And I’m definitely not running away from anything.”
The decision to hire Perles resulted in a $1 million lawsuit by the Stars that was settled out of court, reportedly with Michigan State paying the USFL team $175,000. It foreshadowed the mercurial relationship between the university and Perles over the next three decades.
Perles promised to lead the Spartans, coming off a 2-9 season in Waters’ final year, back to the national respectability it enjoyed during Daugherty’s tenure.
“If we make all decisions based on winning the Rose Bowl,” Perles told the Free Press in late 1982, “we won’t make a poor decision.”
He guided the Spartans to the 1988 Rose Bowl, their first since 1966, along with the 1987 Big Ten title that was their first since 1978. They also won a share of the 1990 conference championship, which would be Michigan State’s last until Mark Dantonio earned a share in 2010.
However, Perles’ tenure also was marked with a number of ups and downs.
It included allegations of steroid abuse — documented in the book, “Behind the Green Curtain: The Sacrifice of Ethics and Academics in Michigan State Football’s Rise to National Prominence” — that included offensive lineman Tony Mandarich, the No. 2 pick in the 1989 NFL draft.
On a few occasions, Perles leveraged his own NFL connections into more power at Michigan State. He reportedly was going to take over the Green Bay Packers after the Spartans won the Big Ten in 1987, only to stay. He then used talks with the New York Jets in 1990 to sway his alma mater into giving him the athletic director job along with his football responsibilities.
“There are a lot of people who take offense at my dad’s personality,” Perles’ son, John, told the Free Press in 1982, before Michigan State hired his father. “He’s not exactly a soft-spoken guy. There are always a few people overwhelmed by his aggressiveness.”
Perles parlayed the Jets offer into a 10-year deal as football coach and athletic director that did not last. His stint as athletic director ended in 1992 after friction with then-president John DiBiaggio, who demanded Perles pick one job or the other. Perles then was fired as football coach by ensuing president Peter McPherson near the end of the 1994 season.
In 12 seasons, Perles was 73–62–4 overall and 58–37–2 in the Big Ten. However, he was forced to vacate five wins in his final season due to the NCAA finding major violations during his tenure — though Perles never was personally implicated in the NCAA’s charges of academic fraud and payments to recruits. The Spartans received four years of probation and lost nine scholarships for Perles’ eventual replacement Nick Saban, who had served as Perles’ defensive coordinator for the 1987 Big Ten title team.
After being fired, Perles sued Michigan State in 1995 for breach of contract and age discrimination but eventually dropped the lawsuit two months later.
Highs and lows
In 2006, Perles ran and won a seat on the Michigan State Board of Trustees as a Democrat, and was re-elected in 2014. He served from 2007 until November 2018, when he resigned and cited health concerns following a year which included fallout from the Larry Nassar conviction, the resignation of president Lou Anna K. Simon and athletic director Mark Hollis, and scrutiny into sexual assault allegations surrounding the school’s football and basketball programs.
A Free Press investigation found then-interim president John Engler helped wipe out Perles’ nearly $200,000 debt from a gift pledge to the university days after his resignation. That situation prompted an investigation by state Attorney General Dana Nessel.
Following his stint as Michigan State coach, Perles helped create the Motor City Bowl in 1997, which reintroduced a college football bowl to Detroit (Michigan State had played in the 1984 Cherry Bowl under Perles, a game that existed for just two years).
Perles also was a staunch supporter of the Special Olympics. He joined with former attorney general Frank Kelley and Peter Secchia, a former ambassador to Italy and another Michigan State alum, to create the annual Kelley-Perles-Secchia Special Olympics Golf Classic in Lansing that began in 1987 and continued through 2018.
Among his other activities, Perles served on the board for Blue Cross Blue Shield, was a member of the selection committee for the Hula Bowl and was a contributor to the Harris Interactive College Football Poll. He was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.
Perles is survived by his wife, Sally, and their children Kathy, Terry, John and Patrick. They have six grandchildren.
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