EAST LANSING — To understand George Perles you must first understand the wall in his office. He points to it constantly. Look. The photos. Those famous men, beaming down at him like destiny. Biggie Munn. Duffy Daugherty. Jack Breslin. His ancestors in the athletic department.
“People may not believe it,” he says, gazing at their faces, “but I did what I did because of those guys.”
He’s right. People may not believe it. Nearly two weeks have passed since Perles, the football coach, was named athletic director at Michigan State University, in a bizarre 48 hours that saw him first in New York, about to sign a contract to coach the Jets — he had the pen in his hand — then suddenly summoned back to East Lansing, where, against the wishes of the university president, he was given a one-year trial as athletic director by the Board of Trustees.
Oh, the uproar that followed! The press butchered him. Spartans fans cheered him. Professors called it the death of academic integrity. Players called it great news. But through it all, no one asked Perles the Big Why: Why was it so important he get the AD job — so important, he seemed willing to leave MSU if he didn’t?
I have come to ask the question.
“You know,” he says, as we sit down, “I never anticipated this kind of reaction. I’ve taken the worst whipping of my life on this thing. I still don’t know why . . . “
It began, really, in early December, when Doug Weaver announced he was retiring. There was no doubt in Perles’ mind who should be the next athletic director. Weaver had hired him in 1982. He wasn’t about to work for someone else. After all, figured the Traditional Man, where’s the tradition in that?
“You don’t replace people like Doug. I can’t take the relationship we have and do it with someone else . . .
“Maybe the next guy would be good, too. Maybe he wouldn’t be. How do I know? I told Doug, ‘No one’s taking your place . . . ‘
“Hey, I know as much about this school as anybody. . . . I’m gonna write a book one day, the history of these guys on the wall. . . . But (retired MSU) President Hannah is old, Breslin is dead, Weaver is retiring. Who’s left to be there with Biggie and Duffy?”
The answer, in Perles’ mind, was himself. Athletic director? Why not? Hadn’t he earned his stripes? Went to school here, played here, coached here. His goal in life, he says, is “to wear a green jacket, eat bratwurst in the parking lot, and have two lifetime passes to Spartan football games.”
Loaded with such Green and White inspiration, he went to see MSU president John DiBiaggio about the job.
That’s when the trouble began.
Why do you want to be athletic director so badly?
“Right there, on the wall. That’s why. Biggie, Duffy, Jack Breslin.”
Their legacy is the reason you wanted this job?
“Maybe it’s egotistical. Maybe I rate myself too high as a Spartan. When I came here, Biggie took a shine to me. Duffy was my coach. Jack was a close friend. It’s for those guys. I want to continue what they’ve done.”
“But none of them were both football coach and athletic director.”
“So why did you have to be?’
“Because . . . I have the time. I can do it. All I ask for is a one-year trial. I’ll prove it to people.”
The meeting between Perles and DiBiaggio foreshadowed everything that followed. It still bothers Perles. He figured his love of tradition, his Spartan heart, the pictures on his wall, might somehow earn him an automatic nod from the president. When DiBiaggio instead told him he did not want one man as coach and athletic director, it hit Perles like an arrow through the heart. He was “depressed . . . hurt . . . ticked off . . . I felt I had no chance . . . “
So much so that when the Jets called during the Aloha Bowl, he was willing to talk to them, meet with them, and yes, even sign with them. Does that sound like an overreaction? “I admit it,” says Perles, “I’m not normal when it comes to this school. I’m overly emotional. I wanted the AD job so much — for the legacy of these guys, for Duffy, Biggie, Doug. I wanted it so badly, I was even willing to give up coaching. It would have meant a loss of $200,000 in income. I told DiBiaggio I’d do it anyhow. How much more of a sacrifice could I make to prove my point?”
DiBiaggio held firm. Although vice-president Roger Wilkinson makes the recommendation — which the president must then approve — DiBiaggio wanted a thorough search process, open consideration of minority candidates, and no prejudice toward existing coaches.
He might have gotten his way had the Jets not entered the picture. Dick Steinberg, their new GM, knew Perles when he was a defensive coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He liked Perles’ aggressive style and wanted to interview
him. The two talked in LA, after the Aloha Bowl.
Question: Why did Perles even pursue such conversations if he truly loved his job at MSU?
“Because I was hurt,” he says.
More conversations followed. When it looked as though the Jets might make an offer, Perles once again went to DiBiaggio and asked about his chances at the AD spot. DiBiaggio once again told him it was not his decision but Wilkinson’s. Perles called Wilkinson, who would only say that he was a candidate.
Before long, Perles was back in New York, talking contract.
Critics say you “held up” the university with the Jets’ offer.
“Not true. I never made an ultimatum.”
But MSU knew of the Jets’ interest.
Had you taken the Jets’ offer, how would you have explained it to people at State?
“One way. What’s my top priority? My family, right? (The money) would have helped my kids. Not Sally and me. Our kids. It was a lot of money.”
If you hadn’t been made athletic director, and MSU allowed you out of your contract, would you be coaching the Jets right now?
“That’s a good possibility, yes.”
There are a hundred reasons to like George Perles. He can be charming and modest. He drives an Oldsmobile. Cooks for his friends. He often describes himself as “a short, fat, Lithuanian phys ed teacher who’ll never look good in a $500 suit.”
Yet some think Perles goes a little heavy on the humility. Some people don’t trust him. After all, he does command big money at MSU (easily in excess of $300,000 a year, counting outside income.) And he wields considerable power. Joe Falls of the Detroit News has accused him of bullying the media.
“Not true,” Perles responds. “That’s just one man’s opinion.”
(Just the same, his sports information director, Ken Hoffman, screened my interview request, asking “What type of questions do you have in mind?” He quoted from an article I had written, saying some negative parts “concerned George.” He also asked to sit in during the interview. I said no. Maybe Perles should not be blamed for Hoffman’s actions. But if he didn’t want such protection, he could easily stop it.)
So you have to decide where you stand on George Perles before you decide how much of his humble Spartans image you accept. This much is true: He undoubtedly loves his alma mater. This is also true: He has benefited every time another suitor came calling.
* In 1982, State hired him away from the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL — a team he’d only been with a few months — buying out his contract for $175,000 and making him the highest-paid coach in the Big Ten.
* In 1988, when the Green Bay Packers called, MSU responded, giving Perles a 10-year contract and an annuity for his retirement.
* In 1990, the Jets wooed him. The Board of Trustees acted swiftly to make him athletic director.
Now, it is true, in all three cases, Perles turned down bigger money to stay at MSU. But he also got what he wanted from his alma mater. Some feel he used the Jets’ offer as a wedge for the AD job. How could he do that to his beloved school? According to Perles, it was actually the Jets, in the 11th hour of their negotiations, who called MSU to make sure he was legally clear to accept an NFL job. “That phone call surprised me,” Perles recalls. “The board wanted me to come home and talk about permission to leave my contract.”
Perles, ready to sign a multimillion dollar deal with New York, instead went home. East Lansing was in a panic. Will he go? How will our team be affected? Meetings. Debates. That night Perles sat at home, watching on live TV as the trustees voted one at a time on whether he should be the next athletic director. Final tally: five yes, three no. He called the Jets the next morning and told them he was staying. He got what he wanted.
He was on the wall.
Was that hard to sit there and watch on TV?
“Sure. It was difficult.”
Was it fair?
“I have no problem with it.’
Were you fair?
“I tried to be. God, I tried to be. The people I answer to here knew every move I made.”
Critics say you shouldn’t have talked to the Jets in the first place.
“Would you talk to the best paper in the country if they wanted to double your salary?”
But why would you want to coach the NFL if you loved MSU so much?
“For one thing, in the back of my mind was a burning desire for that fifth Super Bowl ring. Did anyone ask about that? Same reason I talked to Green Bay. I would have liked to have been the first guy to get five rings.”
Was that your reason with the Jets?
“What else is there?”
In the end, you must decide yourself whether you believe in George Perles. He demands a leap of faith. Can anyone be that true to his school? If, as he claims, he wants this job to honor the MSU legacy, well, my goodness, what could be purer? But if that’s just a smoke screen for a man collecting power, what could be more shameful?
Here is a man who adores his school, and yet went to the mat with its president. Here is a man who claims the perfect job, but he was ready to leave it for the NFL? Because he was hurt? It makes you wonder, that’s all. I like Perles, but sometimes I think his obsession with MSU clouds his judgment. The world, after all, is not divided by Spartans on one side and everyone else on the other.
What bothered critics was not Perles’ desire to be AD, but rather 1) the panicky selection process, which left out other candidates, and 2) the fact that the football coach would now oversee all athletics — including his own program. What assurances does the university have against scandal or cheating if the big-money football coach answers only to himself?
This worried DiBiaggio. It would worry anyone. Perles notes successful precedents such as Bear Bryant, Pat Dye and Vince Dooley, and says he is willing to be evaluated one year at a time — “for the rest of my career if they want.”
A leap of faith. And we can only hope for the best. He sits in the chair, next to the wall, and the bumpy road is not over. Last week, a prominent booster and former statistician claimed Perles banished him from the team plane after he yanked a $2,500 ad from Perles’ TV show. Says Perles: “I already answered that. It’s not true.”
What if, I ask, in the next eight years, another NFL team makes an offer? Perles shakes his head.
“You’re playing a game I don’t play, What If’s. What if the New York Times comes to you?”
“Nobody cares about me. I’m just a newspaper writer.”
“And I’m just a little Lithuanian.”
“Would you talk to them?”
“I don’t know; I can’t answer that. Yes or no, it wouldn’t come out right.”
“But you just said you have the job of your dreams now. You can continue the legacy. It’s everything you wanted. You said–
“OK. OK. This is it. I wouldn’t listen.”
“It’s all over?”
“Yeah. It’s all over.”
The photos on the wall look down in silence.