NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — The bus rolls off the avenue and into the crowded parking lot. The passengers peer out the window. Most of them are muscular young men wearing green satin football jackets. The coach, a round figure with silver hair, stands up in front.
“AWRIGHT, GUYS. YOU KNOW WHO YOU’RE GONNA SEE HERE? HUH?”
“YOU’RE GONNA SEE MICKEY MOUSE. MY MAN MICKEY.”
“AND DONALD DUCK.”
“AND . . . AND . . . ” He looks for help. “Who’s that other guy?”
“YEAH . . . PLUTO. YOU’RE GONNA SEE PLUTO. HELL OF A PULLING GUARD, THAT PLUTO. “
The door opens.
George Perles is going to Disneyland.
Have you ever been at a point in life where every nerve in your body says this is it, where you belong, just get up, breathe, follow your heart and go live it?
Perles, the 53-year-old Michigan State coach, has found such a Shangri-la. This Rose Bowl journey is the best week of the best year of the best job he’s ever had. The only job he ever really wanted.
Football coach. Michigan State.
He tried three times to get it, and was turned down twice. He was criticized when he started and criticized as he went along. “Neanderthal,” they called his offense. They moaned during the mediocre years. Some predicted he would lose the first five games this season — and would never catch up with crossstate rival Michigan, even in a rebuilding year. Critics called him slow, lacking charisma. They said his granite looks — somewhere between George Kennedy and Barney Rubble — were indicative of his imagination. And because he talked more about family and ethics than X’s and O’s, when he finally did win the Big Ten title and a trip to Pasadena — something MSU hadn’t done in 21 seasons — they said big deal, the conference was mediocre.
To hell with them. He is here, in his fifth year on the job. Sunshine. Roses. The big rock candy mountain. Shake hands with Mickey, coach.
WHO WE GOT HERE? . . . DONALD DUCK? . . . WELL, HELLO DONALD DUCK! . .
He is inside the front gates now, posing with real-life cartoon characters for hordes of photographers. Crowds stop and gawk. Which players are which, they ask? And who’s the fat guy with the loud voice?
‘HELLOOO, DONALD! . . . heh-heh . . . Oh, wait! What? You’re not Donald
. . . you’re . . . what’s his name? . . . Scrooge McDuck? . . . sorry . .
. Scrooge, hey, WHERE’S MICKEY? . . . oh, there’s . . . MICKEY MOUSE, YEAH!
. . . Hey, Mickey! Did you bring Pluto? No? He’s not here? . . . heh-heh . .
. FELLAS GET IN HERE. Get the captains in here, make sure they get their pictures taken . . . that’s right . . . HEY PLUTO, HOW YA DOIN’? . . . “
He pushes the players in front of the cameras. Soon he is behind them, out of the spotlight, his hands dug in his pockets, his ruddy face beaming. He is content here, in the shadow of the team he cherishes, the team he built, the team he left the pros to create.
“You know what it is,” he says, watching the players mug for snapshots,
“in high school, you coach ’em, then they go home to their folks. In the pros you coach ’em, they go home to their wives. But in college, you coach ’em, you eat with ’em, you watch them study. You’re all they’ve got. You’re their parent . . . “
“And I love playing parent.”T he apartment was on Pitt Street near Vernor Highway in Detroit. A one-bedroom place. His folks got the bedroom. George, an only son, slept on a Murphy bed in the living room until he was 17 years old. His father, a Lithuanian immigrant, worked at the Ford plant, and under other circumstances, George would have wound up there, too.
College? To play football? Who went to college from the old neighborhood? The summer before, George had a job putting in fences that paid $3.67 an hour
— more than his father was earning. So when this “college” stuff beckoned, his father hid the suitcase. No go. Why leave for school, the senior Perles figured, when you’re doing so well as a fence maker?
His mother snuck the suitcase out when her husband went to work. And George went to MSU. Played football, got hurt his sophomore year, but became a student coach, graduated, went on to coach high school, then college, back to MSU as assistant (under Duffy Daugherty), then to the Pittsburgh Steelers as defensive co-ordinator, 10 years — and now, finally, here, where he always wanted to be, his alma mater, head man, the Rose Bowl.
He remembers every step. Takes none of it for granted. Here is a guy who will never fire an assistant coach (“that’s a disgusting thought”), who carries his own luggage, who has guests over to the house so he can cook them Lithuanian potato dishes. A few weeks ago he was invited to the governor’s mansion and brought a half-dozen guys from the old neighborhood, three Ford workers, a fence man, a delivery truck driver, and they all ate and drank and sang songs till late into the night. When he walked onto the field for his first Super Bowl he told a fellow coach, “Well, let’s go fool ’em,” and when he was about to be announced as head coach of the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars, he whispered to the general manager, “Well, let’s go fool ’em,” and if you try to make football too complicated he gets red-faced angry. “It’s a simple game for simple guys! Block and tackle! The only time you get into trouble as a coach is when you think you’re some rocket scientist.”
When he recruits he can be his own worst enemy, talking so much about academics and sacrifices that some players — like Bobby McAllister, his current quarterback — wondered “when’s he gonna get to the good stuff?” But he doesn’t have many problem kids, and you don’t hear a lot of drug stories. All over the itinerary out here, people have been remarking how well-behaved this football team is compared to the others. And that’s with Perles holding no reins. Heck. He’s encouraging them to have fun. Live it up. The other night, upon returning from a huge prime rib dinner, he announced on the bus that “nobody will be allowed back in his room before midnight.”
The players moaned. Finally he had to tell them OK, he was kidding.H EY WALT. WHERE WE GOIN’?”
He is talking now to the TV producer of the half-hour coach’s show, a show Perles prizes, mostly because it helps him recruit. Today they get to film inside Disneyland. It’s a coup.
“WALT? YOU KNOW WHERE WE’RE GOIN?”
“Tomorrowland,” says Walt, a heavy man with a cowboy hat.
And off they go. Past Main Street, a row of pseudo-New Orleans storefronts, past the People Mover monorail, past a pavilion marked “Star Tours.” Perles has never been to Disneyland before. He can’t believe the lines.
“Hey coach!” yells a teenager in a gray MSU sweatshirt. “Do it. Beat USC!”
“OK. We’ll try. Thank you.”
“Sign my sweatshirt?”
He signs the sweatshirt.
Up a ramp, alongside the “America Sings” building, and here, overlooking everything, are the cameras and the lights, all set up. Perles is posed on a chair with the Matterhorn mountain over his shoulder, the little cable cars riding along. “THIS IS FUN, BOY . . . THIS IS FUN.”
Already he has filmed the “Today Show,” been to the Tournament of Roses house in Pasadena, ridden a helicopter from there to practice. Heady stuff for a first-timer. But then, you have to remember who you’re dealing with. When he was working under Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh, Noll used to remark what a beautiful place Denver was, or San Francisco, or Miami. To which Perles would say: “Hey, Chuck, Pittsburgh is as far east as I go. Cincinnati is as far south. No more north than Minnesota, and no further west than Chicago. And if I have my way, I end up back in Michigan.”
And his whole career, he stayed within those boundaries. The Good Witch of the North needn’t tell Perles what to do with those ruby slippers.W hen the filming is done, Perles is left alone for a moment, hands on the railing, looking down on the Disneyland masses. Hundreds of children with silver balloons, swarms of teenagers, old men, young women, mothers, grandmothers, the highest of high-tech rides all around, rockets, submarines, spinning tea cups, a Swiss mountain. This is a rare pose for a man. A chance to feel like king of the world he surveys.
“I tell ya,” says Perles, looking off into the scenery, “I could really use a hot dog.”
And in a few minutes he is eating a hot dog and drinking a container of milk. He finishes within seconds, grabs a box of popcorn and starts walking in the direction of Snow White’s castle.
“Go get ’em, coach!” someone yells.
“THANK YOU!” he yells, dropping a piece of popcorn.
Let us clear something up right here. Perles never really predicted MSU would be in a Rose Bowl within five years of his taking over. What he said was, “Ask me in five years, I’ll be better able to evaluate.” But somehow the words got mixed up over the years, and all of a sudden, look, five years, a Rose Bowl. “It got so big I just ate it. But I never predicted this. Heck. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
What he knew was he was building with a core of “big-timers” — Lorenzo White, Bobby McAllister, Percy Snow — and a cast of also-rans. Many players on the MSU teams were recruits nobody else wanted. The kind Perles likes.
As he turns past the entrance to Adventureland, he bumps into five of his players. They all stop to say hello. Perles eats his popcorn as he listens.
“We went on Space Mountain.”
“We’re gonna eat pretty soon.”
Perles asks them if they’re having fun, asks as if he wants to make sure of it. Just before they leave, he reaches into his coat pocket and hands them his free meal ticket.
“Go have an extra meal, split it up,” he says.
The players leave. Perles walks on. “You know, my father always had a hard time saying I love you. I don’t know if he said it twice that I can remember. His way was to cook for people. He’d give you his food, his drink. That was his way. I knew growing up, he’d make me a sandwich or something, I knew what he was trying to say.
“I’m no good at that stuff either, saying a lot. The words don’t come out right. I guess that’s why I cook, too.”
He talks more about food. About Coney Island hot dogs. About Nemo’s back in Detroit, and something called “Chili a la mode,” which is chili with an ice cream-like scoop of onions on top. He laughs about how he and his friends eat that stuff up, night after night, the same guys he’s known for years, what great guys, what a great school, what luck he’s had. Hard as it is to believe, in the middle of Disneyland, George Perles sounds a little homesick.
“I love where I live,” he says, shrugging. “You get to be an old guy, you gotta have a place to hang out.”T wo hours after he arrived, Perles is ready to leave paradise. He has gone on no rides. Has walked through only a fraction of the Disneyland park. “It’s beautiful,” he says. “Super.” But home beckons, and with five minutes to go before the first bus, he is inside the souvenir store closest to the gate, picking out stuffed versions of Mickey and Minnie for members of his family.
“HEY WHICH ONE’S GOOFY? I GOTTA GET A GOOFY.”
He turns to the people walking by, and just asks out loud.
Nobody answers. Undaunted, he asks again.
“HEY YOU KNOW WHERE GOOFY IS AT?”
Finally someone laughs and points to a shelf.
“THERE HE IS. GOOFY. MY MAN.”
He takes one, and carries his little zoo over to the cash register. A woman cashier with frosted hair and thin glasses smiles at him.
“I’LL TAKE THESE GUYS HERE. TWO MICKEYS, TWO DONALDS . . . “
He is not embarrassed, the everyday man on the everyday bonanza, a sweepstakes winner, and yet he knows how he got here and how long he’ll stay and what life will be like when he returns home. George Perles, the guy who swears if they fire him from MSU, will come back the next year as a fan, every game, attend the tailgate parties and eat bratwurst and wear his green-and-white sweater. That’s beyond loyal