by | Nov 9, 1994 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

He huffed and he puffed and the house blew down on him. In the end, George Perles was left mumbling the same worn-out stories about Biggie and Duffy and the men who had this job before him, their great tradition, how all he wanted to do was honor them. He was talking this stuff even as his job was being folded, packed and slid under the door.

“I had three years left, and I wanted to coach three years,” he said, moments after the university president gave him the boot. “I couldn’t, so I was fired. That’s a breach of contract.

“Those are facts.”

Yes. Well. So are these. Four victories, five losses this year. A career record of 72-61-4. A history of rumor and innuendo about the program. And a legacy of stroking the MSU tradition with one hand, while strangling its neck with the other.

Go Green. Go White. Go Away. When you visited George Perles, he would pull you into his office and fondly point to the previous coaches’ pictures on his walls. And wax nostalgic. Nobody does this better. Perles damn near gets tears in his eyes every time he tells you — and he often tells you — how he went to school here, his wife went here, his kids went here. How his family is just down the pike, and one day, when he’s not coaching, he’ll be in the MSU parking lot with a bratwurst, tailgating in his green-and-white sweater.

Start the grill. The thing about Perles is that he always paid homage, but he didn’t pay attention. His football program rarely seemed under control, whether it was his repeatedly dull offenses or the off-field antics of his players. I think George is a good man, and a decent man. But he knew what he wanted to know and he acted like he didn’t want to know anything else.

Here is the fruit of that behavior: A bomb drop by a former player claiming the school is one big cheating machine; three internal investigations by the university; a Brutus-job by a trustee who used to love him; and, finally, Tuesday, a news conference where the president, Peter McPherson says — with a straight face — “We wanted to announce (Perles’ firing) a few days before the final home game, so George can get the appropriate cheering that he deserves.”

What cheer is that, Peter?

Go Green, go White, go Away? The long farewell

Now, before we throw all the penalty flags on this one, let us say that it is never pretty when a man loses his job, and thosewho simply wrote or broadcast “fire him” should know one day how that feels. It’s not kind.

Then again, neither is holding your university hostage. Perles did this several years ago when the New York Jets — in an embarrassing moment in club history — made George an offer to be head coach, which he used in a power play against the MSU president to win the athletic director’s job.

MSU — which caved in when it should have said, “Have a nice trip” — is now paying the price. It will pay in cold, hard cash when Perles and his lawyers are done. Three years left is three years left, and we’re talking major dollars.

“I never fired anyone in my life, never will,” Perles declared, trying to show he is somehow a kinder spirit than the president who canned him. “Duffy never fired anyone. Woody Hayes never did. . . . I would never put a wife and children out on the street.”

Hmm. Somehow, when this settlement is over, I don’t think George will land on the street. Not unless it’s got a lakefront view.

But that’s Perles. You ask about cheating, he tells you about Duffy. You ask about steroids, he tells you about the potato pancakes he used to make as a kid. He is engaging, charming, but he has not been accountable.

Until now. And let’s make no mistake here. He is accountable mostly for losing. Yes, it looks awful that the school is once again dragged through the mud by allegations of NCAA violations. But trust me, if the Spartans were 8-1 and Rose Bowl-bound, somehow none of that would matter.

This is ultimately about winning first, losing second, rule-bending third. George finally lost enough for them to kick down the door and read him his farewell speech.

Go Green. Go White. Go Away. The bottom line

There were a few good moments with Perles. The 1988 Rose Bowl. The trip to Disneyland. The image he cut of an everyday Joe, coaching his way to the biggest prize in his conference.

But the luster faded quickly. The cheers had barely died from the Rose Bowl when the Green Bay Packers made him an offer and he considered it — until MSU anted up a 10-year contract. The Packers? After bragging how he bled Green and White?

That was about it for great moments. The rest has been a slow and steady spiral in the wrong direction. Some embarrassing losses. A second-fiddle spot to Michigan.

What did George expect? Most other coaches, without a 10- year deal, would have been fired before this.

The funny thing is, he leaves with nothing nailed to his back. For all the noise, they never stuck the steroids thing. They never proved the cheating. Maybe this latest little number with Roosevelt Wagner would have led to his downfall — but he’ll be long gone before anything comes of that.

“I call myself a son of Michigan State,” Perles said in his rambling farewell. “I will help the coach that succeeds me. I will be around. I will be active. And I will never, ever, say anything negative about Michigan State University.”

If only they could say the same about you. Perles honored the past, but he arm-wrestled the present. He and John DiBiaggio should have been in a steel cage. His relationship with AD Merrily Dean Baker is no model of cooperation. And I don’t think McPherson made Perles’ Christmas list.

The school looks bad. They took too long to make this decision, then announced it two weeks too early. Typical MSU. Somebody send them a clue.

As for Perles, well, losing some money won’t hurt him. Losing power won’t hurt him.

What will hurt him is that whoever comes in next will not be sitting in the office one day, looking up at his portrait and saying, “All I wanna do is be like Biggie, Duffy and Georgie.”

For that, he has himself to blame.

Go Green. Go White. Go Away.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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