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George Perles: A look back at legendary Michigan State coach’s life and career

Perles remembered as old school coach with roots in Detroit high school football

DETROIT – A football coach’s football coach, George Perles was a tough-minded, take-no-prisoners, independent sort, who relished in unvarnished, often humorous, interviews:

“I would expect the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, Michigan to buckle up. Maybe everybody in this room doesn’t understand that term, but you write it, they will!”

On July 16, 1934, Detroiters Julius and Nellie Perles had their one and only son, George Julius Perles. He grew up an athlete on the city’s southwest side, playing baseball and football.

Detroit high school football roots

In 1952, he gratuated as an all-state lineman from Detroit Western High School in the days before they wore face masks, which in many ways defined his approach to the game and life. Western won the state championship that year.

Graduating at the height of the Korean War, Perles went directly into the Army. When he completed his tour in 1956, Perles played tackle for Michigan State under another MSU football coaching legend: Duffy Daugherty. But his playing career abruptly ended in 1958 when he blew out his knee as a sophomore.

Still, with football in his blood, he stayed a Spartan as a student coaching assistant. In 1961, after finishing a bachelor’s and then a master’s, he moved to high school football coaching. First in Chicago, then again in Detroit, moving quickly up to college coaching at Dayton and then back to work for his mentor Daughtery at Michigan State.

Pittsburgh Steelers years

In 1972, opportunity knocked as Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame coach Chuck Knoll hired Perles to coach his defensive line. There, Perles blossomed into one of the great football minds in the history of the game. He designed a defense called the “Stunt 4-3," which fans eventually knicknamed the legendary Steel Curtain defense.

With Perles as defensive coordinator and later assistant head coach, the Steelers built a 1970s dynasty, winning four Super Bowls in five years.

In 1982, george did an interview with then sportscaster Al Ackerman.

Ackerman: “George Perles is available for the job and should be hired immediately as the new Michigan State football coach."

Perles: "Well, thank you, Al. I’ve told Michigan State that I’m interested in talking to 'em. I don’t know if they’re interested in me yet.”

They were, but the United States Football League waved lots of cash his way and he took the head coaching job of the fledgeling Philedelphia Stars. However, like the league itself, Perles’ stay was short-lived.

Legacy as MSU head coach

Two months later, Michigan State hired him away as their head football coach. The Stars sued, and later settled out of court with MSU.

Perles immediately went to work turning around the sagging Spartans.

“I want you to play as tough as you can and if you’re tough and you do it within the rules and you come in this locker room I’ll be proud of you. It’s all I can ask," he told the team.

By the 1987 season, he arrived in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl. The Spartans returned home winners.

Perles sent dozens of players to the NFL and many of them said his calling card was his devotion to his players. With this success, Perles got an offer to coach the Green Bay Packers. He parlayed it into becoming MSU’s athletic director for a controversial couple of years.

Fired by MSU

By 1994 the Spartan football program hit tough times again. MSU fired Perles after the NCAA said he lost institutional control. He and the school settled that contract out of court.

“I’ll leave here and drive down to Detroit and do the show on PASS live 6:15 to 6:45 with Lynn Henning and Steve Garagiola and will do a sports show," he said.

After football

After football Perles kept very busy. He supported the Special Olympics. In 2008 he ran unsuccessfully for Michigan governor. Voters elected him to the MSU Board of Trustees twice.

In his second term the Larry Nassar scandal hit the university. The board, including Perles, took considerable criticism for allowing Nassar’s long tenure before Nassar was sentenced to life in prison for molesting gymnasts under the guise of medical treatment.

By then, Parkinson’s disease had struck, forcing Perles into a wheel chair. He did considerable research fundraising for the disease, and it was Parkinson’s that forced Perles to resign from the board at the end of 2018.

In 1988, though, at the height of his fame, it was his induction into the Western High School Hall of Fame that most moved him publicly.

“If it wasn’t for Western High School none of those things would have been possible. I’ve been fortunate that through emotions I can still hang in there and control myself, but this is as emotional as I’ve been for quite some time," he said.

Perles died this week at age 85.

George Perles
George Perles

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