George Perles was born and raised in Detroit, where he starred on the Western high school baseball and football teams. After serving in the Army with 17 classmates, he returned to play for the legendary Duffy Daugherty at Michigan State.
He played both offensive and defensive line until he suffered a knee injury – the kind they can fix in an afternoon these days, but career-ending sixty years ago.
Leaving the field didn’t douse his passion for the game. He coached high school football in Chicago and Detroit, where his St. Ambrose squad won the city title. Daugherty brought him back to coach at Michigan State in the mid-sixties – a great decade for the Spartans, who claimed two Big Ten and two national titles, while mopping up on Michigan seven times.
In 1972, the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers came calling. They had been the laughing stock of the league since their inception in 1933, but young coach Chuck Noll had other ideas. He hired Perles to coach the defensive line, and then the entire defense — Pittsburgh’s famed “Steel Curtain” featuring future Hall of Famers like Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, and Mean Joe Greene. On the strength of Perles’s d efense, Pittsburgh won four Super Bowls.
The same decade, the Spartans won just one Big Ten title, and beat the hated Wolverines just once. They needed someone who was as passionate about football as he was the Spartans: George Perles.
On December 3, 1982, Michigan coach Bo Schembechler picked up his morning paper and saw the Spartans had hired Perles. Schembechler took the paper into his staff room, slapped it on the table and barked, “Gentlemen, our free lunch is over!”
He was right about that. In Perles’s second year, the Spartans knocked out a certain quarterback named Jim Harbaugh and upset Michigan 19-7.
Perles’s teams would beat Michigan three more times, none sweeter than in 1990 when Michigan was the nation’s top-ranked team, and the Spartans were unranked. Wolverine wags called the game “No. One vs. No One.” But that’s not how it played out, with the Spartans hanging on for a 28-27 upset in Ann Arbor.
Perles won two Big Ten titles. Perles’s Spartans weren’t dominant, but they were competitive, very competitive, during one of the toughest eras of Big Ten football.
Perles’s career was not without controversy. In 1988 Schembechler looked across the field at the Spartans’ massive lineman Tony Mandarich, famously called “The Incredible Bulk” on the cover of SportsIllustrated,asked his strength coach, Mike Gittleson, “Why is Mandarich twice as big as our guys?”
Gittleson knew the answer: steroids. Schembechler called a friend of his at the FBI, Special Agent Greg Stejskal, who started an FBI investigation called “Equine,” (the steroids were made for horses). They caught Michigan State’s “team chemist” – along with dozens of professional baseball players.
Controversy followed Perles again when he added athletic director to his duties as football coach in 1990. Two years later, the Trustees decided both jobs were too much for one person, and forced him to choose between the two. Perles dropped the AD role and kept coaching.
In 1994, MSU’s president fired Perles over a series of infractions, though the NCAA ultimately cleared him.
Perles was elected to the MSU Board of Trustee in 2006, and again in 2014. On his watch, former gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was convicted of molesting ten Spartan students, with more than 200 victims ultimately testifying against him.
Today Perles is remembered largely as a congenial old-school warrior who resurrected Spartan football. He was loyal to his players, and they remain loyal to him.
After Bo Schembechler died in 2006, I remember Perles attending four different memorial events that week for his old rival and close friend. It’s a safe bet Schembechler would have returned the honor this week.
Perles’s life was more than you could expect from a guy whose bum knee ended his football career just as it started.
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OVERTIME: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football debuted at #13 on the Publisher’s Weekly list of national bestsellers. That makes seven national bestsellers in a row, for which I can thank YOU!
After five great events from Seattle to San Diego last week, we finished with 100 folks in Flint, and a standing ovation. Thanks to you all! For more information on those events and many others ahead, check out johnubacon.com/events/.
I’m also in ESPN’s celebration of 150 years of college football, The American Game, 11 one-hour episodes running on Tuesday nights, and The Greatest (mascots, innovations, etc.), which runs 30-minutes on Thursday nights.
Please follow me on Twitter! https://twitter.com/Johnubacon. A fun way to swap witticisms — if we’re lucky! 44.9K followers and growing.
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!
THE DOS EQUIS COLLEGE FOOTBALL FOOTBALL COLLEGE, on which I play the “professor” teaching ten classes on the sport. And yes, there IS a final exam! 12 questions to test your knowledge — and if you get a bunch right, they send you a certificate! Enjoy — and good luck!
We have plenty of excerpts, stories, and reviews out there, too, some listed below. Two more come out this week in The Wolverine print copy and the Ann Arbor Observer.
Let’s start with the EXCERPTS:
The first excerpt, “Hard to Beat the Cheaters,” on Michigan’s approach to recruiting, appeared in Postgame.com, Yahoo sport’s longform section.
The second, on the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry (derived from two chapters titled “Bad Blood” and “Cavalry’s Coming”), ran in the famed MGoBlog.com
The most recent excerpt, on the roller coaster recruiting process of five-star defensive back Daxton Hill, appeared in Sam Webb’s excellent Michigan Insider Thursday night.
INTERVIEWS AND STORIES:
REVIEWS AND STORIES
From Greg Dooley’s MVictors.com: “Punching Back.”
And even Ohio State’s top football website, Eleven Warriors:
I’ve read everything John U. Bacon has ever written and I’ve never been bored or disappointed.
Sprinkling character profiles into the storyline of Wolverines’ 2018 campaign produces a quick and captivating read – even if your position in Michigan’s football orbit is as an Ohio State fan.
Hope to see you down the road on the book tour!
Again, thanks for your support!