Ray Perkins gave his all to Paul Bryant and Alabama football, and his dedication to them has shaped his life.
Perkins died Monday at his home in Northport, Alabama. He was 79 years old. He once said he wouldn’t live past 60 because he was so dedicated to gambling. He thought so too. His love for Alabama represented a different time in college football, and maybe no one will ever be able to love him the same again.
What made Perkins so important in Alabama football history? What is the true measure of his greatness? It is not his coaching record, nor his coaching tree. Yes, there is a connection between Perkins and Nick Saban and that connection includes Bill Belichick, but this contribution to the story, while important, is a footnote. Perkins’ legacy runs much deeper and the University of Alabama owes his memory a great honor.
Few numbers in Alabama football history are more important.
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Perkins is the guy Bryant picked to succeed him in Alabama, not because it was going to be easy and the work was some kind of reward. It was the opposite. Bryant’s ability to recruit had dramatically diminished in his later years due to poor health. He asked Perkins to carry his torch to Tuscaloosa because he knew how impossible and difficult it was going to be.
Bryant was doing Perkins a disservice. It was the reverse.
Think about what all of the Perkins gave up to coach Alabama. People give him credit for hiring Belichick and Bill Parcells, but Perkins could have been close to being the coach Belichick would later become. Perkins left the New York Giants after forging them in power and knowing the Giants were on the verge of NFL supremacy.
And why? Take on a thankless rebuilding job in college that no one would really appreciate.
“I think he’s going to have a hard time keeping up with me, but he’s a capable person,” said Bryant near the end of his final season. “And the first thing is, he’s one of us.”
Yes, Bryant did say those words, and so much weight and baggage was attached to it. Perkins had a duty, in other words, and he had to honor a cause greater than himself.
For Alabama and for the Southeastern Conference, Perkins’ loyalty to the Crimson Tide represented a real sacrifice to the idea that college football and all of its influence and power were more important than individual success. With Bryant’s retirement, Alabama needed to be protected and preserved at the most vulnerable moment.
Football is not like that anymore. Few things are, in fact. Saban built a dynasty in Alabama, but this modern game doesn’t allow for the framework of grandeur that Bryant built. It was hard to understand even then.
In December 1982, reporters in New York who recounted Perkins’ resurrection of the New York Giants were stunned that he would leave the world’s largest city for Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Some made fun of him and the South. One columnist even called Perkins an anachronism stuck at the wrong age.
Perkins, however, never hesitated.
“A complete honor just to be considered the coach who follows, I repeat, follows, the greatest coach of all time,” said Perkins at the time. “It’s a dreamlike type thing, and I can’t wait to be. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity. If there was somewhere else, another pro team, no other varsity team could take me away from the New York Giants.
Perkins handed the team over to Parcells, and Parcells went on to win two Super Bowls. It was also Perkins’ Super Bowls.
Perkins was football royalty, and few have ever been part of so many legendary careers. He caught assists from Joe Namath, Steve Sloan, Kenny Stabler and Johnny Unitas. He played for Bryant and Don Shula. He hired Parcells, Belichick and Romeo Crennel.
Why Perkins, however? Bryant needed to know two things. First, Perkins didn’t want to turn it down. Most important, however, was that Bryant knew Perkins would persevere. They had a story together.
Long before Perkins was a coach or even an Alabama star player, he shared an important life experience with Bryant that defined their relationship.
Perkins nearly died after a practice in his sophomore year, and no one knew about him long after the incident. There was a violent head-to-head collision. Bryant said it was one of the worst he has ever seen.
Perkins was rushed to Tuscaloosa Hospital and then taken by ambulance to Birmingham for emergency surgery. Three holes were drilled in Perkins’ skull to relieve the swelling in his brain. Bryant was with Perkins in the hospital for several days.
“It was a close call,” Bryant would later write in an essay for the New York Daily News. “I didn’t care if Ray would play soccer again. I worried if he would live.
Doctors told Perkins he would never play again, and not even “sweat” for a whole year. He attended every practice and watched from the sidelines. Perkins was cleared after a year and returned to the squad. He thought about kicking and Bryant even bought him new shoes to train on. Finally, Perkins was allowed to make contact.
He tested his brain health by banging his head against the walls while wearing a helmet. He went on to help Alabama win two national championships and three SEC titles. The 1966 team he led, the one that went 11-0, is considered by many to be the best in school history.
Perkins loved Alabama like Bryant loved Alabama, completely and with every fiber of their being. In New York, Perkins was asked about his definition of the discipline.
“It’s when you’re tired, when you think you’re going to die and somehow suck yourself in and play,” Perkins said. “It’s a definition of country.”
That’s what built football in Alabama.
Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group. He’s on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.
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