‘You always knew where you were’: former Alabama players and teammates reflect on Ray Perkins

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“I don’t really know when I realized football would be my ticket, but without football I’m not sure what would have happened to me. – Ray Perkins will be the author of Keith Dunnavant in The Missing Ring in 2007

Ray Perkins nearly lost his life 57 years ago playing football, but the legacy he built over the many years that followed left a lasting impression on those who knew him as a teammate, coach and friend.

Perkins, the former Alabama player and longtime college and pro coach, died of a long illness on Wednesday, just three days after his 79th birthday. He is best known for the coach who succeeded Paul “Bear” Bryant in Tuscaloosa and hired Bill Parcells in New York, and for his legendary intensity on the soccer field.

“You always knew where you were with him,” said Curt Jarvis, who played for Perkins both in Alabama and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL. “There has never been a gray area. You never walked around wondering if he was happy with you – he would always tell you. … As a player you always respect guys who don’t mince words.

“Coach Perkins was very misunderstood in many ways, but he could be charming. Kind of like the coach we have over there now in Alabama. He could turn it on whenever he wanted.

Born December 6, 1941 in Petal, Mississippi, Perkins was a former high school dropout who enrolled in Alabama as a 20-year-old rookie in the fall of 1962. His footballing career – and his life – nearly ended. due to a collision on the training ground with teammate Billy Piper the following spring, resulting in a head injury that left Perkins hospitalized after emergency surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain.

Perkins was back on the training ground less than a year later, switching from full back to protect him from constant blows to the head. He went on to become one of the best receivers in Alabama history, catching assists from Joe Namath, Steve Sloan and Ken Stabler, and teaming up with compatriot Dennis Homan to give the Crimson Tide a devastating punch to the position.

“They couldn’t cover us both, so one of us was open,” Homan said. “They had to pass one of us, so they were coming and going. I was lucky to have a man like Ray on the other side. But more than that, we just became great friends. Our families spent a lot of time together after our playing days. He was very smart about football, which is why he went to college and to the pros to coach. He knew X’s and Bones better than any teammate I’ve ever had.

After winning All-America honors as an Alabama senior in 1966, Perkins played five years in the NFL with the Baltimore Colts before becoming a coach. He was hired at 37 to take over the New York Giants, drafting famed Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Taylor in 1981 (when the Giants went 9-7 and made the playoffs) and taking a shot at the Parcells. unknown as a linebacker coach. and later his defensive coordinator.

It was after the 1982 season that Perkins returned to his alma mater, taking on the monumental task of replacing Bryant as head football coach. Bryant initially remained athletic director, but died less than a month after stepping down as a coach.

“Coach Bryant’s death had been so sudden, and those feelings were still so raw, that everything Ray was doing was going to be examined,” said author Keith Dunnavant, who covered Coach Perkins as a reporter. and then wrote about Perkins the player in The missing ring. “He was put in a very difficult position. But he really laid a solid foundation and had he stayed in Alabama he would have done very well.

“But the guy I feel I know best is the one I’ve never known. … Here is a guy who came very hard, had a very difficult family life. And he came to Alabama by sheer will – he had will power.

Ray Perkins (88) is shown with Joe Namath during his playing days in Alabama in the mid-1960s. Perkins, who succeeded Paul “Bear” Bryant as the head coach of Crimson Tide in 1983, has died at 79. (Photo courtesy of the Paul W. Bryant Museum)

Barely 41 at the time, Perkins set out to remake the Alabama program in his own image. He destroyed Bryant’s legendary practice observation tower, scrapped the triangle offense for a pro-style offense, and fired many of his former coach’s trusted assistant coaches.

Joey Jones was a Perkins first team main receiver and remembered how shocking it was to see Bryant step down. But, he said, Perkins handled the transition by winning the locker room first.

“It was tough for all of us at first, but I think after getting to know Coach Perkins we realized we had a great man,” said Jones, who went on to play in the USFL and NFL. and eventually became the head coach of Southern Alabama. . “He just won everyone over during that time. He was one of the best game day coaches I have ever known. And she was just a great person. … He had a great relationship with his players. He had that steel-eyed look and you thought maybe he was cold, but after you got to know him you realized he was a lot different from that.

Alabama traditionalists have not reacted well, especially after Perkins’ first team lost to Auburn and their second finished 5-6 – Crimson Tide’s first loss record since the season before the arrival of Bryant. But that 1984 Alabama team beat Auburn in a monumental upset, and the following year’s squad again knocked down Bo Jackson and the Tigers on Van Tiffin’s goal at the last second.

The 1986 Alabama team finished 10-3, losing to Auburn 21-17, but defeating Tennessee for the first time in five years and also scoring Crimson Tide’s first-ever victory over Notre Dame. After a late-season win over Washington in the Sun Bowl, Perkins left abruptly to return to the NFL as head coach of the Buccaneers.

“Coach Perkins gave me a chance to be part of the Alabama family, and for that I’ll always be grateful,” said Roger Shultz, a member of Perkins’ latest Crimson Tide recruiting class and later All- center. SEC. “Being there as a rookie, I was afraid of dying all the time. I remember one time he sat down with us at the lunch table, and I didn’t know what to do. … When I went to college, my scholarship was one he awarded. Over the years, we have developed a good relationship. I was able to talk to him without getting my pants wet. He’s always been there for all of us, even though I was just a freshman who played for him that year.

Although he was only four years in Tuscaloosa and never won as much as an SEC title, Perkins recruited and coached many of the greatest players in Alabama history. Cornelius Bennett, Bobby Humphrey, Derrick Thomas, Jon Hand, and Mike Shula are among those who populated his rosters during those years and who would succeed in college and the pros.

Jarvis was a highly recruited defensive lineman at Gardendale High School when Perkins got the job in Alabama and had been verbally committed to Pat Dye and Auburn. He said Perkins made priority recruits of him and Bennett – an Ensley High School star in Birmingham the same year, both landing for the Crimson Tide.

“I had always been an Alabama fan, but I was worried that Coach Bryant wasn’t around my entire four years,” Jarvis said. “But when Coach Bryant retired and they announced Coach Perkins was coming, he did the press conference and two hours later he’s at my house. … I actually think he went to Cornelius’s first, but he said, “I know you’re committed to Coach Dye, but I want you to give me a chance.” And let’s see what happens. I gave him a chance and he built a great relationship with my family. Finally I realized, ‘I want to play for this guy.’ “

Perkins spent four seasons in Tampa, then spent a year as a head coach at Arkansas State before many years as an NFL assistant. He was the offensive coordinator for Parcells in New England from 1993 to 1996, helping the Patriots reach the Super Bowl.

Perkins came out of retirement at age 70 in 2012 to coach at Jones County Junior College in his native Mississippi, coaching there for two years and another as a volunteer assistant at Oak Grove High School near Hattiesburg. He retired to the Tuscaloosa area in recent years and had been working on a dissertation on and off at the time of his death.

More reaction to Perkins’ death:

Nick Saban, Alabama football coach

“The first thing I would like to do is to pass on, on behalf of the nation of Alabama – all people, our family – our condolences to the family and friends of Ray Perkins. He served the University of Alabama with great class and integrity. He was a great coach and he had a huge impact on the game. He was a really great person and a great friend. I would just like to say this to all the people about our feelings about Coach Perkins and all he has done to impact our game.

John Mara, president of the New York Giants (via NJ.com)

“Ray was George Young’s first hire as general manager in 1979. I remember George saying, ‘He’s going to make the loss very uncomfortable for our players. Ray did a good job for us and got us into the playoffs in 1981 for the first time in many years. During the 1982 season, which was cut short due to a player strike, he announced that he was leaving at the end of the year to travel to Alabama, which he described as his dream job. . He left behind a team that had Lawrence Taylor, Phil Simms and Harry Carson among others and it was the nucleus of the group that would achieve great success in the 1980s and win two Super Bowls. I always wondered if he later regretted that decision. But he certainly left our team in much better shape than he had found, especially with Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick in his squad.

Bill Parcells, former NFL coach

“I loved Ray and he was a very close friend. I was very saddened by the news. That’s the only reason I was in professional football; he was the one who brought me into the league. He was my friend. I worked for him at the Giants, then he worked for me at the Patriots. He was a good guy. “

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