From student to coach, George Perles' impact on MSU is far reaching
Around MSU, there are few who universally command the respect and have a more decorated history than George Perles.
As a student, coach, administrator, even as a radio personality and member of the MSU Board of Trustees, Perles’ impact can be seen and felt across the university’s landscape.
“I’m grateful for the opportunities MSU has given me,” Perles said. “It wouldn’t have happened without the (football) scholarship offer. Plus, I met my wife here, that was a stroke of luck. Been married for 56 years.”
Few people have had as many opportunities with the same university as Perles. After graduating from Western High School in Detroit, Perles enlisted in the U.S. Army. Upon returning from active duty, he was offered a scholarship by then-head football coach Duffy Daugherty.
Perles returned to his alma mater to become an assistant coach under Daugherty in 1967 and remained on the MSU football coaching staff until 1970.
“I appreciate everything I got out of it,” Perles said. “When Duffy Daugherty was here, he always emphasized education and living the good life, and I’ve tried (to) that keep that going.”
After a decorated coaching career with the Pittsburgh Steelers that saw the creation of Perles’ “Stunt 4-3” defense, and four Super Bowls, Perles returned to East Lansing as MSU’s head football coach in 1983, where he went on to win two Big Ten titles and the 1988 Rose Bowl as head coach, and also served as athletics director from 1990 to 1992.
However, he was fired before the end of the 1994 season following sub-.500 season and allegations of NCAA infractions, including many improper benefits and several secondary violations. Perles later was cleared of any wrongdoing by the NCAA.
Perles was first elected to the Board of Trustees in 2007, where he continues to serve Spartans today.
“There are not many guys that love MSU more than Perles,” MSU men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo said. “He takes a lot of pride in the university.”
To this day, many remember Perles’ teachings when he commanded the sideline at Spartan Stadium.
“As a high school senior, I heard (Perles say) ‘Work hard, keep your mouth shut, and good things will happen,‘” said Brian Breslin, a fellow MSU Board of Trustees member and longtime supporter of MSU athletics.
“It means don’t complain, don’t whine and do what you are asked to do. It’s an axiom that plays true almost every time.”
Perles learned under arguably the greatest football coach MSU has ever had, as the Spartans claimed four national titles in 1955, 1957, 1965 and 1966, respectively, under Daugherty. Perles carried with him the lessons he learned when he coached the Spartans to a 1988 Rose Bowl championship versus USC.
There is a lot of responsibility that comes along with being a coach, and a lot of that responsibility revolves around the student athletes, and even their social lives, Perles said.
“You want to make sure they grow up learning the good things fr om the university,” Perles said. “Not just the good times, but all the hard work that needs to go into getting that degree. All the hard work and sacrifices and staying in at night sometimes when you’d rather go out. It’s tough on the students sometimes.”
Mitch Lyons, a member of the MSU Board of Trustees who played college football for Perles, has valued his former coach’s input on every level that he has served at MSU.
“He was tough on ya, but you respect that,” Lyons said. “He said ‘If you put in the work, I’ll take care of ya at the end,’ and he did. He has a passion for athletics that goes well beyond football.”
During Perles’ time as athletics director, he worked to benefit all the sports at MSU.
“I went out and raised money so all the sports could have all the scholarships they were allotted and could compete,” he said. “It’s nice to know that we hired some coaches that are still around, even now.”
MSU athletics director Mark Hollis said he draws from some of what his predecessors accomplished as an athletic directors to do his job today.
“In my role, I look back at past athletics directors and pull the best traits from them,” Hollis said. “I have a knowledge and appreciation for what coach Perles has done for the university.”
Izzo also draws from lessons he learned from Perles, and said their histories at MSU are very closely intertwined.
“I was a graduate assistant when he was a coach, and I watched what he did with the football program,” Izzo said. “He’s always been a guy I could lean on and talk to. I look to him as a mentor and leader.”
Perles once left a letter on Izzo’s desk when Izzo became the men’s head basketball coach, writing that someday he will be fired — a note to appreciate the position but not to overlook the value of running the program the correct way.
“George was trying to give me advice,” Izzo said with a chuckle. “Don’t ever think you’re bigger than the program. Do things the right way, and constantly keep working. He’s shown me both the good and bad sides to coaching.”
Izzo said Perles is similar to another former MSU coach and mentor.
“Jud Heathcote and Perles had similarities in toughness,” he said.
Even as a trustee, Perles still finds the time to appreciate the simple things.
“Well I know the campus pretty well. So I can go back and reminisce of when we had class in Berkey Hall and all the different places,” he said.
Still, Perles acknowledges that he is a part of something bigger than himself.
“Oh yeah, I’m very happy at Michigan State. I’m very happy to be involved in all the aspects and be on the Board (of Trustees),” he said. “ … We’ll still do some good things for the university.”
The good things, which include the reported $500,000 donation to build the George J. Perles and Sally A. Perles Plaza on campus in 2007, along with his sage advice and illustrious career that is ingrained in MSU history always will tie Perles and his family to East Lansing. But even at 79 years old, Perles remains as attached to MSU as he’s ever been, while looking to leave something behind for a future generation of Spartans.
“To stay and watch my children have the same opportunity I had was a real thrill,” he said. “I’ve never drifted too far from here. This is home to me.”