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Bacon: Remembering George Perles

John U. Bacon

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.

Perles 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, however. 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 during the 1960s – 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 NFL since their inception in 1933, but young coach Chuck Noll had other ideas. He hired Perles to coach the defensive line – Pittsburgh’s famed “Steel Curtain” – and then the entire defense, featuring future Hall of Famers like Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, and “Mean” Joe Greene. On the strength of Perles’ defense, Pittsburgh won four Super Bowls.

That 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’ second year, the Spartans knocked out a certain quarterback named Jim Harbaugh and upset Michigan 19-7.

Perles’ teams would beat Michigan three more times, none sweeter than 1990 when Michigan was the nation’s top-ranked team, and the Spartans weren’t ranked at all. 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.

Perles won two Big Ten titles. The Spartans weren’t dominate, but they were competitive. Very competitive.  

His career was not without controversy. In 1988 Schembechler looked across the field at the Spartans’ massive lineman Tony Mandarich, who was famously called “The Incredible Bulk” on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He 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 investigation called “Equine,” because the steroids were made for horses. They caught MSU’s “team chemist,” along with dozens of professional baseball players.

Controversy followed Perles again when he became MSU’s athletic director in 1990. Two years later, the Trustees decided both jobs were too much for one person. 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 Trustees in 2006 and again in 2014. On his watch, former gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was convicted of molesting 10 Spartan students, with more than 200 victims ultimately testifying against him.

Today Perles is remembered largely as the football coach who resurrected Spartan football. A congenial old-school warrior, he was loyal to his players, and they remain loyal to him.

After Bo Schembechler died in 2006, I remember Perles attending four memorial events for his old rival and close friend. It’s a safe bet Schembechler would have returned the honor this week.

Perles’ 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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