Alabama football: Ray Perkins was an Alabama man, and there was no greater compliment
It was a brilliant May morning in 2003, as most May mornings are in Tuscaloosa, when my phone rang barely after sunrise.
“Do you wanna play golf today?”
My immediate answer was “are you kidding?” as my day job as executive sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News was going to be especially challenging that day — as Alabama was introducing its 26th head football coach in history, and I was going to be kinda busy.
But when the voice on the other end of the phone told me who was to join us on the 1st tee at Indian Hills Country Club, I managed to justify clearing what was a ridiculously busy slate …
No. 20 on that Crimson Tide list was in town to witness one of his own ascend to the most cherished — if recently tarnished — spot in the pantheon of college football coaching, and Perkins wasn’t about to miss the day. But 18 holes was on the docket, and I figured, “heck, if Perkins has time for 18, so do I.”
That was my initial experience with a man who insisted it was “just Ray or Perk, not too formal now …” instead of Coach Perkins. Perhaps the most misunderstood of all the Crimson Tide coaches who came before or after him, Perkins passed away Wednesday at age 79 in Northport, just across the Black Warrior from where he replaced a legend and forged a most complicated legacy.
Alabama coach Nick Saban — No. 27 on that list — confirmed Perkins’ death on Wednesday’s SEC teleconference, sending condolences to the Perkins family and describing Perkins as “a really, really good person and a really good friend.”
Perkins was an Alabama man, through and through. I learned that over 18 holes before we adjourned to Mike Shula’s press conference. I learned that as he would graciously respond to queries years afterward about Shula and Alabama, and I came to understand his bond with his alma mater better as time wore on.
Perkins was as full of Bama as was Tommy Lewis, who infamously came off the sideline in 1954 to make a tackle against Rice in the Cotton Bowl. Perhaps Perkins’ only crime against the Capstone was that he had the temerity to replace his coach atop the Alabama throne — with that coach only being the man who built, polished and protected the throne more than any other.
Perkins was a Coach Bryant guy, coming to Alabama from Petal, Miss., by way Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Miss. A teammate of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, Perkins was a team captain and All-American in 1966 and graduated with 2 national championship rings (1965 and 1966) and 3 SEC titles (1964-66).
Perkins went to the NFL to play for the mighty Baltimore Colts under another legend in Don Shula. He helped lead the Colts to a victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V, and played in the league from 1967-71 before becoming an assistant coach in the NFL from 1974-78. Perkins was named the coach of the New York Giants from 1979-82, and went 23-34 before his phone rang.
In retrospect, *anyone* who was placed in Perkins’ shoes on Jan. 26, 1983 was bound to fail. Who replaces Paul Bryant, really? How on earth do you pick a person to adequately succeed in the task of carrying on a coaching legacy that not only defined that person’s alma mater, but defined what it meant to be a coach itself?
That was where Perkins was thrust when his phone rang, asked by Alabama to succeed Bryant and become Alabama’s 20th coach. Perkins’ personality, forged by Bryant and Alabama but still very much different from the man no one could possibly succeed, chafed administration, boosters and alumni in his dual role as athletic director and when he made decisions like taking down Bryant’s practice field tower.
Perkins won plenty, going 32-15-1 and winning 3 postseason games. He also recruited some of Alabama’s greatest stars, boldface names like Cornelius Bennett, Curt Jarvis, Derrick Thomas and Bobby Humphrey. But when the Tide went 5-6 in 1984 — the Tide’s first losing season since 1957, the year before Bryant’s phone rang — Perkins and Alabama were clearly not an ideal fit. So when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers called and waved a lucrative contract at Perkins after the 1986 season, he promptly put Tuscaloosa in his rear-view mirror and was off to Florida.
Following a 19-41 record in Tampa Bay, Perkins was fired by the Buccaneers and coached at Arkansas State for a year before returning again to the NFL as an offensive coordinator with the Giants and Raiders through the 1997 season. Perkins formally returned to the whistle a final time in 2011, recording a 2-year stint as head coach at his other alma mater, Jones County JC.
But Perkins never truly left Alabama, even if Alabama left him for the cardinal sin of not being as great as the Bear. I learned that much over 18 holes that brilliant May morning in 2003. Perkins was full of Bama, and his pride in Shula was beaming with the hopes that the former quarterback would get a better shake than he did at the Capstone.
Perkins’ alma mater lost a legend Wednesday, another Crimson Tide great gone to be with Coach Bryant.
Ray Perkins was an Alabama man, through and through. And to him, there was no greater compliment.
Cover photo illustration of Ray Perkins via @AlabamaFTBL