Why Ray Perkins will forever be the man who ‘made Bill Parcells possible’

Ray Perkins was especially thirsty this day, a suffocating afternoon in northeastern Arkansas. He gulped down an iced tea, ordered another, told the waitress at the Jonesboro Holiday Inn: “Keep ’em coming. Hot as blazes out there today.”

This was early August of 1992. Perkins – who’d brought the Giants back to the playoffs after an 18-year drought, who’d succeeded Bear Bryant as head coach at Alabama – was a month away from beginning a new chapter of his football journey, as the $65,000-per-year coach at Arkansas State, in its first year as a Division I-A school.

“When George Young hired me with the Giants, it wasn’t a popular choice,” Perkins said. “Everyone in New York wanted Dan Reeves, who was the hot assistant coach for Tom Landry. But Young didn’t know Reeves. He knew me, from our days together with the Colts. He was the offensive line coach.

“In our interview, he said, you probably don’t remember this, but one day you asked me, ‘How are we picking up the blitz this week?’ You were a receiver. Receivers don’t ask those kinds of questions. I saw right then that you were a big-picture guy.’”

Perkins laughed, buttered an English muffin.

“New York City, Tuscaloosa, Jonesboro, Tampa, it’s all the same,” he said. “If you have a good understanding of the big picture, football isn’t as hard as they make it out to be.”

Perkins died Wednesday, at 79, and so it is a good thing to remember how important that meeting with George Young, February of 1979, was to the fortunes of the Giants, who they became, who they are still. It was Perkins, serious as a tax audit, who did the heavy lifting of making the Giants credible again after they’d wandered so long in the NFL wilderness.

It was Perkins who led the Giants to a 9-7 record in his third season, 1981, qualifying on the season’s last day for a postseason that had eluded them in every year since 1963. It was Perkins who coached them to an upset of the defending NFC champs, Philadelphia, at the Vet, the first postseason win for the Giants since the 1956 title game.

It was Perkins who, in one of his first moves, hired an obscure coach from the Air Force Academy to coach linebackers named Duane “Bill” Parcells, who saw Parcells quit on him almost immediately because of family considerations that forced Parcells out of football for a year, and who hired him again two years later to be his defensive coordinator.

Ray Perkins dead 79 Giants
Ray Perkins, Bill Parcells
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That’s how Parcells got the Giants’ head coaching gig in December 1982 when Perkins decided to take on the thankless job of succeeding Bryant in Tuscaloosa and, well … 

“If I’m only remembered as the guy who made Bill Parcells possible,” Perkins said that August day in 1992, less than two years after Parcells had guided the Giants to a second Super Bowl, “then I guess that’s a good reason to be remembered.”

But Perkins’ football life was really so much more than that. He caught passes at Alabama from both Joe Namath and Ken Stabler. He played five years in the NFL, catching passes from Johnny Unitas, including a 68-yard TD toss in the 1970 AFC Championship Game, which set up the Colts’ only Super Bowl win in Baltimore.

As a coach he never duplicated his early highs in New York, where in four years he went from stone-faced taskmaster to celebrated miracle worker to carpetbagging turncoat. He only lasted four years at Alabama, lured back to the pros by Tampa Bay, where he went 19-41 in four miserable seasons.

He stayed one year at Arkansas State, going 2-9, then took a few assistant’s jobs back in the NFL. In 2012, at age 70, he became the head coach at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Miss. He went 15-5 in two years and finally retired to Hattiesburg, only a couple of miles from where he’d first gained notoriety by lettering in football, basketball, baseball and track at Petal High School.

“My nickname was ‘Grease’ back then, because I worked as a mechanic before and after school,” Perkins said in the Holiday Inn coffee shop in ’92. “I always figured I could do that again if football didn’t work out. But I have to tell you: I think it all worked out OK for ol’ Grease.”

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