Bye, George.  Spartan Nation Lost An ICON & I Lost A Friend!

Hondo S. Carpenter

Goodbye, dear friend.

If you lived through the '70s and into the '80s and loved football, no doubt you had a love or hate relationship with the Pittsburgh Steelers. For those too young to remember, it would similar to today and the New England Patriots.

If you happened to be raised in a home of Spartans, you certainly loved the Steelers. Their cutting edge and the fantastic defense was known for the 4-3 stunt and nicknamed "The Steel Curtain," and it was perfected and parts of it invented by Spartan ICON George Perles on a napkin.

While people are quick to have an opinion on Perles, few knew him. I was one of the blessed ones, that didn't just cover him or see him as a goat or a hero; he was my friend.  His family are my friends.

I took to the airwaves many time to defend him against unfair attacks from people ignorant of facts or looking for a quick goat. I also privately told him when I thought he had made mistakes. He told me once, "Don't waste your time defending me. I only care what Sally and the kids think. But if I ever lose you, then I know I have become a real (SOB)."

I remember asking him about the knee-high seagrass at his lake home. Why did he do that instead of traditional short grass? "So Sally won't have to cut it." Why can't you cut it I asked? His booming laugh told the story.

Once as a youngster, I was in his office after the Spartans had a terrible start to a season. Everyone had written off a bowl. Including my father who had told me the Spartans wouldn't go bowling that year.  I asked him about it, and he told me, "Don't worry, son," as he opened his top desk drawer. "We got to get to a winning season and we will, I already got us set up." He did, and the bowl he told my father and me about that day was his destination.

I was the one who introduced his name for consideration as a member of the Duffy Daugherty Award committee. I was fortunate to vote for him for that award and blessed to have been the emcee the night he won it. Later he told me that his Super Bowls with the Steelers and Rose Bowl at Michigan State were terrific and life-changing, but "The Duffy award is life-defining. I loved him like a father."

The night he won the award, he told me that, "I love you like a son." Only for his son John to say, "But I don't love you like a brother." To this day, John and I remain close.

From the first practice he invited me to in 1983, every time I saw him, it was a reunion with a friend. From long talks in his home office to laughing at his lake home or seeing each other at so many events, he never changed.

If Coach loved you or hated you, you knew. He wasn't a game player. He was genuine. In a world full of fake people, he was authentic. He would tell you exactly what he thought, whether it was politically correct or not. He would hug you as fast as he would chew you out. I know, I experienced both.

In 2006 I endorsed him for the MSU board of trustees. Later that evening, he called me. "Hondo, George. Come see me right away." It was late, and I was busy until nearly midnight. "Don't care. Please come." I did arrive shortly after midnight.  "Good now Sally can get to bed."

For three hours, he told me how much my endorsement on television meant to him. We spent three hours talking about loyalty, friendship, and real-world values. I treasure that evening.

I have seen Coach angry, sad, and happy, and every emotion in between. But only once did I see this man cry. It was when his son and my friend Pat had hit a snag in his coaching career, not the fault of his own. Coach loved his children, but he told me that day, "Pat is a great coach. Better than me, but I feel bad when his struggles are not his own. I feel like he thinks I won't be proud of him. I am. I feel bad because I think he followed me into this profession, and it isn't easy. I love Pat." He turned away to look out the window as his chin quivered, and tears fell off his cheeks.

I had spoken with his family over a year ago about shooting a long-form video with him about his life. The last time I saw coach, he said to me, "Memories. So many, but many I probably wouldn't recall. I don't want to do it. I don't want to forget something or leave something out. Just remember, when I am gone to tell them about Sally. Tell them about my kids. To tell them that Sally has always been my girl. Tell them that Sally will always be my girl. Always the prettiest. Best wife, best mother, the best person I have ever met. The greatest thing I can say about the girls is they turned out like Sally. Pat is an amazing coach, better than me, and John is the best businessman in the family. Everyone will talk about Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, and other stuff, but they are me, and they are my real legacy, and what matters."

George and sally
Geirge and "His Girl," Sally in El Paso, TX at the Sun Bowl.  PHOTO COURTESY OF PERLES FAMILY ARCHIVES

There you go, coach. You asked me to tell people that and I did. You shared your life with me for a long time. You shared your family with me. I never played for you, but you helped shape me. I will miss you.

World-famous orthopedic surgeon Dr. Lanny L. Johnson described Perles best. The most blue-collar green and white man to ever live.

Loyalty meant everything to coach. It was a value that said you didn't always agree, but you were faithful. He told me, "Sally is the most loyal person to live. My girl was loyal to my dreams, our kids, and our family before she ever thought about Sally. My best recruiting job was getting Sally to be a Perles. Sure we had Lorenzo (White), who was the best running back ever to play, but Sally was a bigger deal. When I am gone, just tell them about Sally. She stood behind me, but she was what made me."

If you knew George, you were fortunate. We had many talks and spent so much time together, of which I will never report. He was always loyal, but it didn't mean he was foolish. He knew he could trust me, and we talked. He warned me of people not to believe and people that I could. He was always proven right. For as outgoing and boisterous as he was, the real coach had a lot to say privately. He was a wealth of information. He was a visionary.

One day he called me, and I will never forget it. "Hondo. George. Get over here." Off I went on another adventure to who knows where with my buddy. When I arrived at his home, Sally quickly led me to his office. There I found coach surrounded by boxes of plastic cups that would be sold at Spartan Stadium that fall, with his picture on it. He told me, "Can you believe this? I am on a cup with Duffy Daugherty." He beamed with pride, and I left that day with at least 25, as he wanted my son to have them. (He still does)

I will miss eating kugelis looking out at the water with him.  Can you celebrate 4th of July without kugelis?  Would you want to?  I will miss drinking bottled water and pouring him another scotch (sorry Pat). I will miss my friend.  

As proud as he was to have coached with Chuck Knoll, and played for and coached for Duffy Daughtery (He called them, "The two greatest coaches not named Pat Perles in the history of football"), and being a Spartan, he knew who he was. He shared his Lithuanian roots with anyone that would listen.

When he found out my son was to be called Duffy, he gave me $100.  He told me, "Buy that kid a football and make sure he doesn't end up a Wolverine."  Every time he saw my son after that, he would tell him another Duffy Daugherty story.  Many I can't repeat, but they sure are special.  Just like the coach.

He always encouraged me to call him George. He finally convinced me to at least call him coach and not Mr. Perles, but he told me numerous times, "I am the coach to a lot of people, we are friends. I am George." I couldn't do it.

So today, as I look back over our friendship. As tears now fall on my keyboard as I type this, I wish I had said this when he was alive. But I will now. You are loved and missed…George.

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Comments (1)
No. 1-1
B1G Ball Buster1
B1G Ball Buster1

I love Coach. Known him my entire life. Great job Hondo.