Sun-burned, 71-year-old Ray Perkins sits in his modest coaching office at Jones Junior College last Saturday after nearly four hours of pacing the sidelines in a somewhat miraculous 50-47 victory over previously unbeaten Copiah-Lincoln before perhaps 2,000 fans.
He loosens his red and gold tie, unbuttons the top button of his starched white shirt and ponders the question only briefly: How does today’s victory compare with those you won at Alabama, with the Baltimore Colts, the New York Giants, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and all the other places you’ve coached before scores of thousands?
Perkins looks directly at the questioner with his steely eyes almost as if he is staring through me: “This is better, more fun, more rewarding. It’s because of these kids. It’s because I am watching them grow.”
He’s also watching them win. With Saturday’s victory, achieved after trailing 20-3 after one quarter and 41-22 going into the fourth, Jones moves to 5-0 and surely higher in the national rankings. The Bobcats were seventh last week after knocking off top-ranked Gulf Coast on the road.
“Winning is great because it reinforces what we’ve been teaching them,” Perkins says. “But this is about far more than Xs and Os. This is about helping freshmen and sophomores prepare for life. I’ll be 72 soon. I’ve seen some things and done some things, not all of it good. I think I can help them.”
As Perkins talks, a huge lineman, one icepack on his ankle another on his knee, comes in to shake hands and assure “Coach Perk” he will be ready for the next game.
Their conversation ends with Perkins saying, “You know I love you,” and the player responding, “Love you, coach.”
I know, it sounds sappy, but it sounds genuine when you are there. And I’ve got to tell you this is not the Ray Perkins I remember from yesteryear. Ray Perkins’ football resume’ reads like a Who’s Who of Football Lore. Perkins, a Petal native, signed with Bear Bryant at Alabama, caught passes from Joe Namath at Bama and then Johnny Unitas with the Baltimore Colts. He played for Don Shula, hired Bill Parcells, and Bill Belichick, succeeded Bear Bryant at Bama, coached for Don Coryell and Parcells and on and on and on.
That Perkins, the one I remember from Alabama and the NFL, was more rigid, more taciturn. This one walks around the field after the game patting little kids on the head, posing for photos and smiling, while watching his nine-year-old daughter turn cartwheels and then climb the goal posts. That’s right. Perkins has a nine-year-old daugher, Shelby, who he says keeps him young.
There is a saying in junior college football that the players are “there for a reason.” Might be grades, might be legal trouble, might be they just weren’t good enough to play at a four-year school. Perkins says there’s a lot of truth to it, but then he says, “Our job is to find what that reason is and do whatever we can to erase it. We have to make them better students, better people, better players. Some of these guys, I promise you, have the ability to play on Sundays. All of them can be good people.”
When you think of Ray Perkins, you think Old School football, out of the mold of Bryant and Shula and Parcells. But his Jones Bobcats run the spread formation. They don’t huddle. They are so 2013.
“Football’s football,” Perkins says. “People talk about the no-huddle. I remember a game in 1994, when I was the offensive coordinator under Parcells in New England and Tony Dungy was the defensive coordinator for the Vikings. They were killing us 20-3 at halftime. We couldn’t do anything. Parcells says, ‘You got any ideas?’ I said, ‘Yeah, let’s put (Drew) Bledsoe in the two-minute offense for 30 minutes and let him win the game. That was no-huddle. We came back and won 26-20. So, yeah, I’ve done no-huddle before.”
Perkins, who retired from the NFL in 2000, took the Jones job in 2012. He says he doesn’t know how much longer he will coach but has no immediate plans to do anything else. He is already two years older than Bear Bryant when the great man died.
“I’ve still got energy and I’ve still got something to give,” Perkins says. “I can tell you, if I died right here in this office, drawing up plays and coaching football, that would be like heaven to me.”
Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@ msfame.com) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.