Wednesday, March 26, 2008

pondering perkins

I hate playing the "what if?" game. It's a really easy way to drive yourself crazy.
What if, for example, I'd had enough guts to ask out my favorite teacher's daughter back in high school, maybe we'd have dated regularly, maybe fallen in love, maybe even gotten married and lived happily ever after. Or maybe we'd have wound up hating each other and my favorite teacher would've challenged me to a fight in the middle of class on a Red Day.
See what I mean? You can eventually give yourself an aneurysm if you do this long enough.

So it's with some hesitancy that I approach this subject. I've been reading "Alabama Showdown," a book by Geoffrey Norman about the football rivalry between Alabama and Auburn (15 years before Ivan Maisel's "War in Dixie"). The book was written in 1985, leading up to arguably the best game in the history of the series. In fact, just for fun, let's pause for a moment to remember how awesome that game truly was ...

Wasn't that fun?
Anyway, the book jacket makes a reference to then-Alabama head coach Ray Perkins as "the poor sumbitch who had the bad luck to succeed" Coach Bryant, which, obviously, he was. This was his best moment as Alabama head coach, obviously, and he's been somewhat forgotten by history, sort of like how Alabama fans completely forgot Paul Kennedy serving as the voice of 'Bama football, even though Kennedy was a superb technical announcer and called every relevant game during Perkins' tenure, including that beautiful '85 Auburn game at Legion Field.

The raw numbers from Perkins' four years in Tuscaloosa aren't that impressive -- 32-15-1, three lower-tier bowl games (the Sun Bowl twice, and the Aloha Bowl) and a 2-2 record against Auburn. Mostly, what everyone remembers was that Perkins wasn't -- according to lore -- the Man's first choice to replace him: supposedly, he wanted Gene Stallings, or possibly Howard Schnellenberger (getting ready to set the world on fire at Miami).

But the Perkins tenure, like most things in Alabama history, is remembered a little unfairly. For one thing, Bryant had left the cupboard pretty lonely when he retired -- Pat Dye, by all accounts, had out-recruited Alabama badly in his two years at Auburn, and it was this lack of talent, over everything else, that led to the misery of '84, as the Tide suffered its first losing season since 1957. For another, Perkins -- for all his warts -- had righted the ship almost completely, as Alabama rolled up 10 wins and was briefly ranked third in the country.

Perkins' biggest flaw, it seems, was his personality. Abrasive and quiet, Perkins basically ripped off Nick Saban's act before Nick Saban ever had a shot at it. He also made a number of missteps before he ever really got started at Alabama -- firing John Forney, for one, and taking down Bryant's tower (he wanted to put it in a museum) from the practice field. Also, he took a great deal of flak for kicking an extra point to preserve a tie in an '85 game against LSU, but I'll cut him some slack for that one.
Of course, nobody can discuss the Perkins era without discussing Paul Finebaum. In the wake of Bryant's death, Finebaum rose to prominence as the state's dominant media personality, with both an evening radio show -- that preceded Perkins' coach's show -- and his column with Birmingham's Post-Herald. The two feuded quite publicly, with Perkins ultimately -- according to Finebaum -- putting pressure on the station to fire him (which it did). Needless to say, he didn't exactly engender himself to Alabama's most beloved (or hated, depending on the day) media personality.
Quite simply, Perkins wasn't Bryant. He didn't have the same dominating personality (most reporters were terrified of crossing the Man, and rightfully so). He treated many of the Alabama faithful with the same indifference and contempt he had for the media, and made himself too many enemies in a place where he simply couldn't do that.

But here's what else Perkins wasn't: he wasn't a loser. Alabama did post a 5-7 mark in '84, but Perkins' teams won 8 games in '83 and '85, and 10 in 1986. Alabama beat Notre Dame for the first time ... ever. Alabama won two of the most dramatic games against Auburn in the history of the series, and Perkins soundly out-coached Pat Dye in both games.
In fact, Perkins came within seven points of being 4-0 against Dye as a head coach. Would we still be discussing Dye's Auburn teams of the '80s if that had happened? Somehow I doubt it.

I suppose this is where the game should stop. Ultimately, it makes more sense that Perkins would flee for a lucrative pro contract after four seasons, and ultimately be remembered as something of a failure, even though he really wasn't. What if he had stayed, though? Could he have hung around for 10 years? Would the duel between he and Dye -- who weren't exactly exchanging Christmas cards -- have increased in scope? Could he have won a national championship in Tuscaloosa?

Oh well. No sense dwelling on the past, right? Right?



TonyOrlando said...

Good post.

Perkins wasted what little shot he had at winning the hearts of the Bama faithful. He mimicked Bryant's brashness, with none of his folksy charm to take the edge off.

finebammer said...

ray perkins main problem in my mind was not only his personality but coming to tuscaloosa from new york. there is no tougher media than new york media.

he set out from the beginning to let everyone know who was in charge. the 'bama nation wasn't ready for someone else to be in charge and certainly not someone who took down bear's tower and fired john forney.

as athletic director he presided over the creation of tide pride and major upgrades to the practice facilities. he also battled joab thomas behind the scenes who at the time was trying to "de-emphasize" football.

had bryant lived ten more years, things, in all probability would have been markedly different for perkins. but bear's sudden passing left a hole in all of our hearts and ray was a cold dagger.

and he did nothing to change my mind about him with his behind-the-scenes meddling during shula's last days.

dbh said...

Yeah -- I wrote the entry in a hurry and probably should've dwelt a little more on the "Perkins family" that held influence at Alabama during the Shula era. Really strange.