Perles was born July 16, 1934, on Detroit’s west side and was a football and baseball star at Detroit Western. He earned all-state football honors as a junior and senior and graduated in 1953, then briefly attended the University of Tennessee before returning to Detroit and joining the Army with a number of his friends.
He served in the Army from 1954-56 and was stationed in Hawaii, where he continued to play football. After returning from active duty, Perles joined Duffy Daugherty’s football team at MSU as an offensive and defensive tackle in the fall of 1956. Perles lettered for the Spartans in 1958 before a knee injury ended his playing career.
After getting his bachelor’s degree from MSU in 1960, Perles joined Daugherty’s staff as a graduate assistant. He received his master’s in educational administration in 1961 and went on to coach high school football at St. Rita’s in Chicago and St. Ambrose High in Grosse Pointe Park, which went 23-2 in three seasons and won the 1962 City League championship with Perles as head coach.
After a two-year stint as an assistant coach at the University of Dayton, Perles returned to MSU and Daugherty’s staff, coaching the defensive line from 1967-71.
Chuck Noll, the legendary NFL coach, poached Perles in 1972 to coach the Pittsburgh Steelers’ budding defensive line. Perles became one of the architects of the Steelers’ vaunted Steel Curtain defense that dominated the decade, with his innovative stunt 4-3 formation helping Pittsburgh win four Super Bowls. He became Noll’s defensive coordinator in 1978 and assistant head coach from 1979-82.
That led Perles to a head coaching job with the Philadelphia Stars of the upstart United States Football League. He helped build the team throughout 1982 but never coached a game when the league began in the spring of 1983 because his alma mater came calling for the job he coveted most.
MSU hired Perles to replace Muddy Waters on Dec. 3, 1982, giving the 48-year-old a five-year contract three years after he was bypassed for the job by Waters. He also applied for the job in 1976, after Denny Stolz was forced out and the school was placed on probation.
He guided the Spartans to the 1988 Rose Bowl, their first since 1966, along with the 1987 Big Ten title that was their first since 1978. They also won a share of the 1990 conference championship, which would be MSU’s last until Mark Dantonio earned a share in 2010.
Perles parlayed the Jets offer into a 10-year deal as football coach and athletic director that did not last. His stint as athletic director ended in 1992 after friction with then-president John DiBiaggio, who demanded Perles pick one job or the other. Perles then was fired as football coach by ensuing president Peter McPherson near the end of the 1994 season.
In 2006, Perles ran and won a seat on the MSU Board of Trustees as a Democrat, and was reelected in 2014. He served from 2007 until November 2018, when he resigned and cited health concerns following a year which included fallout from the Larry Nassar conviction, the resignation of president Lou Anna K. Simon and athletic director Mark Hollis, and scrutiny into sexual assault allegations surrounding the school’s football and basketball programs.
Following his stint as MSU coach, Perles helped create the Motor City Bowl in 1997, which reintroduced a college football bowl to Detroit (MSU had played in the 1984 Cherry Bowl under Perles, a game that existed for just two years).
Perles also was a staunch supporter of the Special Olympics. He joined with former attorney general Frank Kelley and Peter Secchia, a former ambassador to Italy and another MSU alum, to create the annual Kelley-Perles-Secchia Special Olympics Golf Classic in Lansing that began in 1987 and continued through 2018.
Among his other activities, Perles served on the board for Blue Cross Blue Shield, was a member of the selection committee for the Hula Bowl and was a contributor to the Harris Interactive College Football Poll. He was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.
Chris Solari, “George Perles, former Michigan State football coach and board member, dies at 85“, Detroit Free Press, January 8, 2020.