Giants history forever altered by Perkins

Understandably giddy after making the playoffs in 1981 for the first time in 18 years, Giants ownership offered Coach Ray Perkins his just reward – a three-year extension – for turning the stagnant franchise around.

"We'd gone through so many years without making the playoffs and Ray comes in and brings us back in just his third year," said Giants executive vice president John Mara, son of team patriarch, Wellington Mara. "That [1981] was a big year for us and we thought at the time we were on the verge of something big."

Mara was right. Over the next nine years the Giants would win two Super Bowls and make the postseason three other times.

Of course, they would accomplish this under Bill Parcells, who would use the decade to craft a legendary career after Perkins unexpectedly left to chase his dream.

And so the question bears asking: Would the Giants have experienced the same success had Perkins not abruptly resigned Dec. 15, 1982, with three weeks remaining in the strike-shortened season, to replace his mentor, Paul "Bear" Bryant at his alma mater, the University of Alabama.

"The what-if question is one of the most mystic in sports and life," Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "But one thing is for certain. Nothing would have happened as is. The stars would have been aligned differently. Perkins may not have two Super Bowls. Perhaps he would have won three. Who knows?

"He certainly would have had much the same personnel, since the core of his team was in place and since George Young [the late Giants GM who hired Perkins in 1979] once told me that Ray was involved in all personnel decisions.

"But if you back me against the wall, I have to say [Perkins] might not have matched Parcells because you're talking about one of the great coaches of our generation. How can you reasonably think he could have matched or surpassed him?"

As December 1982 approached, the NFL was just coming off a crippling eight-week strike. The Giants, 0-2 before the strike, had won three in a row when Perkins made his announcement.

"Deep down, it was what I wanted to do more than anything in the world," Perkins said at the time. "This is simply something that's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. If it was any other place – college or pro – it would have not lured me away. I've always told my players to do something you enjoy. Don't do something because it will be rewarded with money. This is something I want do."

Perkins played for Bryant from 1964-66 and was generally regarded as one of the legend's favorites. So after Bryant retired following a 7-4 season in 1982, the Tide's worst record since 6-5-1 in 1970, Perkins' name was immediately tossed in the ring.

After suffering through a 4-12 mark in his second season in 1980, a year in which Phil Simms was sacked 36 times and the defense allowed 425 points, Perkins made it to the playoffs with Joe Danelo's overtime field goal against the Cowboys in the season finale and the arrival of rookie Lawrence Taylor.

"Perkins had something going with the Giants," said Vinny DiTrani, the longtime Giants beatwriter for the Bergen (N.J.) Record. "George Young would have helped him get the players he needed to continue his success.

"[Perkins] once told me he liked coaching the Giants so much that he wouldn't consider going to Alabama. But I think the experience of coaching there, even though the pressure to replace Bryant would be great, was too much to pass up."

Shortly after Perkins asked Young for permission to talk to Alabama, Young called Parcells into his office for what he later referred to as "an informational session."

Parcells, 41 at the time, had already changed jobs 10 times in the last 18 years. He had been a head coach for only one season at Air Force, but since joining the Giants as an assistant in 1981 had orchestrated a defensive renaissance centered on Taylor and the 3-4.

Past experience taught Young, a former assistant under Don Shula in Baltimore, to trust his instincts about people.

"George liked what he saw in Bill and gave it a shot," Mara said.

"I didn't want to run the risk of losing him [Parcells]," Young said at the time. "Somehow people always think a stranger is a better guy. In Baltimore, we had a guy named Chuck Noll [the former Hall of Fame coach of the Steelers] sitting on our staff and we let him get away."

So when Perkins accepted Alabama's offer, Young acted.

"I told Ray I'm happy for you, but I'm still not happy," Young said.

The happiness exhibited by Perkins was more than matched by the joy expressed by Parcells. Both were about to live out their dreams.

"I think the New York Giants are for Bill Parcells what the University of Alabama is for Ray Perkins," Parcells said. "I'm from Bergen (N.J.) County, I grew up a Giants fan. I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world doing exactly what I want to do. Very few people can do that."

Meanwhile, Giants players circled the wagons, some happy that the disciplinarian Perkins was gone, others uncertain of what Parcells had in store.

"I'm sure if things don't work out for us then people are going to use this as an excuse for what went wrong," linebacker Brad Van Pelt said at the time.

The Giants lost two of their final three games under Perkins and then went 3-12-1 in Parcells' first season in 1983.

"Ironically, Bill came very close to being fired after the season," Mara said. "It was a terrible year, a lot of injuries [Simms threw only 13 passes]. George was very interested in hiring Howard Schellenberger [then at the University of Miami] and, quite frankly, he was interested in us."

The Giants resisted the impulse to can Parcells and in 1984 finished 9-7 and defeated the Rams in an NFC Wild Card Game before losing to the 49ers six days later.

"Bill wasn't highly sought at the time for other jobs, but figured he'd eventually get his shot and never considered Perkins leaving as his big break," DiTrani said. "Had Ray stayed, I don't think there would have been the same emphasis on defense, even though Bill would have still been his coordinator. I don't think the Giants defense would have been as brilliant. Of course, the offense might have been better with more players who could perform in wide open spaces."

Punter Dave Jennings, who became a Pro Bowler under Perkins, appreciated what Perkins brought to the organization.

"I think the results would have been much the same," Jennings said. "Ray was very passionate. He loved football. He said once at a meeting that it would have been fine with him if he was standing on the sideline on the practice field and then suddenly was gone [dead].

"He didn't tolerate guys who didn't want to win and you could see it [as a player] right away. He changed the atmosphere. It wasn't a country club anymore. I don't know what would have happened with the Giants had he not come here in the first place. Then Alabama came a callin'."

That's where Perkins stayed until the end of the 1986 season, compiling a 32-15-1 record and three bowl victories. But by that time he had changed his mind again and this time it brought him back to the NFL to coach Tampa Bay.

Ironically, Perkins had just been hired when Parcells completed his first Super Bowl run by beating the Broncos in Super Bowl XXV. And after four losing seasons with the Bucs, Perkins was gone and it was Parcells who nearly replaced him.

Parcells later hired Perkins as his offensive coordinator with the Patriots from 1993-96 after Perkins spent a year coaching at Arkansas State in 1992. Perkins also was an assistant with the Raiders and expansion Browns, where he coached tight ends.

"We have Alabama season tickets and we try to make it to as many games as possible," Perkins, who recently built a house and settled in Hattiesburg, Miss, said upon being elected to the Senior Bowl Hall of Fame this year. "I enjoy keeping up with them."

Despite how things turned out, Accorsi, who met Perkins when he was public relations director of the Colts (Perkins was a receiver) in 1970, doesn't feel Perkins would have done anything differently.

"I feel Alabama was so ingrained in his soul he would have always regretted not answering Bear Bryant's call," Accorsi said.

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