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Ray Perkins, former Giants and Alabama head coach, dies at 79

Giants quarterback Phil Simms, left, talks to coach

Giants quarterback Phil Simms, left, talks to coach Ray Perkins on the sidelines during 26-7 loss to the Jets at Giants Stadium on Nov. 1, 1981.  Credit: AP/Ray Stubblebine

Four decades on, Ray Perkins rarely is recalled as a key figure in Giants history. But that he was.

He was not an iconic member of the Giants’ coaching pantheon, like Bill Parcells or Bill Belichick, but he hired both of them during his time as head coach from 1979 to 1982.

It also was during his term that Phil Simms, Lawrence Taylor and other key pieces of the team’s first two Super Bowl winners were drafted.

Perkins, who died on Wednesday at age 79 at his home in Alabama, most of all helped restore order to a franchise shaken by 15 years of ineptitude and losing culture.

The nadir was a loss to the Eagles in 1978 on a play recalled for Joe Pisarcik’s fumbled handoff to Larry Csonka and Herman Edwards’ game-winning return for a touchdown.

That debacle led to the hiring of George Young as general manager and Perkins as his first head coach. Three seasons later, in 1981, Perkins fashioned a 9-7 record and led the Giants to their first playoff berth since 1963.

He left after the strike-shortened 1982 season, only because his dream job suddenly had become available.

Paul "Bear" Bryant, the famed coach at Perkins’ alma mater, Alabama, had decided to retire and Perkins was offered a job he could not refuse.

So the Giants turned to Parcells, Perkins’ defensive coordinator, to replace him. Belichick became Parcells’ trusted lieutenant. Perkins also had hired another future NFL head coach, Romeo Crennel, to the staff.

Four seasons later, Parcells, Belichick, Crennel, Simms and Taylor helped the Giants win Super Bowl XXI.

"Ray was George Young’s first hire as general manager in 1979. I remember George saying, ‘He will make it very uncomfortable for our players to lose,' " Giants president John Mara said in a statement. "Ray did a good job for us and got us into the playoffs in 1981 for the first time in many years.

"During the 1982 season, which was shortened due to a players strike, he announced he was leaving at the end of the year to go to Alabama, which he described as his dream job. He left behind a team that had Lawrence Taylor, Phil Simms and Harry Carson, among others and this was the nucleus of the group that would go on to great success in the 1980’s and win two Super Bowls. I always wondered whether he later regretted that decision. But he certainly left our team in much better shape than he found it in, including having Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick on his staff."

Perkins was born in Petal, Mississippi, on Dec. 6, 1941 — the day before the Japanese attack on U.S. forces in Pearl Harbor. He was a star receiver at Alabama in the mid-1960s and later spent five seasons with the Colts, including on the Super Bowl V-winning team.

His 68-yard touchdown reception from Johnny Unitas was a key play in the Colts’ 27-17 AFC Championship Game victory over the Raiders in 1971.

But it was as a coach that Perkins made his greatest mark, starting as an assistant with the Patriots and Chargers before Young turned to him in 1979.

Perkins struggled to live up to Bryant’s legacy at Alabama despite a record of 32-15-1 and left after four seasons for the NFL’s Buccaneers, whom he coached to four losing seasons in the late 1980s.

After returning in 1992 to college coaching for one season at Arkansas State, where he went 2-9, Perkins served as offensive coordinator for Parcells’ Patriots from 1993 to 1996, reaching the Super Bowl in the last of those seasons.

"I loved Ray and he was a very close friend of mine," Parcells said in a statement. "I was very saddened by the news. He’s the only reason I was in pro football; he’s the one who brought me into the league. He was my friend. I worked for him at the Giants and then he worked for me at the Patriots. He was a great guy."

His last NFL job was as the Raiders’ offensive coordinator in 1997.

Perkins, who during his career was known for an intense persona, reportedly had suffered from heart problems in recent years.

"Ray Perkins was a great friend and an outstanding football coach who served The University of Alabama with true class and integrity," Alabama coach Nick Saban said in a statement Wednesday. "Coach Perkins was a great leader who had a tremendous impact on the game of football at all levels."

In an interview with Newsday early in his one season at Arkansas State, Perkins spoke of a new sense of calm and perspective and boasted over his third lunchtime iced tea that he was in no hurry to get back to the office.

"People say I’m just using this as a steppingstone stopover to bigger and better things," he said. "But think about it. I’ve already been to bigger and better things."

One of those things was the Giants.

Over lunch that day in 1992 Perkins said of New York, "I’ve never been in such a negative place in my life."

But he also said he cherished that 1981 season, and added, "George Young is one of the best football people I’ve known. I still think of him often."

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