Perkins back on the sidelines at Mississippi JUCO
ELLISVILLE, Miss. – Ray Perkins leans back in his chair, enthusiastically talking football in his Mississippi office at tiny Jones County Junior College.
A pair of palm trees stands in the heat outside — a dead giveaway that this is a long way from Giants Stadium and the bright lights of the NFL. But for the 70-year-old Perkins, it's football paradise.
"It fits like a glove," Perkins said. "This is what I'm supposed to be doing."
That may surprise some people.
Perkins led the New York Giants from 1979 to 1982, the Alabama Crimson Tide from 1983 to '86 and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1987 to 1990. He's also known for developing assistants who went onto distinguished NFL careers — including Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel.
But it's been 20 years since he was a head coach — and more than 10 years since he was a full-time coach of any kind.
And now he has resurfaced in this junior college in a town of about 4,500 people in the southeastern corner of Mississippi. The facilities are decent — but more on the level of a solid high school program than anything he was used to during his days in the NFL and Southeastern Conference.
Crennel understands the reasons his former boss is in Ellisville.
The head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs said he was initially surprised Perkins would get back into coaching, but that in a lot of ways the move made sense.
"Once that coaching gets in your blood it's hard to get it out," Crennel said. "Sounds like to me he's happy and he's excited, so I'm certainly excited for him."
Crennel said Perkins has never been afraid to take a chance or pull an unorthodox move, and that's a big reason for his success. His first meeting with Perkins came at a restaurant in Hattiesburg, Miss., in 1980, after the two were introduced by mutual friends in the coaching profession.
"We talked about football, but we also talked about life," Crennel said. "At the end of the meeting, he told me he didn't have a job, but was impressed and would keep me in mind for the future. A year later, he hired me with the Giants. He wasn't afraid to go with a hunch or a good feeling."
At this stage of his coaching career, Perkins said the perceived status of a job isn't important. And he immediately had a good feeling about the work environment at Jones County.
"It gives me an opportunity to have a little meaning, to hopefully teach something to these young people and also learn some things from them as well," Perkins said. "These are two or three of the most important years in their life. The passion I've had for football has never wavered, so I really jumped at this chance."
Perkins lives in Hattiesburg, which is about a 30-minute drive from Ellisville. He's been in a semi-retired state for the past decade, dividing his time between football fundraisers, a small commercial real estate business and a healthy dose of golf. He's also got two daughters — ages 14 and 8 — who taught him at least one important part of the new college football landscape: Text messaging.
"That's all those girls do — especially the 14-year-old," Perkins said with a grin as he held up his smartphone. "And that's all my players do. So it's been good practice."
Jones County President Jesse Smith said he met Perkins at a golf tournament a few years ago, and when the school's football job became open, he was pleasantly surprised to find the coach's resume on his desk. But there were still some reservations.
"Our main question was 'Why in the world, having the career you've had, would you come to a humble place like this?" Smith said. "But coach Perkins was very convincing. Things began to line up and his personality really fits into this culture. He doesn't meet a stranger. He has a great ability to make people feel special, and he's not in here big-timing anybody. He's probably the most secure person I've met — he's not an ego guy in any way."
Smith said Perkins' arrival has been a boost for the athletic program, with alumni becoming more involved and ticket sales increasing. Perkins will make about $100,000 this season, and his contract can be renewed on a yearly basis. Though the job is certainly time consuming, it's not necessarily all-encompassing like his time in the NFL and SEC. He still occasionally drives his daughters to school before coming to work and can even squeeze a round or two of golf into his schedule.
"Definitely a little more life balance," Perkins said.
Perkins said his past has rarely come up during meetings with players or during practice. He figures if they're that interested, the information is only a few clicks away.
"They know how to use Google," Perkins said.
Jones County quarterback Ben Stevens admitted he didn't have much of an idea who Perkins was when he was hired. But his dad and uncle filled him in quickly.
"I've heard he used to be a screamer, but I think he's mellowed a little," Stevens said. "He'll get in your face and let you know when you're doing something wrong. But he's got a good balance and obviously a ton of insight into the game. We're fortunate to be able to learn from him. It's hard to believe he's 70 years old."
Perkins' age is often a topic of conversation considering 70-year-olds are usually collecting retirement, not starting a new career phase. He was coy about how long he plans to keep the job, though it's obvious he doesn't consider this a short-term gig.
"How about 20 years? Does that sound good?" Perkins said. "I don't have a certain time frame. I really don't. As long as we can be successful in guiding young people and win a few football games along the way, there's no reason to stop."
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: (at)davidbrandtAP