A Former Coach's New Play

September 26, 2006

Sports figures running for political office usually fall into one of two categories: the ex-athlete turned legislator (U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, former Rep. Steve Largent, former Sen. Bill Bradley) or the ex-coach turned member of Congress (Rep. Tom Osborne).

George Perles, a well-known name at Michigan State University, is in a category by himself: the ex-athlete, ex-coach, ex-athletics director turned trustee hopeful. He is on the November ballot as a Democrat and hopes to unseat a Republican incumbent. Michigan is one of a handful of states -- Colorado, Nebraska and Nevada are the others -- where voters select university trustees. In most other states, the governor appoints them.

Perles attended Michigan State as an undergraduate roughly a half century ago and said he wants to remain involved with his alma mater.

“My personality is to get things done and give back to the school that’s been so good to me,” Perles said. “The only thing I miss is the association with the kids. I’m trying to help them by keeping tuition down and finding more money from the state. If [tuition] keeps up at this rate, only the rich will be able to go to school.”

Perles's campaign has brought back plenty of fond football memories -- he was one game over .500 in his 12 years (1983-94) as head coach -- as well as recalling the controversy that arose over his short tenure as athletics director.

Michigan State's Board of Trustees gave Perles control over the sports program in 1990 on top of his coaching duties, to the dismay of then-president John DiBiaggio, who thought the dual role wouldn't allow for proper oversight of the football program. Trustees feared that Perles would bolt for a head coaching job in professional football if he wasn't given more responsibility at Michigan State.

The situation became a cause celebre among academic leaders and sports officials nationally, who feared that the way DiBiaggio was undermined would make university presidents more reluctant to get involved in athletics matters.

But DiBiaggio didn't give up. He demanded that Perles choose between the two positions, which Perles eventually did, opting to step down as athletics director.

In 1994, Michigan State dismissed Perles as its football coach after he refused to re-sign his 10-year contract, which had three years left on it. The two parties tangled over promised payments, including broadcasting and endorsement deals. Perles filed two lawsuits accusing the university of a breach of contract and age discrimination. He eventually dropped the suits, saying he had been frustrated by his severance package and had hoped the legal filings would speed up the process. 

In an interview last week, Perles said that past issues with the university are not germane to the campaign. DiBiaggio said he suspected the past might come up in the weeks before election day. "Someone will ask him a question [about the dispute], and he'll have to answer it," DiBiaggio said.

Perles, who is now chief executive of the Motor City Bowl, an annual football game played in Detroit, said the administrative meetings he attended as athletics director gave him a look at the inner workings of the university.

DiBiaggio said he does not know what to expect from the election. "He has as much of a right to run for public office as anyone else," he said. “You hope like anyone else, [Perles] would appreciate the conflict of interest -- that he has a special interest in a particular area of the university."

Trustee elections normally get little attention, and DiBiaggio said candidates often run at the bottom of the ticket, meaning that how the top of the ticket runs can dictate who wins the elections.

One casualty of Perles's run for trustee is his spot on a radio show that airs Saturdays before Michigan State football games. Perles was a regular on the show for years, but Federal Communications Commission regulations about equal air time for political hopefuls has forced him off the show -- temporarily, at least.

“I'll have former football coaches on the show and be forced to listen -- to sit there like a statue," Perles said.

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