Ray Perkins, the head coach who led the Giants to the 1981 playoffs after the franchise failed to make the postseason for nearly two decades, died December 9 at the age of 79.
“This guy kicked us in the butt,” former Giants safety Beasley Reece told NY Sports Day. “We hadn’t been in the playoffs in 18 years.”
The Giants were at their low point 1978, the sixth losing season in a row, including the Miracle at the Meadowlands loss to the Eagles. Wellington and Tim Mara were feuding over front office matters.
Commissioner Pete Rozelle recommended the team hire George Young as general manager. Young had been a coach with the Colts when Perkins was a tight end in Baltimore and hired the 37-year-old, who had been an assistant with the Patriots and Chargers.
The country club days of the Giants has ended.
“You want to talk about over,” Reece said. “It was a new day … He took us to another place.”
The practices were grueling. Reece remembers ambulances near the practice field which would often be gone by the end of the afternoon, with a Giant inside.
“You have to be extremely well-conditioned to play for Coach Perkins,” he said.
Perkins had played for Bear Bryant at Alabama and Reece, who grew up in Texas, said he understood the intensity, though it didn’t endear the coach to many of his teammates.
“A lot of guys didn’t like the old school southern mentality,” Reece said, adding, “He ran us to death. If you weren’t from that type of football factory, where it’s like a religion, a lot of people didn’t understand it.”
That didn’t mean Perkins was unreasonable. Reece once woke up Perkins at 5:30
in the morning to tell him he was going to become a father. The coach paid for his traveling expenses and gave his player two days off as Reece went from Pace University to Dallas to watch his son being born.
Reece later said, “He could tell me to jump off the George Washington Bridge and all I’d ask is, ‘What time?’”
The 1979 Giants started 0-5 before upsetting the 5-0 Buccaneers as rookie Phil Simms was in charge after Perkins benched beleaguered Joe Pisarcik. New York was 6-7 before losing its final three games.
The team regressed in 1980, finishing 4-12
, but that meant drafting linebacker Lawrence Taylor after the Saints passed on him in the draft.
Perkins also hired Bill Parcells, who had been the linebackers coach in 1979, as the defensive coordinator, joining a staff that already had Bill Belichick.
New York was 5-6 and lost Simms to injury but instead of folding, the Giants played their best football in the final weeks.
“I think we were harder,” Reece said. “[Perkins] was a hard man. I think a lot of teams the personality of their head coach in many respects.”
The season around with a 20-10 upset win at Veterans Stadium against the 9-2 Eagles.
The Giants needed a win against the 12-3 Cowboys in the final week to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Giants pulled out a 13-10 win in overtime and when the Jets defeated the Packers the following day, both the Giants and Jets were postseason bound.
Reece gave credit to Perkins for turning the franchise around and taking the team to the playoffs in his third year.
“I don’t mean a high school team where a top quarterback came in,” he said. “I’m talking about the pros. This guy turned us into a playoff team in a very short period of time.”
In the wild card game, the Giants again defeated the Eagles at Veterans Stadium. New York jumped out to a 20-0 first quarter lead and held on for the 27-21 win. The next week, the Giants lost to the eventual champion 49ers.
Reece said that playoff team is not as recognized as it should be, overshadowed by some of the playoff teams that came after. But if that team didn’t make the playoffs, perhaps the organization would have looked elsewhere for a new head coach instead of promoting Parcells when the time came.
“That changed the trajectory of the franchise,” Reece said.
In December 1982, during a strike-shortened season in which the Giants would miss the playoffs, Perkins announced he would leave for Alabama. Perkins would replace Bryant and Parcells would replace Perkins.
New York’s final game was in Philadelphia and Joe Danelo’s field goal won it with two seconds left. Perkins was carried by several players.
“People think players don’t care,” Reece said. “It hurt to lose. It hurt to be one of the bad teams year in and year out. He gave us the pride we had when we were in high school or college, whenever we had last been winners.”
Perkins spent four seasons coaching the Crimson Tide before returning to the NFL and coaching the Buccaneers from 1987-1990.
After spending 1992 at Arkansas State, Parcells brought him to the Patriots and made him offensive coordinator. Parcells, Perkins and Belichick led New England to the 1996 AFC championship.
Perkins later coached with the Raiders and Browns. In 2012 and 2013 he coached Jones County Junior College in Mississippi.
Reece remembered Perkins with some of his later successes.
“If I put in the work, if I outwork everybody, there’s nothing I can’t achieve,” he said. “Coach Perkins helped instill that.”