Ex-Steelers assistant Perles bowl ringmaster in Detroit
After helping build the Steel Curtain and, later, leading Michigan State to Big Ten relevancy, George Perles didn't want to leave the game.
So he created one.
Perles, an assistant coach on the Steelers teams of the 1970s, founded the Motor City Bowl in 1997 and placed it in Detroit's Silverdome, where it became the only postseason college game in the Midwest.
“It was time to be an administrator,” he said.
The inaugural game attracted a crowd of 43,340 that watched Marshall — with Chad Pennington at quarterback and Randy Moss at wide receiver — lose to Ole Miss, 34-31.
For 12 years, Perles and his partner, former Michigan State sports information director Ken Hoffman, had the backing of the automobile industry (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler). Plus, they have a contract with the Mid-American Conference that has put a team in all 16 editions of the bowl game. Its usual day-after-Christmas date often makes it the only game on television.
But disaster almost struck in 2009 when carmakers had trouble with the recession and Perles needed a new primary sponsor.
Little Caesars Pizza stepped up and has sponsored the bowl since, including Thursday's matchup between Pitt and MAC champion Bowling Green at Detroit's Ford Field.
“Pitt's got a great name, it's close and handy,” said CEO emeritus Perles, who is hoping to avoid last year's small gathering of 23,310 — almost 42,000 below capacity — for Central Michigan's 24-21 victory against Western Kentucky.
The game's average attendance is 44,666, with a record turnout of 60,624 in 2007 when Purdue beat Central Michigan, 51-48. The game recently has been one of the most competitive bowl games, with a margin of victory between two and five points for the past six years.
This year's attendance and TV ratings could be bolstered by a marquee name (Pitt All-American defensive tackle Aaron Donald), Bowling Green's proximity to Detroit (about 90 minutes) and the Falcons' race to the MAC championship by allowing only 17 points in the final four regular-season games.
“It's a natural,” Perles said.
Bringing a team from Pittsburgh is special for Perles, 79, who lived in western Pennsylvania for 10 years (1972-82) while coaching under Chuck Noll.
“That was a dream come true,” said Perles, who has two of his four children still living in the city. “Pittsburgh people are super people to play for. They love their Steelers.”Perles started as the team's defensive line coach, later becoming defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
He left to become coach of the USFL's Philadelphia Stars but never got a chance to coach there. His alma mater, Michigan State, called him home. He led the Spartans for 12 years, winning the 1988 Rose Bowl when the team was ranked No. 8.
Perles said he learned a lot from Noll.
“I copied everything he did,” he said. “Work hard, keep your mouth shut and good things will happen.”
Perles also wasn't shy about reminding people about his success in Pittsburgh.
“I'm sure we got some recruits because of that,” he said.
One that got away is coming back Monday when Pitt arrives in town for three days of preparations. Coach Paul Chryst visited Perles and Michigan State on a recruiting trip in the 1980s.
“His teams were physical, all the good stuff, well coached,” said Chryst, who played quarterback and tight end. “That's one of the reasons I was interested. I knew the type of coach he was and the type of teams he had when he was building things there. Everyone who plays against his teams has a ton of respect for him.”
Chryst said he wasn't a highly regarded recruit.
“Those who can, do. Those who can't, coach,” he said. “I'm sure he didn't lose a lot of sleep over me going to Wisconsin.”