Perkins couldn’t turn Bucs’ franchise around

by Gary Shelton on December 10, 2020

in general

Thursday, 4 a.m.

Time will not remember him as a great strategist. Or a great motivator. Or a great builder of teams.

But Ray Perkins could stare. Man, could he stare.

Perkins would fix his eyes on you, as if he were trying to bore a hole through you, and he would funnel his brow and sigh. I suppose it was supposed to be intimidating, in his way, and maybe it would have been if his record had merited it.

It didn't. Instead, Perkins was just another coach who was unable to overcome the dysfunction of his time. There were a lot of them.

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Perkins was different because, well, he was supposed to be different. He had been Bear Bryant's successor at Alabama, and he won three bowl games, and then owner Hugh Culverhouse, an Alabama man, once referred to him as "my Vince Lombardi." Upon reflection, he might have meant his Guy Lombardo. Never mind.

Perkins won only 19 of 61 games with the Bucs from 1987-1990. Still, that was more than the four games that Leeman Bennett, his predecessor, won in two years, so that's at least something.

Along the way, Perk tried his best to overcome a distinct lack of talent with that stare and sheer will. He wasn't successful there, either. The Bucs were in the middle of a simple awful run where they lost 10 games or more for 14 of 15 seasons, and Perkins simply couldn't stop the tide.

He traded away Steve Young for a sack of beans. He was unable to surround Vinny Testaverde with enough talent so he could overcome his own shortcomings. He was an endless bully, once scolding a reporter for wearing a tie to a press conference. He tried to fight one of his own offensive linemen in the locker room.

And still, the Bucs kept losing.

I remember the first time I met Perkins. It was before his last season with the Bucs, and I had come in to be the new NFL writer at the St. Petersburg Times. Rick Stroud was the new Bucs' beat writer.

We met Perkins and his public relations director at a restaurant in north St. Pete. Perkins sat down and, without looking at a menu, asked the waiter what his best sandwich was. Naturally, the waiter began to recite the menu.

Halfway through, Perkins interrupted him and said "I'll have the nachos." The conversation was over.

Perkins then turned to Rick and I and launched into a story about when he was working at a gas station between his junior and senior seasons at Alabama. "I'd never met a homosexual before," Perkins said. "So this guy came onto me, and I about killed him. I mean, I beat him senseless."

Stunned, I looked at Rick. "My hand wasn't on his knee," I said later. "Was your hand on his knee."

It wasn't. That was just Perkins' way of saying hello.

A few years later, I heard this one from a Bucs' scout. In the old days, the inner circle of the Bucs would meet at an ungodly hour before the NFL draft to go over, once again, the team's plans. It was before dawn, and so no one had eaten as the eight men gathered around a conference table.

Everyone was hungry, naturally, and it was hours until lunch.

Which is when Perkins reached into his desk and brought out a pack of eight cinnamon rolls. The math was easy. Eight men. Eight rolls.

Which is when Perkins decided to eat them. All of them.

"We were like babies, watching the cinnamon roll from the desk to his mouth, and watching his mouth chew, one roll after the other."

But that, too, was Perkins, who had total control of the roster, yet was unable to win more than five games in a season.

It was in his first season -- interrupted by a player strike and replacement players -- that Perkins is best remembered. It was halftime of the team's game against the Saints and tackle Ron Heller was trying to coax his team into a comeback.

Heller yelled to the team. "Guys don't give up and we'll win this game."

Perkins, however, just heard the "give up" portion of Heller's comment and started the altercation over what he thought was a disparaging comment.

"All of a sudden, he punched me right in the mouth," said Heller later. Heller was traded to the Eagles the following off-season.

One final story. In his final year, Perkins seemed weary of Testaverde's interceptions. So he made a trade, obtaining Chris Chandler from the Colts...for the Bucs' No. 1 draft pick, which turned out to be the No. 4 pick in the draft.

I wrote a column the next day saying that the price was out of whack. Chandler's value wasn't nearly that high across the league, and no team had spent that much on a backup quarterback. No team.

The next day, Perkins held up the Times' front page and said "this guy doesn't know what he's talking about." He went on and on.

It's funny. Over the years, I made a lot of calls that probably weren't right. But that one was dead on. Chandler never won a game for the Bucs.

Looking back, my suspicion is that Perkins wanted Chandler to be his No. 1 quarterback but couldn't say it and Chandler didn't earn it (he was 0-for-3 in three starts). Even for a pedestrian starter, the No. 4 pick in the draft is far too pricey. For a backup, it remains one of the most absurd deals ever.

But that's the point with Perkins. The Bucs had a fatal flaw in those days; they would hire a coach and give him more power than he had ever had, and eventually, it would do him in. Perkins shouldn't have been a general manager. He should have worked for a better owner, one who didn't mind paying a backup tackle. He should have had better scouts, and he should have listened more closely.

In the end, however, Perkins failure was the failure of an organization. There are very few coaches who could have overcome Culverhouse and his minions.

Perkins should have been better, yes, but he deserved better, too. His shortcomings were reflective of his surroundings. He lost too many games, but really, the team gave him no other choice.

Rest well, Ray.

You tried.

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