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Dan Shaughnessy

Ray Perkins played a key part in Patriots history

Ray Perkins was offensive coordinator of the Patriots under Bill Parcells.Davis, Jim Globe Staff


Seventy-nine-year-old Ray Perkins died at his home in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Wednesday. He was a football lifer and did as much to change the landscape of New England football as just about anyone not named Belichick or Brady.

Perkins grew up in Mississippi and starred at Alabama, where his coach was Bear Bryant and his quarterbacks were Joe Namath and Ken Stabler. In 1966, Perkins was drafted by Upton Bell, who was running the NFL’s Baltimore Colts for Don Shula. Perkins was also drafted by the Boston Patriots of the AFL, but opted to go with the Colts. Perkins’s quarterback in Baltimore was Johnny Unitas, and they won a Super Bowl together.

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Perkins made his mark in New England as a football coach and hiring genius. Patriots fans can thank Ray Perkins for both Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells.

“If it wasn’t for Ray, I would never be in pro football,’' Parcells said from his Florida home Thursday. “I am grateful to him for that. I always was, and we had a lifelong friendship.’’

“I’ve been around a lot of football workaholics,’' said Bell. “But I can’t think of any that were more dedicated than Ray Perkins. He never took a vacation.’’

Perkins came to the Patriots as a receivers coach for Chuck Fairbanks in 1974. It was there that he first came under the spell of a young graduate assistant from Northwestern named Ernie Adams — a kid with thick glasses who could memorize an entire playbook in a single evening. Adams was Foxborough football’s original Rain Man.

When Perkins was named head coach of the loser New York Giants in 1979, he took Adams with him, making the stat maven his quarterbacks coach despite the fact that Adams’s only playing experience was on the offensive line with Belichick at Phillips Andover. Adams was rookie Phil Simms’s first NFL quarterbacks coach.

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It was Adams who recommended that Perkins hire Belichick. When Perkins took over the Giants, young Bill was working with the Broncos after short stints with the Colts and Lions. Perkins agreed to talk with 26-year-old Belichick, and Adams set up a Perkins-Belichick meeting at a hotel near the San Diego airport.

“[Belichick] knew a lot for someone so young,’' Perkins told historian David Halberstam in 2005. “And it was obvious he burned to learn more. I didn’t worry about Bill and Ernie being so young. I was young myself, only 37 years old. What I liked about [Belichick] was his passion for the game — that was what I looked for more than anything else, and that was what he had.’'

More than a decade after Perkins’s interview with Halberstam, Ian O’Connor, author of the 2018 bestseller “Belichick,” spoke with Perkins, and the old coach told O’Connor that he finished every job interview with the same question. He’d asked the candidate to consider three words: consistent, right, fair. Which one of those three words did not apply to playing football, or any sport?

Without hesitation, Belichick answered, “Fair.’’

Perkins told him, “You’re right. And you’re hired.’’

It was in New York with Perkins that Belichick came under the wing of defensive mastermind Parcells. The Giants were 23-62-1 in their previous six seasons, but Perkins had them in the playoffs three years later. When Perkins returned to Alabama to replace Bryant, Parcells took over the Giants and made Belichick defensive coordinator. The two Bills won two Super Bowls together in New York. When Parcells came to New England in 1993, he brought Perkins back to New England as offensive coordinator. Then he brought Belichick in as defensive coordinator for the run to the Super Bowl in 1996.

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Patrick Sullivan, son of Billy Sullivan, who founded the Patriots in 1960, was a college undergrad who cleaned the coaches’ offices when Perkins first worked for the Patriots under Fairbanks.

“Ray was a very intense guy and very competitive,’' Sullivan recalled Thursday. “We had a lot of really great coaches then and Fairbanks had an unusual management style where he would pit the offensive coaches against the defensive coaches. He’d walk into the offensive coaches room and say, ‘You know, the defensive coaches don’t think you guys did a lick of work last Sunday,’ and that would get Perk fired up. You could see it. But he was religious and never swore.’’

Scott Zolak was a Patriots quarterback and a Wrentham neighbor when Perkins was Patriots offensive coordinator under Parcells.

“He told me not to be afraid of Parcells,’’ Zolak recalled. “And he had a different body temperature. Coach Perkins was always cold. He would turn the heat up in his office and have the longest quarterback meetings ever, and Drew [Bledsoe] and I would have a hard time not falling asleep. Coach Perkins loved to tell those Bear Bryant stories, and he had a million of ‘em.’'

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Perkins was old school, once urging Zo not to help clear the table after a dinner party because that was not “men’s work.’'

“I always thought Clint Eastwood should have played Ray Perkins,’’ in a movie, said longtime CBS NFL reporter Lesley Visser, who covered the Patriots when Perkins first coached in New England. “Coach Perkins had that lean, rugged build and wasn’t long on quotes. He loved practice. He loved film. He believed in sacrifice, meaning he’d spent 18 hours a day at the facility.’'

Sounds like the guy who coaches in Foxborough now.

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Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.