On the legendary Ray Perkins and an unlikely friendship
Not many people knew Ray Perkins better, or shared a mutual respect with him longer, than Charles Hollis. This is astounding when you consider how their paths first crossed.
Perkins was the head football coach at the University of Alabama. Hollis was the University of Alabama beat writer for The Birmingham News for the final two seasons of Perkins' tenure and for years afterward. Each of them was as tough, relentless, unflinching and talented as anyone who's done those jobs in this state.
Maybe that explains their unlikely and lasting friendship.
Hollis was the Auburn beat writer when an editor at The News asked him to switch and cover Alabama for the 1985 season. His quick response: "No." His reason: "I do not want to cover Ray Perkins."
After two tempestuous seasons in Tuscaloosa, Perkins had earned a reputation as Perk the Jerk. As the steely-eyed successor to Bear Bryant, he did things his own way without apology, which rubbed plenty of people the wrong way. Pat Dye was similarly strong-willed and hard-headed at Auburn, but the Iron Bowl rivals had polar-opposite reputations among reporters. Neither job was a picnic, but Auburn seemed to welcome you. Alabama under Perkins tended to tolerate you.
Being the reporter he was, Hollis dug deeper. He talked to New York reporters who'd covered Perkins during his time as head coach of the Giants. They said, "At first, he's a jerk, but over time, if you work hard, he'll respect you, and you'll think he's the best coach you ever covered."
Hollis became the Alabama beat writer. It didn't take long for that advice to prove true.
Hollis accosted Perkins so many times on so many late nights in the Alabama football parking lot, Perkins gave him his home phone number. (There were no cell phones then, kids.)
Two days before the 1985 Iron Bowl, talking in Perkins' office, Hollis said he thought Auburn, with soon-to-be Heisman winner Bo Jackson, would win. Perkins snapped, "How much do you want to bet we whip their ass? $500? $1,000?"
Hollis had a better, cheaper, more ethical idea. If Auburn won as he expected, Perkins would allow him into the postgame Alabama locker room immediately afterward, before the press normally was given access. Perkins said, "Done."
Not sure you could say Alabama whipped Auburn's ass two days later, not with four lead changes in the final quarter, but when Van Tiffin's 52-yard field goal won the epic for the Crimson Tide 25-23, Perkins was proven right.
Despite losing the bet, Hollis still followed the coach through the chaotic Legion Field celebration to the locker room door, where two state troopers blocked the path. He yelled at Perkins, "What about our bet?" Perkins looked back over his shoulder, ignored the details and told the troopers, "Let his ass in."
This is not to say Hollis didn't get after Perkins' or Alabama's ass as needed. Spoiler alert: He did. It is to say that there was a time when coaches and reporters developed real relationships that fostered quality reporting informed by true understanding. Not sure there's been a better relationship between a better coach and a better reporter than the one between Perkins and Hollis.
When Perkins passed at age 79, the first person I called was Hollis, who I've been blessed to call a colleague, a role model and a friend. As a rookie at The Birmingham News, I followed him as the Auburn beat writer when he switched to cover Perkins and Alabama. Thanks to Charles, I got to know Perkins a little and admire him a lot through the years, calling him for the occasional story, visiting him in Hattiesburg for a feature on the lion in winter, sharing a moment with him at the SEC Legends Dinner in Atlanta a year ago, where he was so deservedly if belatedly honored.
Maybe because he played with some of the biggest names in football history at Alabama and in the NFL and coached some of the biggest names in Alabama history, Perkins never seemed to receive the appreciation he deserved. Not that he sought it or wanted it.
"He was a complicated man," Hollis said. "A good and generous man."
Perkins was the man who attended a fundraiser for one of his former Alabama players, Kerry Goode, in his battle with ALS and bid on every available item in the silent auction. Went home with a bunch of those items, too. When he lived in Mississippi in retirement, Perkins' home became a favorite stop for former players. I was fortunate to be there with Hollis the night Kermit Kendrick came to visit, and Perkins grilled steaks.
Perkins was the coach who demanded the best of everything for his players, which is why he brought Dr. James Andrews, the superstar orthopedic surgeon, into the Alabama fold decades ago.
"A lot of people didn't understand him, but he was a kind-hearted person who would do anything for you," Andrews said. "He was a wonderful person and a damn good coach." Andrews would treat members of Perkins' family through the years. About a week before his death, Andrews noticed a missed call on his phone from Perkins. He called back, and they spoke briefly. "I think he called me by mistake," Andrews said.
Perkins' memory had begun to fade. Our memories of him should never suffer the same fate. Which brings us back to Hollis. He'd been working with Perkins on a memoir, but the coach's health problems had been a challenge. Let's hope he finishes that book because it would be a fantastic read full of captivating stories wonderfully told.
Like the one about the day after that memorable 1985 Iron Bowl. Hollis wanted to interview Perkins. The coach said he could meet at the football building at a certain time. They met, then got in a car, then drove to the airport. Perkins said he had to go on a recruiting trip but couldn't say where they were going or who they were seeing. Hollis said, "I can't be a part of that." Perkins said, "You won't be. Your butt will be sitting in the car."
Next thing Hollis knows, he's interviewing Perkins about the Iron Bowl victory aboard the Alabama school plane.
"A couple hours go by and the plane is landing," Hollis said. "I look out and see palm trees. I say, 'Ray, where are we?' He said, 'I guess I can tell you. We're in West Palm Beach.' "
Anything for a story.
"That first year began our relationship," Hollis said. "He was unlike any coach I've ever covered. I obviously saw a side to him that most media people didn't."
Hollis can tell you the inside scoop from the coach's mouth on how Perkins got the Alabama job, why he left it and how much it hurt when Tampa Bay came calling after the 1986 season and UA President Joab Thomas advised, "You should probably take that job."
He would've stayed at his alma mater had Thomas wanted him to, Hollis said. "That's how much he loved Alabama."
And if he had stayed? "With the way he recruited, he would've been there a long time, and Alabama would've won championships."
A month ago, Hollis had arranged for Perkins to visit a UAB football practice while Perkins' wife did some Christmas shopping. Before the visit, Perkins called and said he'd been coughing. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, it would be better to postpone the trip.
"We said we'd reschedule," Hollis said. "Now we can't reschedule."
All we can do is remember the man and the coach who was so much more than the sum of his good-but-not-great record and his one-dimensional reputation. No one will do the Ray Perkins story justice like his old friend Charles Hollis.