Ray Perkins, who spent nearly four decades as a college and N.F.L. coach and was best known for succeeding Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama, his alma mater, died on Wednesday at his home in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He was 79.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Rachael Perkins, who did not specify the cause but said he had struggled with heart problems in recent years.
A hard-driving coach in the mold of Bryant, his mentor, Perkins did not enjoy as much success as a coach as he did as a player, when he won championships with the Crimson Tide and later with the Baltimore Colts. Though he spent many years on winning teams as a positions coach and offensive coordinator, he had a losing record in his eight years as an N.F.L. head coach, with his teams qualifying for the postseason just once.
His first stint as a head coach, with the New York Giants, was not an overwhelming success. He was 23-34 in four seasons, including a 9-7 record in 1981, when the team made the playoffs. But Perkins developed several players who formed the core of the Giants’ 1986 Super Bowl-winning team, including quarterback Phil Simms and linebackers Harry Carson and Lawrence Taylor. He also hired the future head coaches Bill Belichick, Romeo Crennel and Bill Parcells, who succeeded him in 1983.
Perkins returned to Alabama that year to take over for Bryant. In his four years in Tuscaloosa, his teams won two-thirds of their regular-season games and three bowl games.
But compared with Bryant, who turned the Crimson Tide into a national powerhouse during his quarter-century there, Perkins had only middling success at Alabama. His teams were never in contention for a national title, finishing in the top 10 only once. In his second season, Alabama finished 5-6; it was the team’s first losing season since 1957, the year before Bryant took over the program.
Perkins left Alabama after four years and returned to the N.F.L. in 1987, this time to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With the additional title of vice president of player personnel, he had an even harder time winning games, going 19-41 as head coach in four seasons in Tampa.
Perkins spent one losing season coaching at Arkansas State and seven years as an offensive coordinator and position coach with the New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns. After more than a decade away from the sidelines, he resumed coaching in 2012 at a junior college and then at Oak Grove High School in Hattiesburg, Miss., near where he had grown up. He fully retired from football in 2017.
Through his long career, Perkins earned a reputation as a workaholic, studying film of practices and games often at the expense of his family.
“I don’t remember taking a vacation,” he told The New York Times in 1979, when he took over the Giants. Then he remembered one: “There was a week once in Toledo Bend — that’s in a corner of Louisiana and Texas.”
Walter Ray Perkins was born on Nov. 6, 1941, in tiny Mount Olive, Miss. — “the middle of nowhere,” he once said — the second of three children born to Woodrow and Emogene (Lingle) Perkins. His father was a carpenter, and his mother was a homemaker. When Ray was 3 the family moved to to Petal, Miss., a suburb of Hattiesburg.
He played running back on the football team at Petal High School and won a scholarship to Alabama. Bryant moved him to wide receiver after a serious head injury during his freshman season required surgery, with doctors drilling three holes in his skull to relieve the pressure. Perkins become a cornerstone of Alabama’s offense between 1964 and 1966, the heyday of the tough-nosed Bryant’s tenure there.
Perkins was a teammate of the future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, and was chosen as an All-American in 1966. Alabama won the Southeastern Conference title in all three of Perkins’s seasons and was national champion in 1964 and 1965.
While his college statistics — 63 catches for 908 yards and 9 touchdowns — were modest compared with those of players in today’s pass-first offenses, Perkins, in the reflective glow of having played at Alabama, was picked in the seventh round of the N.F.L. draft by the Baltimore Colts, who were in the midst of their own heyday, led by the star quarterback Johnny Unitas and Coach Don Shula (who died in May).
Unitas was wary of young receivers, but he took an immediate shine to Perkins, who had good speed and an intuitive grasp of the game.
“I could tell right away when he came to the team that he looked like he had been playing for four or five years in the N.F.L.,” said Upton Bell, the Colts’ director of player personnel in those years. “Forget Shula, you had to please Unitas, and he stepped right in.”
Perkins played five seasons at wide receiver and appeared in eight playoff games, including Super Bowl V, when the Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys, 16-13, for their lone title in Baltimore.
After several knee surgeries, Perkins finished his N.F.L. career in 1971 with 93 catches for 1,538 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Perkins’s first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Rachael, from his second marriage, he is survived by his second wife, Lisa Perkins; two sons from his first marriage, Martin Anthony Perkins, known as Tony, and Michael Ray Perkins, who works for the Jacksonville Jaguars of the N.F.L.; another daughter from his second marriage, Shelby Perkins; a sister, Susan Thornton; and two grandchildren. Another sister, Shirley Sellers, died in 2007.