By Gus Hergert

“Crusty” is the first word in the official family obituary to describe Walter Ray Perkins. “Crusty” is how many people will remember Coach Perkins. It is what was under the crust of Ray Perkins I saw, and which made the biggest difference in my life and career.

Those who knew Coach Ray Perkins saw the steely blue eyes you would get if you did something that just was not up to Perkins’ standards or the way he expected you to conduct yourself. Coach had a clear vision of the way he wanted his tenure at Alabama to proceed and the path he would follow. We were all expected to walk that path directly or get off it.

My close working relationship with Coach Ray Perkins began during his second season at Alabama. In 1984, at the ripe old age of 25, I was hired as sports director of a brand-new television station in Tuscaloosa, WDBB, which was founded, in part, by David R. DuBose, who is now the local market president at Townsquare Media Tuscaloosa.

Coach Perkins saw something in me – and decided to give an assignment regarding Alabama athletics. “You will put together a coach’s (TV) show for Wimp (Sanderson) because he doesn’t have one.”  Those were my marching orders. I did so and it led to everything else good under Perkins. Coach Perkins personally reached out to organize sponsors to fund Coach Sanderson’s television show. Perkins was committed to Alabama and his friends.

Not long into a nice run of The Wimp Sanderson Show, Perkins called one morning and invited me to breakfast. It would be the first of many. Coach inquired as to what it would take to produce The Ray Perkins Show out of our WDBB-TV facility in Tuscaloosa, and he wanted to know if we could put together a show that looked good, like so many other football coaches’ shows of that era. “Of course!” I told him – just what any 25-year-old would say.

As former WDBB General Manager David DuBose recalled last week “It was a huge boost to our fledgling independent TV station. We met for lunch at the Cypress Inn and over a bowl of turnip greens, I mustered the courage to ask Coach Perkins if WDBB Sports Productions needed a written contract. Coach reached his hand across the table and said, "my word is my bond.”  Perkins honored that agreement by never missing a payment.

Certainly, I got whacked for doing things I thought were correct - only to be told they were not. I had to learn the nuances of Ray Perkins. I never learned fully but having grown up in the house of a West Point graduate and command officer, I was used to men who were stern and tough. Lessons could come privately or publicly from Coach Perkins.

There was one time I thought that Perkins was going to fire me. Coach assigned me the job of producing a short football recruiting film. I was told to make a list of former Alabama (never Bama) football players who would make a good impression and interview them for the film. At the end of the film, Coach would give a two-minute speech about Alabama football that might get the attention of the player and his parents.

Later that week, I presented my interview list to Coach in person. The list included names like Joe Namath, Bart Starr, Kenny Stabler and Lee Roy Jordan. Perkins placed a checkmark next to those he wanted and struck those he did not. Halfway down the list, he came to the name Pat Trammel. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Gus, Pat is dead.”  Talk about feeling two inches tall. I knew Trammel’s name was on the high school stadium in Scottsboro and he had been a great player and wonderful person. Clearly, I did not know his full background.

I was unprepared because I had not completed my due diligence before giving my list to Coach. I took an awfully hard swallow of a very dry throat. I had let Perkins down. Rather than Perkins’ steel blue eyes that indicated a deserved dressing down, I received kindness that was unexpected.

“Pat was possibly the best man I’ve ever known,” Perkins said. “You were correct to include him as someone this film should have representing our football team, but we lost Pat and I miss him to this day”.

That moment will remain seared in my brain for the rest of my life. Through this exchange with Coach Perkins, I learned that kindness over harshness is often preferred. It sounds like such a small thing, but exceptional performance was expected. Mediocrity was not tolerated. All of those around him saw both sides of Perkins. They saw tough love. They saw tougher love. They saw the dreaded steel blue-eyed stare. What many people may not have seen was that his depth of kindness was just as strong.

I was young, married and never had enough money. Coach would halve post-season Ray Perkins Show revenues with me even though he had no requirement to do so. He was just that kind and thoughtful.

Many have wondered where Alabama football would have gone if Ray Perkins had not left. It is true that Coach Perkins laid the foundation for a lot of the post-Coach Bryant success that Alabama enjoys today, from the creation of the Tide Pride program to the construction of the new football operations building, from the construction of the indoor practice facility to what would become the first of many additions and renovations to Bryant-Denny Stadium.

I, too, often wonder where I would have gone if not for Ray Perkins. He helped strengthen my foundation. He is directly responsible for the success that would follow my career and life. I was always prepared, worked hard and never accepted mediocrity. I pushed my staff hard and myself harder. I have shared those life lessons from Coach Perkins with staff, friends, and my children. Without Ray Perkins and his kindness toward me, I could not have become the man I am today. He was my first and most valued mentor. Others have had influence on me, but Ray Perkins had the most profound impact by far.

Yes, Walter Ray Perkins was “crusty.” There was that layer, just under the crust, that will make me miss him every day for the rest of my life. Vaya con Dios, Coach.

Gus Hergert served as the Executive Producer and host of The Ray Perkins Show and Executive Producer of The Wimp Sanderson Show. In addition, Gus produced and directed all of the video products used by Alabama Football under Coach Perkins and performed TV play-by-play for Alabama football, baseball and basketball during the mid-1980s. Hergert is now a retired Emmy Award-winning Sportscaster and former National Heisman Trophy Elector living in Huntsville, Alabama.

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