That will always be Ray Perkin’s legacy at Arkansas State, which isn’t very fair because, as a player, the man won two Super Bowls and two national college football championships. He replaced Bear Bryant as coach of Alabama, compiled a solid 32-15-1 record, and went on the become head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But in Jonesboro, he’s known for a fence: Fort Perkins.
Ray Perkins and I arrived to Jonesboro together in 1992. (He a celebrity football coach and I a freshman English major, our paths never crossed.) At the time, Arkansas State had transitioned from Div 1-AA to Div 1-A, which is “FCS to FBS” in 90’s parlance. The program wanted a splash hire, and Perkins was the man.
But he wasn’t the man for building an FBS program from such base and brittle materials. The Indians had just come off a 1-10 season with losses to powerhouses like Southwestern Missouri State and Northwestern State. The program wasn’t even close to competition shape, and quite frankly, nobody outside of Jonesboro really gave a shit about Arkansas State football.
So, yeah, eyebrows were raised when Coach Perkins constructed a wooden privacy fence surrounding the football practice field. The reason given: to discourage opponents from spying on the team. We didn’t have opponents! We didn’t have much of anything. Arkansas State was the farthest planet in the Universe from the NFL and Alabama. For Perkins, it was like falling asleep at the Bellagio and waking up at a Motel 6.
The first game under Coach Perkins was a 0-49 loss to Toledo. The Indians didn’t score a single point until game 4, against Southern Illinois in Jonesboro. I was at that historic game. The moment we scored, a message appeared on the scoreboard “WE FINALLY SCORED!” It was cause for celebration. We rode that score to a 42-38 victory.
It would be one of two victories on the season, the second coming at the expensive of Southwestern Louisiana (you may know them as the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns). After the game, the season’s finale, Perkins is quoted to have said, “I’m especially glad for the seniors, to let them go out on a winning note. They’ve had to put up with a lot of crap in the four or five seasons they’ve been here.”*
Perkins signed a three-year contract, but he would bail on Arkansas State for the New England Patriots the day before National Signing Day, which won him exactly zero friends in Jonesboro. In an act of what might have been sweaty desperation, the university signed John Bobo, who may be best known for leading A-State to a tie against Mississippi State.
With Perkin’s departure came the dismantling of Fort Perkins. The materials were used to construct a privacy fence surrounding married housing. He was our first one-and-done, at least on the FBS level. Guys like Hugh Freeze, Guz Malzahn and Bryan Harsin would later carry that torch. But nobody beats an original.
*Thanks for finding that quote, Kara Richey