Pioneering Perry

Son of NFL’s first black coach now Pistons director of player personnel

Pittsburgh Steelers
Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith will make history tonight as the first African-American head coaches to lead NFL teams to the Super Bowl. Surely you have heard the news, maybe even with a passing mention of the black head coaches who never reached the big game that will be hosted by Miami this year.

You rarely hear about the black assistant coaches, though, that came before any of them. But they were there – because no one, regardless of color, jumps straight to the top. Lowell Perry knew that.

Through hard work and perseverance, Perry built a groundbreaking resume. He was the NFL’s first black assistant coach in 1957, the first African-American color analyst with CBS Television in 1966 and the first black plant manager for the Chrysler Corporation in the 1970s. His career stretched 40 years, from sports to civic service.

Today, Lowell’s son, Scott Perry, brings his father’s values to his post as the Pistons director of player personnel. Like his father, Scott works hard and happily behind the scenes.

“He (Lowell) was someone who wasn’t looking for publicity as much as wanting to help people achieve,” Scott said. “If he happened to blaze a trail, he just wanted to make sure he did the job to the best of his abilities so that it would open up doors for other minorities.”

A Better Offer

Lowell, shown here in 1956, played only six games in the NFL.
Pittsburgh Steelers
Lowell had been out of football for some time by 1963 when Scott, the second of his three children, was born. Scott’s first memories are of his father working for Chrysler, where he held various positions for 17 years. It did not take him long to learn of his father’s exploits in football.

“Players like Buddy Young (whose number 22 is now retired by the Colts) was a friend of my dad’s and would come by the house when I was a kid,” Scott recalls. “And I just started meeting different people, and hearing the stories.”

The stories, from the fun of the locker room to the discrimination he faced outside of it, revealed much more about Lowell’s character than he did himself.

“It gave me a sense of pride, definitely self-pride,” Scott said. “But my dad was never one to talk about it or boast about it at all, because unless you do your research on it, his name doesn’t come up a lot … [but] he’s there.”

An All-American receiver at the University of Michigan in 1951, Lowell received all-service honors playing for the Air Force service team, where he also earned the rank of Second Lieutenant. Lowell’s military service delayed his pro playing career until 1956. A hip injury in only his sixth game with the Pittsburgh Steelers ended it.

“Medicine isn’t what it is today. He was unable to move for 13 weeks,” Scott said. “He said in that 13 weeks, you learn a lot about yourself. You think about your past, your future, and I think he just figured out his life forward from there.”

Lowell contemplated a comeback until a better offer came from Steelers owner Art Rooney, Sr. The legendary Steelers patriarch (or his wife) visited or called Lowell every day of his 13-week rehabilitation.

“It was at that time that (Rooney) told him as long as he owned the Steelers, my father had a job there if he really wanted one, and in 1957 he made him the first African-American coach,” Scott said.

That distinction, at a time when the Civil Rights movement was just getting underway, did not make things easy for Lowell, like when the Steelers flew to Jacksonville, Fla., for an exhibition game against the Baltimore Colts.

“On the plane midway there the head PR guy came to him and said, ‘Lowell, we’ve got a problem here. They’re not going to allow you and the other black ballplayers to stay where we’re staying. They made arrangements to put you at another hotel,’” Scott said.

The city had prepared a parade for the teams when they landed, but Lowell led the black players directly from the airport to their designated hotel, away from the team. “He took (all the black players) and said, ‘We’re not participating in any fraudulent activity like this (parade), if we’re good enough to be in the parade but we can’t stay where the rest of the team is staying,’” Scott said.

“That was a big example, but he had a number of them,” said Scott, who added that when Rooney learned of the Jacksonville incident, he vowed the team would never play in a segregated city.

“One thing that impressed me about my dad, he never harbored bitterness to whites,” Scott said. “His thing was, we’re going to keep forging ahead, and what he always told me was, ‘you are going to find there are good people, and there are bad people, and they come in all colors.’”

Already taking law classes at Duquesne, Lowell left coaching after 1957 and later received his law degree at the Detroit College of Law. His open-mindedness and law background made him a natural fit for another high-profile position in 1975 as Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He was selected for the post by another former Michigan football player, one whom Lowell had got to know quite well through alumni functions – President Gerald Ford.

”Divine Intervention or Fate”

Lowell Perry's sons Scott (85) and Lowell Jr. (41) wore his jerseys at his retirement party in 1996.
Perry Family
Scott spent seventh grade in Washington, D.C. while his father served in the Ford administration, but the Perrys soon returned to raise their family in Detroit. Lowell went on to work in the Michigan state government, including as director of the Department of Labor. Scott grew into a promising basketball player (he accepted a scholarship to Oregon, where he played one year), but Lowell cautioned his son that athletics should not be his only focus.

“Education was always a huge thing in our family,” said Scott, who graduated from Wayne State with a marketing degree. “That was his thing, ‘play ball, and play to the best of your ability, but get your education and prepare yourself for your career. Because even if you make it, that’s only going to be a short time in your life anyway.’”

Scott coached college basketball for 13 years, the last three as the head coach at Eastern Kentucky. But he continued to aspire toward the executive side of professional basketball, where he could apply his degree. It was an aspiration his father, pleased to see his son become a head coach, did not always understand.

Scott returned to his hometown when Joe Dumars, the Pistons’ new president of basketball operations, hired Scott as a scout in June of 2000. Only a month earlier Scott learned that Lowell had been diagnosed with cancer.

“It worked out, because I knew he hadn’t been doing as well, health-wise, but I hadn’t known to the degree because that was something he didn’t openly share,” Scott said. “He was always that rock.

“He had that football mentality: you could see something was wrong but it was always, ‘I’m alright, I’m fine.’ He’s from that generation that doesn’t go to the doctor or listen to the doctor, so when I was able to start working here … I don’t know whether it was divine intervention or fate, but it was something.”

Lowell passed away January 2001 at the age of 69.

“It was just something that he was able to see me get here, get started, somewhere I knew I always wanted to be,” Scott said. “And I could be back here with my mom (Maxine), so it really has been a blessing.”

His kind of style

If Lowell is watching the game tonight, Scott thinks he’ll be a Colts fan. He knew Dungy, who like Perry is a former Steeler and a Michigan native (Dungy is from Jackson; Lowell is from Ypsilanti.) Regardless of the outcome, however, he “would beam with pride” to see men like Dungy and Smith on one of the biggest world stages, Scott said. The history major from Michigan wouldn’t be able to help himself.

“Him being that way and seeing the significance of Sunday’s game, it’d make him feel proud. He’d say, ‘Hey, these guys are taking advantage of the things we were trying to do and fight for years ago,’” Scott said. “He would feel good about it because these guys are doing it the right way, with class, humility, in kind of his style.”

Millions will remember who wins the Super Bowl tonight. When they do, Lowell Perry should not be forgotten.