Erk Russell’s Everlasting Legacy
By BJ Bennett
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Erk Russell did more than help build a football program, he brought direction to Statesboro.
Erk Russell came to Georgia Southern, known as Georgia Southern College in the early 1980s, full of energy and enthusiasm. Having developed a strong reputation as the coordinator of the University of Georgia's "Junkyard Dawgs" defense, Russell become the head coach of the Eagles in 1981. Though Georgia Southern is now known as one of the premier football programs in the country, that was far from the case just a few short decades ago. Russell, fresh off storied success in Athens, took over in Statesboro after a 40 year football hiatus.
Russell was born and bred to be a coach. A Birmingham, Alabama-native, he graduated from Auburn University as an accomplished and versatile athletic talent. There he earned ten varsity letters. He remains the last four-sport letterman in Tiger history. Russell would go on to coach football at the high school level and ultimately collegiately at his alma mater. After a short stint on the Plains, he moved to Georgia were he quickly became one of college football's most powerful personalities.
During his 17-year tenure as defensive coordinator at Georgia, Russell won a national championship ring under Vince Dooley in 1980. Often abrupt and to the point, he also warned players of the dangers of drug use by tossing a rattlesnake on the floor during a team meeting. As iconic images still depict, Russell also greeted members of the team with an occasional headbutt. It was not out of the ordinary to see the fiery leader calling plays with blood running down his forehead. Tactically, few were better. In the 192 games he coached at UGA, Russell's defenses held opponents to 17 points or less in 135 of them. For all of his schematic accomplishments, however, Russell's best abilities may have been those of relating and motivating.
"My experience with him was a little bit different in that he actually recruited me," former All-American UGA kicker Rex Robinson remembered. "I see people all different places that comment about how harsh he seemed and how he was a no-nonsense coach that yelled and screamed and that's really not true at all. He was very direct and he had that look that everyone knows about. But he never cussed, he never screamed or belittled anyone when they did something wrong. None of those defensive guys wanted to disappoint Coach Russell. Again, he was very direct but never resorted to abusing anyone like some coaches might. I think there is a little bit of a misunderstanding of how he motivated. It wasn't through intimidation or yelling or any of those things. The fact was he was able to get the most out of his guys because they loved him, they cared about him and they wanted to do their best for him."
Starting his new program from scratch, Russell hit Statesboro like a B12 shot to the buttocks. There was very little to build from, so the storied coach started with himself. Upon arriving at Georgia Southern, Russell immediately gave a faceless program a matter-of-fact mugshot, victory cigar in mouth and all. In addition to taking over a team with no identity, he stepped into a program with no infrastructure. Resources were so limited that the players were transported to each game in yellow school buses sold to the college by the Bulloch County School System for one dollar a piece. Money was scarce, so the football uniforms were plain and simple. Note that both traditions are still around today as Rusell's impact continues to resonate.
With no football history to build on since before World War II, the Eagles were in desperate need of motivation, a tangible rallying point of some sort. Even at a place limited in scope, Russell, by God, found that source. An eyesore of a drainage ditch dug right by the practice fields was one that Georgia Southern players had to cross everyday before workouts. In Russell's infinite wisdom, he deemed the trench "Beautiful Eagle Creek". This gulley became an overwhelming point of pride for the program, so much so that, starting in 1985 with a playoff game at Northern Iowa, the Eagles would bring water from the creek in a jug and sprinkle it on their opponent's field in high-profile road games.
Russell would win 83 games in eight years as the head coach at Georgia Southern, winning three national championships along the way. His 1989 team went a perfect 15-0, beating the likes of Middle Tennessee, Central Florida and Marshall along the way. Beyond the numbers, he, at a school starting over, laid the framework for one of the most dominant programs in all of college football. Tim Stowers would win a national title the year after Russell left. Now Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson would win back-to-back championships in 1999 and 2000. Current GSU head football coach Jeff Monken has had the Eagles in the national semifinals in consecutive years.
Today, a bronze bust of Russell watches over Allen E. Paulson Stadium. The area around the facility is now known as "Erk Russell Athletic Park". A statue of the coach in his famed "One More Time" t-shirt will be unveiled in the plaza soon. More over, the Georgia General Assembly renamed U.S. Highway 80 from its intersection with U.S. Highway 25 around Statesboro as "Erk Russell Memorable Highway". Despite his death in 2006, Russell's presence remains a profound one in the state of Georgia.
"It takes you about a day or two," acknowledged the 2007 Walter Payton Award winner Jayson Foster of how long it takes to be aware of all that Russell accomplished. "Once you walk in football office, you get to see all of the great things together that he was apart of. You see the championships, you see so many of the articles. You quickly learn what Georgia Southern football is about. Every article or anything you hear about, Erk Russell is going to be mentioned."
For Foster, one of the all-time greats in Georgia Southern history, Russell's recent birthday on July 23rd brought back vivid memories. The day before Russell died of a stroke on September 8th at the age of 80, the coaching legend spoke to the Eagle football team about the start of the year. He provided perspective with his words, but passion more than anything else.
"The day before we heard he passed away, he came in and gave a speech to the team in the team meeting room. It was a passionate speech. He talked about beautiful Eagle Creek and how they had to build around something. He had a motivational speech for us, getting us ready for the season," Foster remembered. "You could tell he was definitely ready to get the season underway, he was looking forward to it. I think he bled blue and white and he was just ready for the Eagles take the field again. I'm sure he would have loved to have been there to see us take the field."
Though some of the players on the roster weren't even born when Russell's run at Georgia Southern concluded, the impact he had on the team was quite profound.
"Anytime you were in his presence it was an honor to be there and he gave you that thrill to be a Georgia Southern Eagle," Foster added.
Russell did more than help build a football program, he brought direction to Statesboro. With him came attitude, confidence, focus and intensity. With Russell's birthday having just passed and the start of another season on the horizon, it's a fitting time to reflect on all that Russell did. He brought pride to the Georgia Southern football program. Most of all, even on the eve of his death, he brought life. It's a sentiment still with the Eagles to this day.