By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
Editor’s note: This is another in the College Sports Journal Classic series. It was originally published in the College Sporting News on Sept. 8, 2006 after the death of legendary Georgia Southern coach Erk Russell.
One interesting historical fact is that in the conclusion, the suggestion was made to change the famous “Whose House, Our House,” to “Whose House, Erk’s House,” for the game with Central Connecticut State the night after Russell’s death. The crowd took up that prompt and honored Erk with the signature cheer.
A memorial service for Russell was held on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2006, appropriately at Paulson Stadium.
STATESBORO, GA. — If I could be anywhere in the college football world on Saturday, I would be taking a pilgrimage to Statesboro, Ga, where I’d wander over to Eagle Creek, stop and contemplate the life of one Erskine “Erk” Russell.
To the casual, uninformed observers, Eagle Creek might resemble a gnat-and mosquito-infested drainage ditch, but to the colorful Russell, this humble little tributary near the football practice field at Georgia Southern University took on mystical characteristics.
He would bottle water from what he called “Beautiful Eagle Creek” and would take it on the road, where players would sprinkle water on the opponent’s field.
From Eagle Creek, I’d venture on to the football stadium at GSU and take a gaze up at the flag poles, where six I-AA national championship banners fly. The first three were won with Russell as coach, the final three by two of his assistants, Tim Stowers and Paul Johnson.
The name of this facility may be Paulson Stadium, but everyone from Statesboro to Missoula, Mont. knows that this is the house that Erk built.
Russell, the king of the I-AA coaching fraternity, died Friday morning at the age of 80 in his beloved Statesboro of what is believed to be a massive stroke. He was pulling his Chevy Blazer away from a gas station at around 8:45 a.m. when he apparently suffered the illness. The truck swerved off the road and struck a light pole before coming to a stop.
A Statesboro police spokesman said the accident was minor and officials at East Georgia Regional Medical Center in Statesboro, where Russell was taken, said the accident did not contribute to his death.
Georgia Southern will open its 2006 season on Saturday by hosting Central Connecticut State, but it will do so without the overwhelming presence of its spiritual leader.
A memorial service for Russell will be held at Paulson Stadium on Sunday.
Russell was truly the father of the storied Georgia Southern program, the most successful football team in I-AA history.
Born in Birmingham, Ala. on July 23, 1926, Russell lettered in four sports, including football, at Auburn before starting his coaching career at Atlanta’s Grady High School. He moved on to the college ranks as an assistant at Auburn and Vanderbilt before joining Vince Dooley’s first staff at Georgia when Wally Butts retired after the 1963 season.
Russell eventually became Dooley’s defensive coordinator and the Dooley-Russell partnership flourished like a warm glove on a cold hand for 17 years.
In 1980, running back Herschel Walker keyed the offense as Georgia rolled to a national championship.
Equally important to the Bulldogs’ success was the play of the Russell-designed defense, which was nicknamed the Junkyard Dogs.
When Dooley considered an advantageous offer to move to his alma mater, Auburn, the next season, Russell appeared in line to become the next Georgia head coach. But Dooley decided to stay and Russell’s career took an unexpected turn in 1981.
Down at Georgia Southern, school officials had decided to restart a football program that had been disbanded in 1941, a victim of World War II. And they immediately cast their eyes on Russell. It proved to be love at first sight for the school and the popular coach, known for his baldheaded pate. Russell was hired on May 23, 1981.
Since he had been a young man, Russell had started each day by shaving his head. What started as a way to save money from the barber shop became a symbol of toughness for the gritty, yet lovable coach.
Known for his unique motivational techniques, one of Russell’s favorite antics was head-butting his players. Crashing that hairless scalp into the helmets of his defensive performers proved to be hazardous as Russell would occasionally come away with blood flowing down from his head, or nose.
One of the funniest sights of Russell’s career occurred in the 1987 I-AA quarterfinals when he brought his two-time defending champions to Boone, N.C. to face top-seeded Appalachian State.
It was a brutally cold day at Kidd Brewer Stadium, with heavy snow and ice turning the field into an arena better suited for Peggy Fleming than Eagle quarterback Raymond Gross.
Appalachian State ended Georgia Southern national championship reign with a 19-0 victory and Russell was photographed on the sidelines with steam literally rising from his bald head.
It was one of only 22 losses during Russell’s eight years as the Eagles’ head coach. He won his first game and GSU’s first football contest in 41 years on Sept. 11, 1982 when the Eagles beat Central Florida 16-9. Russell would go on to compile a record of 83-22-1, a winning percentage of .788.
While Russell was known for his defensive prowess at Georgia, it was his innovative triple-option offense, which he tabbed as the spread option, that became Georgia Southern’s trademark. The newfangled attack would cause defensive coaches headaches for years to come as the Eagles became the perennial leaders nationally in rushing and scoring.
In just his fourth year as a head coach, Russell guided the Eagles to their first national championship.
In perhaps the greatest title game in I-AA history, quarterback Tracy Ham led a wild comeback as GSU rallied from a 28-6 deficit versus Furman to win 44-42, scoring 38 points in the final 22 minutes at Tacoma, Wash.
With just 10 seconds remaining, Ham (23-of-37 for 419 yards and four touchdowns passing and 19 carries for 90 yards rushing) hit Frank Johnson with a 13-yard TD toss to complete the victory.
A year later, with Ham at the controls again, generating an incredible 486 yards of total offense in the championship game, Russell had his and the school’s second title with a 48-21 thrashing of Arkansas State.
In 1989, Russell added a third title. But just four days after Georgia Southern had beaten Stephen F. Austin 37-34 in Statesboro for the championship, Russell decided to retire at the age of 63.
He later admitted regretting leaving so soon, particularly when the Eagles won another title with Stowers as the head coach in 1990. Another of his assistants, brilliant offensive mind Paul Johnson, led the Eagles to three more title games (1998-2000) and two championships (1999-2000).
For most of his retirement, Russell was a visible presence on the sidelines at Paulson Stadium. But he had a falling out with Johnson’s replacement, Mike Sewak, when Sewak fired Russell’s son Rusty as the defensive coordinator after the 2003 season.
The seeds of that rift were planted in 2001 when the university selected Sewak, the offensive coordinator under Johnson, as its head coach instead of Rusty Russell.
For two years, Russell stayed away from Georgia Southern games, even missing the 20-year reunion of the 1985 championship club when the Eagles beat Furman last season on Nov. 5.
But when Sewak was fired after an 8-4 record and Brian Van Gorder was hired as the new Eagle coach, Erk buried his hatchet and returned to the program he loved.
One of Russell’s last acts came on Thursday when he gave a motivational speech to the Georgia Southern team. I don’t know if he butted heads with any players, but it would have been appropriate.
Ironically, Van Gorder had decided to scrap Russell’s triple-option attack — the only offense that Georgia Southern had run in its 25-year, revitalized football history — for a more balanced, ball-control passing game.
But if I were calling plays on Saturday, I would have the Eagles line up in that familiar spread option formation one more time on the first play from scrimmage. I’d tell my quarterback to fake the dive to the fullback and sprint around the line with one of those speedy GSU wingbacks in position to take a pitch. The play would be a thing of beauty and would serve as the perfect homage to the football genius that was Erk Russell.
With the permission of the Russell family, I-AA.org intends to name its annual coach of the year honor the Erk Russell Award. No coach deserves such an honor more than the beloved Erk.
There is a familiar cheer that rings out every Saturday the Eagles are at home. It has become one of the classic chants in I-AA.
One side of the Paulson Stadium shouts: “Whose house?”
The other side answers with equal fervor: “Our house.”
The cheer is repeated over and over again, with the crowd raising the decibel level each time until it ends with a fever’s pitch.
On Saturday, when the Eagles entertain Central Connecticut State, I’d like to hear a different chant.