Statesboro, Ga.—Every time I come here, which is not nearly often enough, you not only see his presence, but you FEEL it as well.
The spirit of Erk Russell is everywhere.
When you’re having breakfast at Snooky’s, where he used to meet with his buddies for coffee every morning, Erk is there.
When you look across the street from Snooky’s at the modern practice facility that runs across Beautiful Eagle Creek, Erk is there.
When you look at a Georgia Southern campus, which had about 6,000 students before he rebuilt the football program in 1981, and now is bursting with almost 18,000, Erk is there.
Every bank, every restaurant, every dry cleaner, every gas station, and every beauty parlor in Bulloch County has some kind of memorial to the man who built a football program that won three Division I-AA national championships and set the table for other coaches, including Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson, to win several more.
Trust me when I tell you that with the possible exception of Paul “Bear” Bryant in Tuscaloosa, no college campus in America still feels a stronger presence of one man than that of Erk Russell in Statesboro. And this is 20 years after he coached his last game which, of course, ended with a national championship.
I was here over the weekend for a reunion with a large group of (Delta Tau Delta) fraternity brothers, many of whom were here before Erk turned Statesboro into a college football destination. (FYI: I began my long and undistinguished academic career at Georgia Southern before transferring to Journalism School at Georgia. I had this silly notion that I wanted to be a sportswriter).
And before I got the bags out of the car I was hit with the question: Why isn’t Erk Russell in the College Football Hall of Fame?
Tim Tucker dealt with this in his blog last week because he started getting the same feedback. As Tim correctly pointed out, the Hall says that someone must be a head coach 10 years to be eligible. I respect that.
I also know that maybe once in a lifetime, twice if you’re lucky, an individual comes along who is so extraordinary that he falls outside of the rules. Erk retired after a perfect 15-0 season in 1989, his eighth, and could have easily kept going and won a couple more national championships. He decided to step away while he was on top and turn over this gold-plated college football franchise to somebody else. That is so typical of Coach Russell.
But the reason Erk Russell should be in the Hall of Fame has nothing to do with how much hardware he put in the trophy case or how many games he won. It has everything to do with the lives he touched and with the legacy that he built here that is stronger than ever.
“Coach Russell is certainly a Hall of Famer to me,” current Georgia Southern Chris Hatcher told me when we visited Sunday morning. “All of us who have followed him have benefitted by what he built here. We know he was a great coach, but he was an even better man. That is the first thing you learn when you come here. We are all standing on his shoulders.”
There are a million Erk stories but I’ll leave you with one. Mac McWhorter played offensive guard for Georgia in the early 70s, when Coach Russell was Vince Dooley’s defensive coordinator (1964-80). When McWhorter’s playing days were over his parents received a hand-written note from Coach Russell telling them how much he enjoyed being around their son.
“Coach Russell didn’t even coach me but he took the time write my parents,” said McWhorter, now the offensive line coach at Texas. “That letter still hangs on the wall at their home.”
Last week the Hall of Fame announced its divisional class, which honors players and coaches from Division I-AA, II and III. Jim Donnan, who took Marshall to four I-AA national championship games (winning in 1992) and later was the head coach at Georgia for five seasons, was named to the Hall of Fame. He should be there.
But that announcement was also a memory-jogger, which is something we all need from time to time. And coming here this weekend to be with my fraternity brothers brought back so many memories of Erk and what an extraordinary thing he did here some 28 years ago. I have been around a lot of football coaches, but I have never met one who was more universally loved and respected. Simply put, he was the best motivator of human beings that I have ever seen.
Erk Russell, the coach and, more importantly, Erk Russell the man, should be in the College Football Hall of Fame.