Why Erk should be in the Hall of Fame

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

114 comments Add your comment

Steve

May 18th, 2009
8:22 am

Great article about a great man!

No BCS

May 18th, 2009
8:24 am

A Hall of Fame that counts Bobby Bowden’s first 31 wins as Div 1 victories, should find some room in their loop hole to allow Erk’s assistant coaching days to count toward his eligibility.

BugKiller

May 18th, 2009
8:33 am

Even though I’m a little young to fully appreciate Coach Russell, I often wonder what would have happened to the Bulldog Program had Russell accepted (or been offered, depending on who’s story you accept as truth) the Head Coaching job after Coach Dooley retired.

Would he have been able to keep the team going in the face of the monsters that Tennessee and Florida were about to become?

Would he have been able to change his defensive philosophy enough to keep pace with the fun’n'gun?

Who knows. But I do know this: the team would have been better off than it was in the Goff years, and unlike Goff, Erk would have been someone that Steve Spurrier respected, win or lose.

buckblue

May 18th, 2009
8:33 am

If he was so good then why did’nt UGA make him their headcoach after Dooley???????????????????

Dink

May 18th, 2009
8:34 am

Great article Tony, thanks.

Atlanta Gator

May 18th, 2009
8:43 am

“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.”

Tony—-Erk Russell was a fine football coach, and deserving of being in the Hall of Fame, but you overstate your case. I think you need to qualify your statement as only applying to football coaches. If you have ever spent any time on the grounds of the University of Virginia, you would have a broader perspective on just how great the influence of one man (Thomas Jefferson) on a university can be. Washington & Lee alumni feel a similar reverence for Robert E. Lee, whose efforts singlehandedly saved the college from post-bellum bankruptcy and academic irrelevance.

I am certain that the alumni of many other universities feel similarly about the founders of (or other formidable influences on) their schools. Erk Russell was a great college football coach (and DGD), but he is not in the same category of university-builder as Jefferson, Lee and others.

I know this is only a football blog, but let’s try to keep at least on foot firmly planted in the larger reality.

[...] Tony Barnhart of the AJC thinks that Erk Russell should be in the Hall of Fame. [...]

David

May 18th, 2009
8:45 am

Tony, the word “great” applies to only a few and is all too often used to describe many. “Erk” is one of the few that are deserving of that adjective and it’s a no-brainer that he belongs in the College Football Hall of Fame. His absence diminishes the honor of those who have been installed in the College Football Hall of Fame before him. Thanks for continuing this discussion and maybe we can make sure this omission is rectified soon! Go Eagles and Go ‘Dawgs!

TheStinger

May 18th, 2009
8:46 am

If it weren’t for Loran Smith Erk would already be in the HOF.

Mac

May 18th, 2009
8:47 am

His football accomplishments are over-the-top impressive. The stories about how he inspired people far exceed those accomplishments. Yes, Erk Russell should be in the hall of fame.

Mikey

May 18th, 2009
8:53 am

Great story Tony.
I live about a half hour from the Boro and I always feel something special when I go there.

Kid Ray

May 18th, 2009
9:01 am

meh, I’d rather read about ACC or SEc football. Not your finest article TB. better luck tomorrow.

Bill

May 18th, 2009
9:02 am

When I go to Statesboro I feel his presence as well.I was lucky enough to see many games Erk coached at GSU.His teams were well prpared,fought hard and never gave up.

The day he died an entire reigon of this state mourned.

If he isn’t in the Hall,there should not be a Hall to begin with.

Joe T

May 18th, 2009
9:10 am

As a Georgia Southern Alum, I couldn’t agree more. I am not sure people can understand what a motivator he really was. When you hear of ex-players @ Ga. Southern talk about crying so hard after a pre-game speech, welling with pride and a committment to play all out, because of how Coach Russell spoke to them speaks volumns. The man is an absolute, without-a-doubt Hall of Famer!

[...] Tony Barnhart of the AJC thinks that Erk Russell should be in the Hall of Fame. [...]

JB

May 18th, 2009
9:27 am

would have loved to see him lead the Dawgs against those great Spurrier teams. That would have been fun……….

Norm Carlson

May 18th, 2009
9:41 am

Tony–Good article on Erk. Agree with everything you wrote about him as a coach and a man. It would have been something to see the Junkyard Dawgs vs. the Fun N/ Gun. Norm

Rob

May 18th, 2009
9:44 am

Amen Tony. Amen.

Jeff

May 18th, 2009
10:06 am

Erk was loved and respected by all who knew him. He built a program that many 1-A fans fail to appreciate. Georgia Southern is a special place and through football, Erk built and unified the Eagle Nation to the point that our fans, while smaller in number are just as passionate as those of the major conferences. Thanks for paying tribute to one of the greatest college football coaches of all time. GO EAGLES! One More Time!

G8R GRAD

May 18th, 2009
10:20 am

An Exerpt from today’s AJC:

“When people ask me the question, ‘Do you really think [Jacksonville] is a neutral site?’, I say, ‘No, it’s not neutral,’ ” Richt said. “When you play in the state of Florida every year — we fly, they drive; it’s hotter for us, it’s cooler for them.”

First of all, I don’t want to hear any more “Urban Crier” remarks from UGA fans, and secondly, I didn’t hear any of y’all whining about field neutrality when you were kicking our fannies every year before 1990!

Zombie Erk Russell

May 18th, 2009
10:32 am

I must eat G8R GRAD’s brains. Must. Eat. Brains.

Please no one shot me in the head. Seriously. I’m a zombie, but I’m still one of the greatest coaches of all time.

Brrainss!

Zombie Erk Russell

May 18th, 2009
10:33 am

Shots or shoots. Dang it.

Greg Allman

May 18th, 2009
10:34 am

“Woke up this mornin’, had them Statesboro blues . . . .”

JB

May 18th, 2009
10:36 am

G8R Grad::::: That was then ,this is now……That was Dooley, now it’s Evans and Richt…. Nobody knows more than Geaorgia fans the dominance you guys have had on us the last 15 or 18 years or so.
put the shoe on the other foot…..Let’s say we had won the last 15 of 18 AT THE GEORGIA DOME. I think you would be a little more flexible in your thinking. It’s in Florida….It’s at the OLD Gator bowl.
We have to change things on the field, not here. I ( personally) don’t know if Richt can do that on a regular basis…….but alot of other SEC teams can’t either…………………………….

bank walker

May 18th, 2009
10:37 am

Erk should have been in the Hall of Fame before anyone!

RxDawg

May 18th, 2009
10:39 am

Ah Tony, I too am a GSU to UGA guy. This article brought back some good memories of Statesboro. It’s been too long since I’ve returned there as well. Thanks for the great read.

G8R GRAD

May 18th, 2009
10:47 am

JB:

Let’s review:

It’s a NEUTRAL FIELD!

Jacksonville is as much South Georgia as it is North Florida, geographically.

Your fans have enjoyed staying at their beach condos and homes for the game for decades, the crowd is always nearly 50/50 in attendance and a large time is had by ALL.

And ,as stated above, we DID wear the shoe on the other foot – for decades!

Old Blue

May 18th, 2009
10:49 am

Erk could have been successful as a stand-up comedian, a motivational speaker, a wig salesman or just about any other vocation that required human relations where honesty, sincerity and scrutiny of purpose was demanded. Instead, fate allowed him to be one of the great football coaches of all time and a reason for Statesboro to still be in existance.

murfdawg

May 18th, 2009
10:55 am

Tony,
Erk has his own hall of fame. Just talk to anyone who played for him and, to a man, they will tell you how much they absolutely love the man. I think he would be satisfied with that legacy instead of some placque on the wall in the same building that has one for Donnan.

Unfortunately, the hof people did not follow Erk’s number one rule.Do what is right!

JB

May 18th, 2009
10:58 am

G8r…..all you say is true…………..Us losing a lot has jaded the NEW men in charge…….You guys would have won on ANY field, but I’m telling you the politics are bigger than you and I on this Blog.
The game is not going anywhere. The OLD money people at Georgia like the trip and Tradition. The young ones like it to. You guys have had something special down there the last 15 years or so, and we’ve been trying to get a seat at the table….If Richt would have been able to beat you guys 3 or 4 times, we wouldn’t be talking about this. I think we’ll give you guys a better game this year. open date
and being humiliated last year will do wonders.

Eric

May 18th, 2009
11:03 am

Let Erk speak for himself!

Our House

May 18th, 2009
11:04 am

PTC DAWG

May 18th, 2009
11:07 am

Erk was the glue that kept Dooley’s teams together. A truly great person. His work at Georgia Southern speaks for itself.

birddawg92

May 18th, 2009
11:09 am

Tony-

As a Georgia Southern grad and son of a UGA grad, like you, I have deep allegiances to both places, and Erk in the Hall of Fame is a no-brainer, as I said in response to Tuckers’ blog (I think I mistakenly called him Towers in my response) last week. I wasn’t an athlete but a crossed paths with Coach Russell a couple of times at school, and he was never a stranger to anybody. Y’all make it happen.

Georgia News - 5/18/09 | MrSEC.com

May 18th, 2009
11:10 am

[...] believes former Georgia defensive coordinator (and Georgia Southern head coach) Erk Russell should be in the College Football Hall of Fame.Former UGA basketball coach Dennis Felton has declined an offer to coach Nigeria’s national [...]

Gator Nation

May 18th, 2009
11:12 am

Tony,

That would be an interesting piece to do. An article on coach’s who have left lasting and permanent impressions on an institution.

As a gator I have frequently have a debate with friends regarding who is the more important coach for the University of Florida football program: Spurrier or Meyer? If Meyer continues his current level of achievement, he will without a doubt be Florida’s most successful coach. But would he even be at Florida if there wasn’t a Spurrier?

I’m sure there any many schools that can have similar debates.

G8R GRAD

May 18th, 2009
11:13 am

“..Us losing a lot has jaded the NEW men in charge..”

I understand, but from an older Gator like myself, I remember UGA’s similar dominance from 1970 to 1989, when you beat us 15 out of 19.

I got to enjoy the Georgia perspective recently by travelling with some Geargia fans (good friends), staying on St Simon’s, going to the game and returning to a great meal and a stay at the beach.

You guys have it down to a science! What are you complaning about?

Anyway, good luck in the fall.

G8R GRAD

May 18th, 2009
11:17 am

Sorry, from 1971 to 1989.

Dusty

May 18th, 2009
11:25 am

Great article! There will never be another Erk. The last 4 sport letterman while at Auburn. Legendary coordinator while at UGA. Father of the entire GSU football program. One of the greatest motivators of all time. There should be no hall without Erk.

Pat Donahue

May 18th, 2009
11:30 am

As a fellow writer, I am a little uneasy commenting on the blog of another journalist. But I will do this openly because, as a young sportswriter with the Statesboro Herald in the late 1980s, I can’t imagine what covering the Eagles would have been like without Erk.
I didn’t play a snap for him and I would then as I would now run through a brick wall for that man if he had asked me to do so. He remains, to this day, one of the most profound influences on my life.
Tony, thanks for taking up the good cause of finding a way into the Hall of Fame for Erk. I could not have said it better myself than how you summarized just what Erk meant to everyone who played for him — and didn’t play for him.

Tide rising

May 18th, 2009
11:32 am

Tony,

Good article. I don’t know much about Erk Russell except that several of my Georgia buddies revere him and if he does carry the same amount of presence at GSU as Bear does at Bama then by all means let the man in. I have noticed though from what I’ve heard and read about the man that just like Bear he was a winner but what really made the man just like Bear was the human interest stories such as the one about the note he wrote to the players parents in your post today.

When the few people in Bama that remember Bear talk about him I notice that they never talk about a particular game or season. They always talk about a human interest story such as something Bear said or did for somebody or the way he influenced a young man. That is what people talk about and that is what actually distinguished the man. I suspect the same is true of Erk Russell

JB and G8RGRAD,

I hope they don’t move the Jax game. I’m still planning on going down there one year for the experience with some Georgia buddies. Programs ebb and flow and so do winning streaks and streaks of dominance. The series will more than likely tighten up again sooner or later, the frustration of some UGA fans will ease a bit, and all that talk about either moving the series periodically to ATL or some fans talking about going to a complete home and home will stop also.

Got 12?

May 18th, 2009
11:39 am

From a new observer who simply enjoys watching the game, how about doing away with the 50-50 ticket allotment and using this rotating schedule:

Athens
Jacksonville
Gainesville
Atlanta

No BCS

May 18th, 2009
11:46 am

I was fortunate to go to the Georgia-Florida game last year and even though the Bulldogs got slaughtered, I had a good time in Jacksonville. However, I hate the idea of “neutral” fields. I would much rather have the Florida game included in my season ticket package every other year. I would even enjoy going to the Swamp to see the game one year just for the experience. Jacksonville’s ok, but nothing in my opinion beats a home game AT HOME.

Dean

May 18th, 2009
11:50 am

Great article. You could probably write a Erk Story every week from here to football season and all fans of college football would enjoy it. As a poster posed above I firmly believe that if Erk had accepted the job after Dooley’s retirement then the 90’s would of been a differenct story for UGA. I think the SEC East would of been a 3-headed monster with Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee. It would of been great to see Spurrier and Erk match wits. I have to believe that some day Erk will be admitted to the Hall of Fame. He’s got to be one of the best to ever coach the game!

G8R GRAD

May 18th, 2009
11:51 am

Got 12?:

Remeber all the great UA/AU games at Legion Field in Birmingham?
What a hoot!
Don’t you miss it?

egeagle

May 18th, 2009
11:52 am

We talk about his 3 championships, and do we realize that , while they are 1-AA, they were ALL earned on the field? Like this hall business, if GSC/U hadn’t won these titles on the field, people would not recognize them. A sixteen-team playoff works wonderfully for FCS, or 1-AA.
Erk’s spirit and drive permeates GSU’s academic and athletic “identity” As a school, it’s a runt which tries harder.
As for the few trolls, you know not of which you speak. I guess Zombie Erk has already isited y’all.

Dean

May 18th, 2009
11:56 am

I’m a UGA fan but feel compelled to remark on the Urban versus Spurrier debate. Any Florida fan that would say that Urban is the greater coach has no respect for where that program was before he got there. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say Florida was similar to South Carolina. Of course, more successfull but never able to get any consistency going. Spurrier changed all that and he did it while Florida State and Miami were super powers. Urban would not be at Florida if it wasn’t for Spurrier. I can’t stand Spurrier but he built that program and is the main reason it is what it is today. Urban did not build the program, he is a great coach reaping the rewards of what Spurrier started.

G8R GRAD

May 18th, 2009
11:57 am

No BCS:

We did alternate while Jacksonville was upgrading its field for the Jag’s and it was fun, but the trip to the WLOCP is steeped in tradition (those of us who can remember through the fog of over-revelry).
UGA amd UF have been meeting there since 1933, for Pete’s sake!
HOW can you call for its repair, if it’s not broken?

Roswell Ed

May 18th, 2009
12:03 pm

If you want to read more about Erk’s accomplishments check out what I wrote about him in the sports section of my blog last week bigedsblog.com

AGTFan

May 18th, 2009
12:25 pm

I’m a Tech fan. Erk Russell deserves to be in the college HOF. He is the only coach who coached college football in the state of GA that ranks with Coach Dodd.