Last week, we began highlighting pieces of Erk Russell's autobiography, Erk: Football, Fans & Friends (you can find the book here) to give Georgia Southern fans a chance to learn more about the man (the first post is here).
Y'all seemed to like it and not one person wrote "really, you want us to read a post about how you're reading a book" in the comments section. So this week, we're drawing stories from the book circa 1981-1985.
All of South Georgia Was Behind the New Program
At least you get that impression from the way Erk tells it. Russell got pulled over in Metter while driving to meet with Georgia Southern President Dale Lick about becoming head coach. The cop let him out of a speeding ticket because he didn't want him to be late.
Later, Erk realized during the team's first practice nobody had purchased soap for the showers. An assistant coach ran to Piggy Wiggly, and the store gave him the items but refused payment after learning what they were for. Erk's first football office was a single-wide trailer. He was scared they'd just roll it away if he lost too many games, but hey it was donated, and check the amenities:
"We had a sink, stove and refrigerator. What other coach in America had an office complete with a stove, refrigerator and that kind of stuff?"
Erk Was Funny
Not that you thought he wasn't. He was good friends with famous Southern columnist Lewis Grizzard (my hero and the author of the book's foreword) and knew how to spin a tale.
"Two weeks later on September 16, 1981, we put out a call which read, "All y'all who are interested in coming out for football at Georgia Southern, come on out."
We were greeted by 126 of the most enthusiastic non-athletes I have ever seen in my life.
Our first session called for timing this group on the 40-yard sprint. We did this on the tennis courts because we didn't have enough football shoes to issue. The fastest 40-yard time recorded was 4:67 seconds turned in by David Shields of Waycross. He was white and I knew we were in trouble."
Georgia Southern's First Game Was Played in Dublin
Granted, football was a club sport at the time, but still. Grizzard came down for the occasion and made a pre-game speech, and afterward a bunch of Georgia Southern supporters had a grand time at a local bar.
The team played games all over the region in order to pick up fans in neighboring cities, plus it didn't have a stadium until 1984. The Eagles also played in Savannah, Augusta and Warner Robins, and were a frequent guest at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville during those early years. Statesboro High School's Womack Field served as the home field.
Georgia Southern football was a club sport until '84. Frequent opponents included Central Florida and Valdosta State, who also started football around the same time, along with Florida State's JV team and squads named the Fort Benning Doughboys and Jacksonville Magnum Force.
The Eagles' Early Offense Was Influenced by the Run and Shoot
Yes, it was an option offense, but according to the book several elements of the Run and Shoot were incorporated after an assistant coach visited the USFL's Houston Gamblers, who ran the pass-happy scheme, in the summer of 1984. Stranger than fiction, right?
Erk expressed his skepticism with a simple "not too many pure passing teams win a lot of games."
Eventually though the Run and Shoot influenced the Southern option, albeit with far less passing. The hybrid was called the Hambone, as it played to the unique talents of quarterback Tracy Ham.
Also, if you've wondered how Erk settled on the option in the first place, here it is:
"On offense I wanted to do the things that had been most troublesome for me to defend over the years... For years, as we prepared for any opponent, I found that those teams which carried a good option game in their package were much more difficult to prepare for. It takes a lot of practice to successfully defend a good option. I wanted our opponents to have that problem."
That high-powered offense would be needed. I was surprised how high-scoring most of Southern's games were in those days. Always something like 50-35 or 44-42. Must've been quite the thrill.
Paul Johnson Became Erk's Offensive Coordinator in 1985
Older fans may be doing a facepalm but this was news to me. Even if you knew this you may not have known what job he held in 1984: defensive line coach. Clearly Erk saw something he liked.
The other fascinating aspect of this is Johnson's age. He was 28 years old in the fall of 1985, and never even played college football. Future Georgia Southern head coach Tim Stowers and Erk's son Jay Russell also joined for the 1985 campaign.
Opponents Were Terrified of Eagle Creek Water
The tradition of Eagle Creek water -- filling a milk jug full of the creek's magic and sprinkling it on the opponent's home field -- was born for a road playoff game against Northern Iowa in '85. Along with the "One More Time" mantra, this was the boot the team needed. Erk told his Eagles that gnat and mosquito larvae would hatch and attack the opposition.
But it was no joke! The sprinkling of Eagle Creek water became so well known that Nevada once drew water from some river near campus and poured the stuff on its own home field to try and neutralize the effects.
It didn't work.
I'll leave you with a final excerpt, taken from right after the team returned home as 1985 national champions. Erk made a speech to the crowd gathered in Hanner Fieldhouse, reminding them it's time to get rid of any Georgia and Georgia Tech bumper stickers now that a title winner plays in town.
He then worked his way toward the back of the fieldhouse, leaned against a wall and looked around.
"This was the place I had stood five years earlier, with a borrowed football, and made a commitment.
There were tears in my eyes as I lit up a cigar."
We'll have a final post on Erk: Football, Fans & Friends next week, pulling clips from Erk's second and third national championships along with his retirement.
But really, you should probably just read the book.