It's no secret the offseason in college football is entirely too long, an eight month slog through the desert with little in the way of relief other than day dreams and spring scrimmages, a.k.a. day dreams. So in an effort to turn a negative into a positive I'm using the excess free time to read about the history of Georgia Southern football, and sharing this valuable knowledge with you.
First up is the book, "Erk: Football, Fans & Friends," which was published in 1991, not long after Erk Russell won his third national title at GSC/GSU and rode off into the sunset.
The book was written by Russell himself along with former Georgia Southern administrator Ric Mandes, and is basically an autobiography. It costs a pretty penny, though if you're industrious like me you can rent a copy from the local library. Either way, I highly recommend checking it out.
Like any Georgia Southern fan I've heard the incredible story of Erk Russell a million times. He literally came to a school that did not have a football program in 1980 and retired nine years later with three national titles and about 1,000 traditions that live on today, winning foremost among them.
I picked up the book hoping to learn more about the man and to read a few stories that aren't in the regular rotation at tailgates. Needless to say, it doesn't disappoint.
Erk Grew Up in Birmingham
Today Birmingham is certainly making waves in the football ocean. But the city which once hosted the Iron Bowl is the birthplace of several legendary coaches, including Bobby Bowden and Larry Blakeney in addition to Russell. Erk begins by recounting his childhood, describing his father as a hard-working man who followed politics closely via the Birmingham News (which you probably know as AL.com).
Here we'll insert our first except from the book:
One of his theories was that socialized medicine would someday replace our present medical system. Do you suppose he was right on course?
So that's interesting.
Russell grew up Methodist and was a huge fan of the Birmingham Barons baseball team. He, of course, excelled at sports from a young age and spent most of his childhood on ball fields when he wasn't at home or at school. Erk says the famous "Do Right" phrase came from his hard-working mother.
Erk Once Held an Auburn Receiving Record
Many know that Russell was a four-sport letterman on the Plains, playing football, baseball, basketball and tennis. But did you know he once held the school record for most receptions in one season? Well he did. In 1949 Russell caught 25 passes, which was a school record. Yes, 25 passes was a school record.
They only played a nine-game schedule back then and obviously they didn't pass nearly as much. The single-game record NCAA-wide is nearly that high today and the season record is 155. Maybe it was then Russell decided passing was overrated and there might be something special about keeping the ball on the ground. Russell also played both ways, which is how it was done back in those days. In all, he earned 10 varsity letters at Auburn even though he quit baseball and basketball after getting married halfway through college.
Erk Could Predict The Future
Or at least it seems that way. After graduating from Auburn, Russell coached at Atlanta's Grady High School, returned to coach at Auburn, spent a few years at Vanderbilt and then began his 17-year run working under Vince Dooley at Georgia.
In one stretch of the book Erk talks about how much he enjoyed the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party," the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville. Then this statement appears:
We were 11-5-1 during that stretch [against Florida]. In spite of our success against Florida during that time, I always thought the Florida job might be the best coaching job in the country. I still do. Don't forget you read it here first.
Remember, this was 1991. Florida hadn't won any of its three national titles at that time, Steve Spurrier hadn't yet built the Gators into a perennial power and they were just getting started on their 20-year dominance of the Dogs. In fact, at another point in the book Russell mentions Spurrier during his playing days and writes "Florida quarterback" in parenthesis, as if the reader wouldn't know who he was.
So maybe Erk knew before anyone else how fast success would come with the Eagles, too.
Side note: It's also well-known Erk loved cigars (he's holding one on the cover of the book). Check out this classic Erk-ism:
As you read this and question my giving out cigars to the team, just remember my rule: "When it comes to smoking being harmful to one's health ... cigars don't count.
I'll try that one on my wife the next time she gives me a hard time about lighting one up. My doctor too.
Erk Nearly Became Head Coach at Georgia
As you know, the University of Georgia won the national title in 1980, Erk's last season as the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator. What you may not know is that head coach Vince Dooley had serious flirtations with Auburn, his alma mater, during that season.
The Georgia assistants were worried about what would happen to them if Dooley left. So, as Russell put it, "We decided for our own protection one of us should apply to take Vince's place, on more than an interim basis, if he should leave. We also decided it should be me."
According to the book, if Vince did leave there was a very, very strong chance Russell would have been the next head coach at Georgia. Instead, he left in 1981 to become head coach at Georgia Southern.
The move was a huge shock. The best contemporary example I can think of is someone like Bud Foster, who's in line to take over at Virginia Tech once Frank Beamer retires, leaving the school he's coached at for so long to become head coach at some football-less college in Virginia. That would never happen, right?
It probably helped that college coaching salaries were more modest at the time. Erk told Georgia Southern he'd take the job of starting the program if they could pay him one more dollar than he made at Georgia. That'd be much more difficult today.
Russell also interviewed to become head coach at The Citadel in 1967 and was a candidate to take over at NC State in 1971, a job that eventually went to none other than Lou Holtschzsch.
That's not to say he was apprehensive about taking over at Southern:
The first time I heard Georgia Southern College was thinking about starting up or returning to football is when I became interested in what was going on.
I'll do another post or two about the book later. For now, discuss amongst yourselves these incredible nuggets of history and remember One More Time how every little piece of the Georgia Southern football program still bears Erk's fingerprints.