The College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, GA is a fun trip for college football fans wandering around Atlanta. You can see the helmets from every football team in the nation, memorabilia from various events, watch video documentaries, and even try your hand at a few football skills, yourself.
What you won't find, among all of the legendary names, is mention of former Georgia Southern head coach Erskine "Erk" Russell.
Erk Russell is a legend in his own right in the state of Georgia. He was the author of the famous "Junkyard Dawg" defenses as the defensive coordinator at the University of Georgia, including in 1980 when they won the national championship. He coined the phrase "GATA" while at UGA and carried it over to Georgia Southern, afterward. He re-started Georgia Southern's football program from scratch and won a national championship at the FCS/1-AA level with them in 1985 when they had only been playing NCAA football since the 1984 season. By the time he retired in 1989, his Eagles had won three national titles, played for a fourth, and lost in the quarter-finals in the only other year (1987).
On top of all this, Erk was a fine athlete in his own right. He lettered in football, baseball, basketball, and tennis while at Auburn from 1946 through 1949. In today's age where athletes specialize in one sport or might be lucky to play two, what he did is simply unfathomable. Erk lettered in all three of what are now considered the "revenue" sports in college athletics.
After a coaching and playing career that spanned three decades and featured such accolades, you would think he would be recognized among the giants of the game, right?
Well, you would be wrong. The college football hall of fame only recognizes coaches who "have coached a minimum of 10 years and 100 games as a head coach; won at least 60 percent of their games, and be retired from coaching for at least three full seasons." Erk spent 17 years as a defensive coordinator and was Georgia Southern's head coach for only 8 seasons, two of those a club team before playing NCAA football.
The Career Coordinator
Other than Bud Foster at Virginia Tech, it's rare to see a career coordinator these days. Most coaches have dreams of running their own programs, and in the quick hire-and-fire world of college football today, they'll probably get their chances somewhere if they're successful.
That wasn't the case when Erk Russell was the defensive coordinator at Georgia. Prior to taking the Georgia Southern job, Erk had very few offers to be a head coach. He may have been next in line at UGA if Vince Dooley had actually left for Auburn in 1981, but he really did not have any "big time" offers.
How many other coordinators from his era possibly belong in the College Football Hall of Fame, but aren't there because there is only a place for head coaches, not coordinators? Surely 17 years and a national championship should count for something.
There's no addendum for his time as a coordinator. No special exemptions for the combined milestones he achieved at UGA and Georgia Southern. It appears Erk is forever destined to be ruled ineligible every year when the nominations come up.
Perhaps not, though. You see, there is a loophole. Someone pointed it out to me, once, and I've never forgotten it. Now I have a platform here from which to scream it from the mountaintops.
The wording of the eligibility requirements seems straightforward enough. In full:
Do you see it, yet? My shining hope that we can get Erk to the place he belongs?
Nowhere in those requirements does it state that the minimum years and number of games requirement as a coach has to be while a head football coach.
From 1959 to 1962, Erk Russell was the head baseball coach at Auburn University. He amassed a 59-37-1 record while in that capacity. We are now at a total of 12 years as a head coach (or 10 if you don't count the Georgia Southern club years), an overall record of 148-59-2, and a winning percentage of 71%. Those, my fellow college football fans, are the numbers of a man who is eligible for the College Football Hall of Fame.
And, if you're still a little iffy on the subject and leery about using baseball, Erk was also the head coach of Auburn's "Freshman" football team for three years, as well. That, combined with the club years at Georgia Southern, puts him over the 10-year mark, too.
A Rule Change
Perhaps the National Football Foundation wouldn't appreciate that loophole being pointed out. Perhaps special exceptions/addendums can be made. I've already mentioned the "career coordinator" aspect of Erk's career. Why couldn't special categories be made for coaches who spent a considerable number of years as both a head coach and a coordinator?
There are other coaches in the Hall of Fame with less than 10 years as a head coach. Walter Camp, Edward Hall, George Little, and Elton Wieman are all coaches with less than 10 years, though they were inducted in the early years of the Hall of Fame. I understand having specific criteria for membership but setting the number at 10 years as a head coach with no other possibilities blocks coaches who had stellar careers but did not spend a decade as a head coach.
According to the National Football Foundation website,
NOMINATIONS MAY BE MADE ONLY BY A DUES-PAYING MEMBER OF THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL FOUNDATION OR BY ATHLETICS DIRECTORS, COACHES OR CoSIDA MEMBERS REPRESENTING DUES-PAYING COLLEGES/UNIVERSITIES.
So, Tom Kleinlein and Tyson Summers from Georgia Southern, Greg McGarity and Kirby Smart at UGA, Jay Jacobs and Gus Malzahn at Auburn, any other coaches who've been at one of those schools, writers who've ever covered or written about Erk Russell, and anyone else who can and are eligible to nominate someone for the Hall of Fame, I beg of you to submit Erk Russell's name under these criteria with this loophole in mind, or continue to push for rule changes that would expand the criteria in some manner. It's too late for this year's nomination class, which is announced tomorrow, but it's enough to get a conversation and movement started to see Erk Russell's name put on the ballot next year.
It is time college football recognizes one of the best men who've been involved with the game. Let's get Erk Russell into the College Football Hall of Fame.