Erk Russell: He Turned Lemons into Lemonade
Three years ago, the University of Georgia football program lost one of its greatest Bulldogs of all time. Erskine “Erk” Russell was Georgia’s defensive coordinator for 17 seasons and, during this time, became one of the most highly-regarded and renowned assistant coaches in the game.
In the late 1970s, I actually met Erk once, sort of, when I was just a few years old. His wife was a friend of my mother’s and the Russells were invited to our house for dinner. Even today, my father often reminds me how lucky I was to sit in the lap of the great Coach Russell.
While in college, Russell earned 10 letters at Auburn University and still remains the school’s last four-sport letterman. Following a few coaching positions, Erk arrived with new head coach Vince Dooley at Georgia in 1964 to coordinate the Bulldogs’ defense. The Georgia football program needed to be revitalized as it had suffered seven losing seasons the previous nine years.
Through the 1980 season, with Russell as a major contributor, UGA football was turned into one of the better programs in the country. Erk then went off on his own to small, Division III Georgia Southern College, where he helped elevate a second football program to national prominence.
In the 17 seasons and 192 games while at Georgia, Erk’s defenses held more than 43 percent of the opposition to 10 points or less, including 26 shutouts. The Bulldogs also finished in the nation’s top 10 in scoring defense in five seasons.
Russell’s defenses were normally not all that physically talented but were extremely emotional and aggressive. His “Junkyard Dogs” defensive unit of 1975 and “Runts” of 1976 were small in stature but gritty and determined and strained their full potential to help Georgia win 19 of 22 regular-season games.
Foremost, Erk was a master at communicating with and motivating his players. He devised Georgia’s big “TEAM” little “me” t-shirts, proclaiming the team is always bigger and more important than an individual player. His shaven, bald head was often bleeding, since he frequently rammed it against the helmets of players during pregame drills to motivate them for the game at hand.
Russell was “like an institution,” according to ABC-TV color analyst Lee Grosscup in 1981. “I kind of miss him along the sidelines with that bald head of his that was always bloodied.”
His last game at Georgia was a 17-10 win over Notre Dame in the 1981 Sugar Bowl for the national championship. In the spring of 1981, he accepted the head coaching position at Georgia Southern College (later Georgia Southern University) in Statesboro. With it he acquired an inactive football program that had not fielded a team since 1941. Erk had left the Bulldogs to pursue and tackle a much bigger challenge.
Although Georgia Southern’s exhibition season opener of 1981 was not until mid-November, while asked to attend, Erk thought it would be better if he did not make an appearance at Georgia’s first game versus Tennessee in Athens. The bald Russell was tempted, however, and joked he might go to the game in disguise if he “could wear a toupee.”
As the Bulldogs began the 1981 season by allowing only 225 yards per game and three touchdowns through the first five contests, Georgia’s defense seemed as dominant as it had while under the guidance of Erk. A newspaper reported that although Russell was physically absent from the Dogs, he surely had a “vicarious presence” with the ’81 defense.
New defensive coordinator Bill Lewis was speaking almost weekly to Russell and asking his advice. “He’s a true authority on our defense,” said Lewis. “As far as I’m concerned, he wrote the book on the Split 60 defense (Georgia’s defensive formation).”
Head coach Erk Russell’s first game in 1981 was against Florida State’s junior varsity. Since it was a lower division football program, Georgia Southern could not grant football scholarships. Florida State’s JV, on the other hand, had several scholarship players.
Erk’s squad surprisingly led late in the game until Florida State scored two touchdowns in the final 90 seconds to win, 30-20. After the loss, Russell was not satisfied with the moral victory and declared, “I hope our people don’t ever feel good about losing.”
While Erk coached Georgia Southern, the “people” likely never felt good about losing because they rarely had to endure defeat. The Eagles moved to Division II in 1983 and then onto Division I-AA the following season. In only its fourth season of football after four decades of being dormant, Georgia Southern won the national title in 1985.
For an encore to the championship season, Erk’s Eagles won their second consecutive national championship in 1986. Following a 9-4 campaign in 1987, Georgia Southern won 12 games in 1988 and made another appearance in the national title game, losing to Furman.
In Erk Russell’s final year in 1989, the Eagles recorded a perfect 15-0 record, including a defeat of Stephen F. Austin 37-34 for a third national championship in only five seasons. Four days following the title win, Erk decided to retire at the age of 63.
In just eight seasons as Georgia Southern’s head coach, Russell compiled an 83-22-1 (.788) overall record and made four trips to the Division I-AA national title game in his final five seasons, winning three. Most significantly, he took a once lifeless football program and built it into excellence, an achievement similar to what Erk assisted with at Georgia a quarter-century prior to his retirement in 1989.
On Sept. 8, 2006, Erk Russell passed away in Statesboro at the age of 80. A day later, in honor of Russell, Georgia players wore a black “ERK” decal on the back of their helmets against South Carolina in Columbia. Georgia paid a fitting tribute to Russell by shutting out the Gamecocks 18-0, reminiscent of Erk’s “Junkyard Dogs” of three decades before.
It was Georgia’s first shutout over a conference opponent on the road since 1980, Erk’s final season at the University of Georgia.
It was in 1980 when a newspaper article mentioned Erk had the following motto on his office’s bulletin board—one certainly suited for the coach and likely had been posted for years: “If life deals you lemons, turn it into lemonade.”
I like to think I’ll get to see Coach Russell again in person one day. If so, I’d asked if he is aware of the great number of football fans astonished how he often turned hindered and undersized players into over-achieving, spirited, and determined all-stars. Understanding what I know about Erk Russell, he would probably respond with one of his acclaimed quips, like “I’d rather be lucky than good.”
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