Momentum picks up for Erk Russell induction into College Hall of Fame

Gov. Kemp sends letter to National Football Foundation
As a longtime UGA defensive coordinator, an Erk Russell trademark was to butt heads with his players, even if it meant a bloodied forehead. (Billy Downs /AJC file)

Credit: Billy Downs/AJC file

Credit: Billy Downs/AJC file

As a longtime UGA defensive coordinator, an Erk Russell trademark was to butt heads with his players, even if it meant a bloodied forehead. (Billy Downs /AJC file)

ATHENS – Vince Dooley lovingly refers to Erk Russell as an “all-fours coach.”

“He was down in the trenches with the players every day,” Georgia’s former head coach said of his longtime defensive coordinator.

That was the first thing that sprang to Dooley’s mind when asked about Russell Thursday evening. Dooley has long led a movement to have Russell inducted into the National Football Foundation’s College Hall of Fame. That movement is enjoying new energy thanks to the recent efforts of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Southern University.

Kemp and the president and athletic director at Georgia Southern sent letters this week to NFF CEO Steve Hatchell urging him to offer a waiver for Russell’s posthumous induction into the Hall of Fame. Russell died in 2006 at the age of 80.

Erk Russell is shown with two of three Division I-AA championship trophies that he won during eight seasons at Georgia Southern. Russell led the Eagles to the national championships in 1985, 86 and 89. As head coach, he went 83-22-1.

Credit: Curtis Compton

icon to expand image

Credit: Curtis Compton

Many might assume that Russell was already enshrined. After all, he won three national championships as Georgia Southern’s head coach after helping Georgia win a national title and six SEC titles as Dooley’s top assistant. He’s in both the Georgia and Alabama sports halls of fame.

However, Russell doesn’t meet the college football hall’s criteria for head coaches. The NFF’s bylaws state that an individual must have been a head coach for a minimum of 10 years and 100 games and won at least 60 percent of their games.

As it turns out, Russell coached just eight seasons after leaving Georgia to start Georgia Southern’s football program from scratch. But he won 78.3 percent of the 106 games he coached (83-22-1), including three I-AA national championships in a five-year span from 1985-89.

“My gosh, if anybody ought to be in, it ought to be Erk,” Dooley said.

Dooley, who won 201 games over 25 seasons as Georgia’s coach, was enshrined in 1994. In addition to Russell, Dooley also has lobbied for his brother Bill Dooley (North Carolina, Wake Forest) to be inducted, as well as former Tennessee and Pitt coach Johnny Majors. Dooley’s efforts have gone unrewarded, which has embittered him toward Hatchell.

“He has made a lot of people mad,” Dooley said of Hatchell. “There are less than a handful of coaches that fall just under that qualification, but he has been unwavering.”

Letters on Russell’s behalf also have been sent to Archie Manning, who has been the NFF’s chairman since 2008.

“This is something obviously we’re passionate about and our fan base is passionate about,” Georgia Southern AD Jared Benko said at a press conference Thursday. “We feel like it’s something (Russell) has earned and deserves. … It’s a fairy-tale story, really. It’s unbelievable.”

Dooley agrees. He said Russell was a coach who would – quite literally -- bleed for his players. Then the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator and defensive line coach, Dooley recounted Russell jumping into the middle of the defensive line’s bull-in-the-ring drill before a game. He ended up actually butting heads with his helmeted players.

That resulted in a gash on the top of Russell’s bald head that bled down his face and onto his shirt. Inspired by their coach, Georgia played lights-out on defense that day.

“Of course, he ended up with a scab up there,” Dooley said. “So, before every game, he’d get in the middle again and end up bleeding again, because it got them all fired up. I always said, players love to see their coach bleed.”

Russell’s wife, Jean, insisted her husband stop. But when the defense waned later in the year, Russell brought back the gash.

Always a master motivator, Russell was always looking for ways to inspire his players. At Georgia Southern, he renamed a tiny tributary that ran through their practice grounds in Statesboro “Beautiful Eagle Creek. He had players scoop water from it and carry it in a jar to away games. Long after the school could afford charter buses to transport the team, Russell insisted the team stick with yellow school buses out of a sense of pride and connection to their past as a college football startup.

While at Georgia, Russell would write letters to his players before every season. Prior to the national championship season of 1980, he pleaded for the Bulldogs’ defenders to dedicate their season to the “Railroad Track Crowd.” The east end of the stadium would be enclosed after the season, thus blocking the view of the self-professed “crazies” that watched games from the tracks.

“Your team will be the last Georgia team to be greeted and cheered on by the RAILROAD TRACK CROWD,” Russell wrote. “Wouldn’t it be fitting if the last team was able to be the best Georgia team ever? Think about it.”

The 1980 Bulldogs went 12-0. Hall of Fame stuff, indeed.