Okay, the Georgia Southern Eagles aren’t coming to Lincoln specifically because of Erk Russell. For one thing he died in 2006 and I don’t care how many miracles and other unbelievable shit he pulled off, I’m pretty sure Erk hasn’t figured out how to get in on helping negotiate a mid-major payday game from the grave. It’s more of a several degrees of separation thing, but trust me on this.
The program is where it is because Erk Russell started it off in a way which still boggles the mind.
If Vince Dooley leaves Georgia for the HC job at his alma mater of Auburn after their 1980 national title, Georgia Southern likely isn’t playing the Huskers this weekend. A quick explanation.
Erk Russell was Georgia’s defensive coordinator from 1964-1980 and was very good at his job. (More on the hijinx that entailed below.) After that season, Dooley was offered a good deal of cash for the Auburn job. Most everyone, including Erk, expected he would take it, being Vince’s alma mater and all. He didn’t. When that happened, Erk decided now was the time to put himself out there or he would never get a chance as a head coach. Georgia Southern was the only offer and they didn’t even have a team yet. It wasn’t the Bulldogs but if he wanted to be a head coach, it was that or nothing.
Erk accepted and Statesboro, GA, would never be the same.
Now, other than the fact they’re on the Huskers’ schedule, why should I care? If the Huskers are my #1, UGA has always been by #1A having been attended by my father and my late Uncle Butch who was an insane Georgia fan and donor and would regale me with tales of the crazy bald bastard coaching the defense. (Butch would be proud as hell his step-nephew Gunnar Stockton, a Rivals 4-star top-5 dual threat QB is now a Bulldog).
Erk’s legend and stories only grew after he took the title of HC of the then non-existent Eagles. And as you will see, this is a program accustomed to success even after moving to D1.
Enough lead-up - here’s a quick history of the Erk Russell years. And I do mean quick - there have been at least four books written by and about the guy.
ERK - THE GEORGIA YEARS
- There’s a battleship full of impressive stats, but chew on this one - in his 17 years as Georgia’s DC, the Bulldog defense gave up more than 28 points only 18 times.
- After a subpar 1974 season, with Dooley’s permission, he named the defense the Junkyard Dawgs which sticks to this day.
- He even called the UGA bandleader and suggested they should play a few bars of Jim Croce’s “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” whenever the defense made a big play. (“Meaner than a junkyard dog”)
- James Brown, a huge Georgia fan who would routinely grand marshall UGA homecoming parades, in 1975 wrote a song called “Dooley’s Junkyard Dogs” which he performed at Sanford Stadium. This really happened and you can still find the song on Touchtunes on your local jukebox.
- After seeing a Georgia Tech trainer wearing a GTAA (Ga Tech Athletic Assn) jacket, it occurred to him to re-arrange it into small black letters on gray t-shirts which the defense wore - GATA for GET AFTER THEIR ASSES (or “Get After Them Aggressively” in more polite company.) Blackshirts is fun but how many of these would we sell? Since it was his idea, Erk brought it to Statesboro with him where it lives on
- But what he is likely most remembered for is the blood running down his face during big games (see above). This happened because he would occasionally get so worked up in warmups he would headbutt players who happened to be wearing their helmets at the time.
- For those who don’t remember Erk, many of you have probably heard of former Bulldog All-SEC DT Bill Goldberg who would sometimes headbutt doors before hitting the WWE ring to psych himself up. Although he never played for Erk at Georgia, he held him in high regard and even stated he thought Kirby Smart had “some Erk Russell in him” when he was hired by Georgia. It is strongly believed his bloody foreheads were a tribute to Erk.
ERK - THE GEORGIA SOUTHERN YEARS
- Erk leaves Georgia to begin starting up the Georgia Southern program in 1981. They play as a club football program in 1982 and 1983.
- One of his first duties beyond assembling the team was to rename the body of water running through campus “Beautiful Eagle Creek”. Beautiful Eagle Creek was described by Sports Illustrated in a 1987 article as “muddy brown and littered with beer cans and is no wider than 25 feet” and its previous name according to Russell was “ditch, just ditch”. Erk claimed its waters had magical powers and would fill a milk jug with the fetid liquid, take it to big road games and dump splashes of it on the visiting field during the pre-game walkthrough. At each splash, he would intone something wonderful which would happen in that spot during the game (besides the grass dying). Eerily, many of these prognostications came to pass as described.
- They become a 1-AA team in 1984 going 8-3 in their inaugural season at that level.
- In 1985, they go 13-2 and win the 1-AA National Championship. After trailing 21-6 to Furman at halftime of the title game, they go on to win 44-42 on 419 passing yards by QB Tracy Ham for whom he renamed his offense the Hambone. Ham would go on to win a Grey Cup in 1995 after multiple CFL seasons of 4000+ yards passing and 1000+ yards rushing.
- One of Erk’s victory celebrations was a cigar. He said his favorite brand was OP for Other People’s.
- In 1986, the Eagles do the exact same thing defeating Arkansas St. 48-21 for the repeat. Ham throws for 306 yards and rushes for 180.
- Also, in 1986, following Len Bias’ death as well as rumors of drug use on his team, Erk had the entire team cram into their training room and locked the door after he and a friend carrying a box had entered. The friend, a snake wrangler, opened the box and dumped a large, very live rattlesnake onto the floor. While players tried climbing the walls and pressing as far away as they could get, Erk impressed upon them that being in a room with cocaine was just as dangerous. The rumors of drug use soon tailed off. (Try to imagine this story breaking in the internet age)
- My uncle told me that tale back in 1997 and I considered it wild if highly unlikely. A search for this showed the story confirmed over the years by Russell and several players.
- In 1987-88, the Eagles advanced to the national quarterfinals and finals before losing.
- Vince Dooley retired from Georgia following the 1988 season. Erk was narrowly edged out by former Bulldog QB Ray Goff for HC job with his age being given as the main reason. He was 62.
- In 1989, the Eagles defeated Stephen F. Austin 37-34 for Russell’s 3rd national title in 6 seasons at 1-AA to complete a 15-0 season, the only college team to do so in the 20th century. His record for those 6 years was 70-14 (.825) making him the country’s winningest coach in any division for that period. He retired following that season and passed in 2006.
- Georgia Southern repeated as national champs in 1990 and won it all again in 1999 and 2000 under Paul Johnson, former Georgia Tech coach and Nebraska candidate. They moved to D1 in 2014 and have gone to bowl games in in 4 of those 8 seasons (9-3 in their inaugural year but ineligible) including 2018-2020.
If you’re guessing by now Erk was a lively interview, you’d be correct. We’ll close out with a few of his pearls of wisdom:
- On Beautiful Eagle Creek: “Once you are touched by these magnificent waters, you become the meanest s.o.b. to ever put on a uniform, and from then on, losing is the most disgusting thing that can ever happen.”
- Also on Beautiful Eagle Creek: “It is the most gnat-and mosquito-infested body of water per cubic centimeter in the world.”
- On his bald dome: ‘I started shaving my head back in the ‘50s when haircuts went up to a dollar,”
- On GSU’s chances in 1987 after losing several stars: “I think our only hope is that our winning in the past is contagious. But as long as the ball is shaped like it is, we have a chance.”
- On what he told the players during the “rattlesnake meeting”: “I told ‘em, ‘When that white stuff (cocaine) comes into a room, you’re not nearly as apt to leave as when that rattlesnake comes in. Look, they’ll both kill you. If that white stuff comes into a room, you get out of there like it’s a rattlesnake because it is!’”
- On why he chose Junkyard Dogs name for the defense: “There isn’t anything meaner than a junkyard dog. They aren’t good for nothing except for being mean and ornery. That’s what we want our defense to be.”
- His defensive philosophy verbalized: “[The Junkyard Dogs] have to be in the proper frame of mind for this one. We call it intelligent fanaticism, with a little more emphasis on the fanaticism.”
- Why the Eagle’s clean recruiting had nothing to do with morals: “We’d like to cheat but that costs money and we don’t have any.”
- Why he would always show up in Snooky’s Cafe for breakfast every morning at 6am: “Because if I don’t, I’ll miss the first wave of philosophers.”
- What the nation’s finest institutions have in common: “Any university you have a high regard for has a football team. Just going to class and studying isn’t healthy. You need something to break it up.”
- Unassailable logic: “The best way to win a game is not to lose it.”
- And some inarguable facts about good defense: “If we score, we may win. If they never score, we’ll never lose.”
- And finally, why Erk is all of us: “THERE AIN’T NOTHING LIKE BEING A BULLDOG ON A SATURDAY NIGHT – – – – – AFTER WINNING A FOOTBALL GAME. I mean like whipping Tennessee’s ass to start with, then ten more and then another one.”
Georgia Southern Eagles