. His talent for coaching young men made him a legend in his chosen profession, which spanned 40 years (1950-89). Also, please read our exclusive Q&A with the legend himself."> . His talent for coaching young men made him a legend in his chosen profession, which spanned 40 years (1950-89). Also, please read our exclusive Q&A with the legend himself.">

Erk Russell-A UGA (and Georgia Southern) Immortal

Few personalities with ties to the University of Georgia athletics program have ever been more successful or popular than <b>Erskine "Erk" Russell</b>. His talent for coaching young men made him a legend in his chosen profession, which spanned 40 years (1950-89). Also, please read our <a href="/2/14319.html"><b>exclusive Q&A</b></a> with the legend himself.

Russell developed a reputation as a master coach of defensive football during his 17-year tenure at the University of Georgia (1964-81). As defensive coordinator to head coach Vince Dooley, Russell molded some of the nation's finest defensive teams and his "Junkyard Dogs" became synonymous with Georgia Football. Russell, who also was Dooley's assistant head coach for fourteen years, coached such outstanding defensive players at Georgia as safety Jake Scott, linebacker Ben Zambiasi, guard Eddie "Meat Cleaver" Weaver, the late tackle Jimmy Payne, cornerback Scott Woerner and the 1968 Outland Trophy winner, tackle Bill Stanfill.

In 1967, Russell's troops led the Southeastern Conference in total defense and scoring defense. The next year (1968) Georgia again topped the SEC in total defense and led the nation in scoring defense, yielding just 9.8 points per contest during a season in which many teams across the country were producing a large number of points.

The 1969 Georgia Bulldogs ranked sixth nationally in scoring defense and led the SEC in pass defense.

In a five-year period between 1967-71, Georgia's scoring defense ranked second nationally (11.2 points averaged given up per game). During a ten-year period between (1964-73), Georgia's defense allowed an average of only 11.7 points per game.

In 1971, Russell's defensive players embellished their glittering record by leading the country in shutouts and finishing among the nation's Top 10 stop forces in rushing defense, total defense and scoring defense. The Bulldogs were sixth nationally in rushing defense (97.8 yards averaged given up per game), ninth in total defense (234.1 yards averaged surrendered per game) and eighth in scoring defense (10.2 points averaged given up per game). Russell's juggernaut led the SEC in rushing defense and was second in total defense that season.

Georgia led the SEC in scoring defense in 1976.

In 1978, Russell's "Underdogs" amazed observers by giving up only 162 points and finishing second in the SEC to national champion Alabama in scoring defense by a single point. Georgia's 1979 defense forced 49 takeaways (21 pass interceptions and 28 fumble recoveries), the national high.

The 1980 Bulldogs finished second among the ten SEC teams in scoring defense (11.5 points averaged given up per game) and third in rushing defense (140 yards averaged surrendered per game) in an undefeated (12-0) season.

During Russell's stint at Georgia, the Bulldogs won one National Championship (1980), four SEC titles (1966, '68, '76 and '80) and played in twelve Bowl games (five Major Bowls--three Sugar's and two Cotton's).


Inducted into the Blue-Gray All-Star Classic Hall of Fame
Georgia Association of Broadcasters Georgian-of-the-Year
Eddie Robinson Award (symbolic of top Division I-AA coach)
Football Gazette National Coach-of-the-Year
American Football Coaches Association Regional Coach of the Year
USA Today Georgia Coach-of-the-Year
USA Today Georgia Coach-of-the-Decade (1980s)
Kodak-American Football Coaches Association I-AA National Coach-of-the-Year
State of Georgia Sports Hall of Fame Coach-of-the-Year
State of Georgia Sports Hall of Fame Coach-of-the-Year
Inducted into the State of Georgia Sports Hall of Fame
Kodak-American Football Coaches Association I-AA Coach-of-the-Year
Washington, DC, Touchdown Club I-AA Coach-of-the-Year
Football News National Coach-of-the-Year
Chevrolet-CBS Sports I-AA Coach-of-the-Year
Atlanta Touchdown Club Coach-of-the-Year
Macon Touchdown Club Coach-of-the-Year
100% Wrong Club of Atlanta Coach-of-the-Year
State of Georgia Sports Hall of Fame Coach-of-the-Year
Atlanta, GA Athletic Club "Outstanding Achievement in Sports Award" recipient
Statesboro, GA Rotary Club Man-of-the-Year
State of Georgia Sports Hall of Fame Coach-of-the-Year
Football News National Coach-of-the-Year
ABC-TV National Coach-of-the-Year
Washington, D.C., Touchdown Club I-AA Coach-of-the-Year
State of Georgia Sports Hall of Fame Coach-of-the-Year
Atlanta, GA Athletic Club "Outstanding Achievement in Sports Award" recipient
Southeastern Conference "Working Coach of The Year" Award
Georgia High School State Coach of The Year
Georgia High School State Coach of The Year

Russell was an exceptional motivator of young players and developed quite a reputation for butting heads with his Georgia defensive players in pregame warmups. Russell, minus the helmet, would butt heads with his players and his bald head would frequently end up in a bloody mess, inspiring his players to the zenith. He also was known for the motivational letters and calendars he designed and sent his players in the off-season, as well as his famous slogans such as "GATA," meaning Get After Their Asses and "TEAM and me" which symbolized the true meaning of a "team" player--Big Team; Little Me.

When Georgia Southern brought back football in 1981 following a 40-year hiatus, school officials asked Russell to resurrect the program. Russell did not father football at Georgia Southern, but he unquestionably defined it. He created a dynasty in the south Georgia town of Statesboro, unmatched to this date in the ranks of NCAA Division I-AA football. Russell compiled an 83-22-1 record as the Eagles head coach for eight seasons (.788). After Georgia Southern moved to Division I-AA in 1984, he fashioned a 70-14 (.825) winning mark. The Eagles averaged an amazing 10.4 wins per season under Russell's direction. In addition to serving as head coach, Russell was Georgia Southern's Associate Athletic Director for Football Operations.

Russell's first Georgia Southern team, comprised entirely of walk-on players, finished with a very respectable 7-3-1 record playing at the club level in 1982. The next year, Georgia Southern went 6-5, with four of the losses by five points or less. In their first season competing in the I-AA ranks in '84, the Eagles were 8-3 and narrowly missed a national playoff berth. Then came consecutive 13-2 seasons and back-to-back national championships, an I-AA first. Georgia Southern advanced to the national quarterfinals in 1987 before finishing 9-4. In 1988, the Eagles finished 12-3 and made their third national championship game appearance, where they lost to Furman.

Then came Russell's most celebrated season--one which turned out to be his last--as Georgia Southern's head coach. He entered the 1989 season as America's winningest coach and that edition of "Erk's Eagles" compiled a perfect 15-0 record on their way to a third national championship and distinction as the only college team to finish a season with 15 wins in the 20th century. Georgia Southern extended Division I-AA's longest home win streak from 26 to 37 games, and strong safety Randell Boone, free safety Taz Dixon and offensive guard Sean Gainey raised Russell's All-American player count to 17 in ‘89. Other All-Americans Russell coached at Georgia Southern include quarterbacks Tracy Ham and Raymond Gross, slotback Frankie Johnson and defensive end Giff Smith.

Despite his reputation as a defensive specialist, Russell put together a highly-potent option offense for the Eagles. His 1986 team led the nation in scoring (41.3 points averaged per game), total offense (501.8 yards averaged per age) and rushing offense (327.1 yapg). Georgia Southern was unstoppable in the national playoffs that season, averaging a phenomenal 50.7 points. The 1989 Eagles claimed the national rushing championship (329.2 yapg). Georgia Southern was also among the top five teams nationally in both scoring (12.1 points averaged per game) and total defense (255.9 yards allowed per game) while surrendering only 133 points, a school record, and holding two opponents scoreless.

Russell is all that embodies Georgia Southern Football. But he became a hit with fans for reasons that went beyond winning, as he tirelessly promoted Georgia Southern Football--to the point of christening a drainage ditch beside the Eagles practice field as "Beautiful Eagle Creek," flowing with mystical powers. And since retiring from coaching in December 1989, Russell has continued to give of himself in various ways to Georgia Southern University. He has remained an active and visible booster of the school and its programs--both athletic and academic.

The colorful Russell, who with Ric Mandes wrote "Erk-Football, Fans and Friends" (251-page book published in 1991 by Southeastern Sports Marketing of Statesboro, GA), is considered a folk hero to many and stays in demand as a speaker. Using a lot of anecdotes and humor, Russell can make anyone laugh and can put a smile on the face of a person with the coldest of personalities. Just consider these gems:

* Concerning his retirement from coaching: "At Georgia, the coaches told each other that you were getting old when the recruiting prospects' mothers began looking good. I knew it was time for me to get out of coaching at Georgia Southern because the prospects' grandmothers were beginning to look good."

* To depict an example of what could be considered sports brutality, Sports Illustrated published a picture of an Alabama running back being tackled by nine Georgia players in the Bulldogs 21-0 shutout win over the Crimson Tide in 1976. When asked by a reporter what his thoughts were after he had seen the picture, Russell replied, "Where in the hell where the other two Georgia players?"

* Concerning why he didn't delay hip surgery so he could attend the first game played between Georgia and Georgia Southern in 1992: "Because it (his hip) hurt like hell."

* Addressing his peers concerning the length of his speech as the keynote speaker at the 1990 American Football Coaches Association convention: "I'll get what I want to say said, and as King Henry VIII told each of his wives, "I won't be keeping you long."

* About the four stages of senility: "One, you forget names; two, you forget faces; three, you forget to zip your fly up; and four, you forget to zip it down."

A native of Birmingham, AL, Russell earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Auburn University. He played football, basketball, baseball and tennis for the Tigers, earning 10 varsity letters. Russell was the last four-sport letterman in Auburn history.

From 1950 to '57, Russell coached at Atlanta's Grady High School, where he molded the 3-A State Championship football team in '53. Switching to the collegiate ranks in 1958, Russell was Auburn's head freshman coach from 1958-61, during which time he also served as the Tigers' head baseball coach. Elevated to the varsity football coaching staff in 1961, Russell was a defensive assistant and scout team coach during the '61 and '62 seasons.

He moved to Vanderbilt University as head defensive coach for the 1963 season before joining Dooley's inaugural staff at Georgia.

Russell turned down an offer become the Bulldogs head coach when Dooley retired in 1988. The position was eventually filled by another former Dooley assistant, Ray Goff.

Born July 23, 1926, Russell is married to the former Jean Farmer of Birmingham. They have two sons--Rusty and Jay--who are also football coaches, and several grandchildren. Rusty and Jay both, at one time, were assistants to their father at Georgia Southern, and Rusty is currently the school's defensive coordinator. They both also played for the University of Georgia, and Rusty served as an assistant coach and Associate Recruiting Director for the Bulldogs from 1978-80.

Photo: UGA Sports Communications

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