Questions and Answers With Coach Erk Russell

Editor's Note: writer <b>Tim Gardner</b> recently conducted an exclusive interview with college coaching legend <b>Erk Russell</b>. Excerpts from that interview follow.

Be sure to read the feature on Coach Erk Russell before this interview. What games hold the fondest coaching memories during your tenures at UGA and Georgia Southern?

Coach Russell: Of course, there are many. First and foremost would be the National Championship seasons and in particular, the championship game victories. The first came while I coached at Georgia for the 1980 season with a 17-10 win against Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. Then, 44-42 over Furman in 1985, 46-21 over Arkansas State the following year and 37-34 over Stephen F. Austin in '89 at Georgia Southern. The 1968 Georgia team was also declared National Champions, and several games that season were an integral factor in the team's success.

"The first Georgia team I helped coach in 1964 was one of my favorites. Those Bulldogs finished 6-3-1 in the regular season and beat Texas Tech 7-0 to win the Sun Bowl. The Georgia program had been down for a few years, but that season set the stage for the Bulldogs to return to the nation's elite. That's where we remained for much of my tenure at Georgia. In addition, I will always have great affection for the 126 non-athletes who came out for my first team at Georgia Southern. Those were very special individuals.

My last year coaching at Georgia ended with a national championship, as did my last at Georgia Southern. You can't hardly top that. How much did you enjoy working for head coach Vince Dooley during your stint at the University of Georgia?

Coach Russell: I have had a close relationship with Coach Dooley for many years. He is a fine human being and is certainly one of the best coaches in the history of the game. He is very thorough at handling details and always uses good judgment in any decision he makes. He never acts or reacts impulsively. He is also a meticulous planner and an outstanding organizer.

Coach Dooley let his assistants coach. I don't mean to imply that he turned all the coaching over to his assistants. He did not, but he lets the assistants flap their own wings so-to-speak. I really appreciated that. How much has the game of football changed since you last coached?

Coach Russell: Just before I retired from coaching, the game's emphasis started shifting from having a powerful running game to throwing the ball and using multiple formations offensively. It used to be a collision sport between players up front. Now it's a collision sport between the players around the perimeter. However, a team must have a good running game to win a lot of games. I am known as a defensive coach, but our powerful option offenses, which emphasized the running game, were as much a factor in our success as our defenses were while I coached Georgia Southern.

The hardest teams to defend are those that have a good running game and specifically, run the option well. That's a key reason I used the option offense at Georgia Southern. I wanted to run the offense I thought was the toughest for a defense to prepare for and try to stop.

Regardless of changes made in the offensive and defensive aspects of the game, any team will always have to perfect its fundamentals to be successful. How closely do you follow UGA Football now?

Coach Russell: Many of the greatest times in my life and in the lives of my family members were spent at the University of Georgia, so I try to follow the Bulldogs as much as I can. However, I'm lucky if I get to attend one of their games a year. Although I've been retired from coaching and athletic administration at Georgia Southern for a long time, I still attend its games, help with fundraising, do speaking engagements and the like. Therefore, it's difficult for me to get to UGA often. But I will always love the Georgia Bulldogs and I want them to be very successful. How successful to you think the University of Georgia Football program will be under Coach Mark Richt's leadership?

Coach Russell: I have not known Coach Richt very long, but I've been extremely impressed with him during the time I have known him. He was kind enough to invite me to speak to his team during spring practice and I really enjoyed doing that.

I think Coach Richt has the Georgia program on the right track and I think he will be a very good head coach. He has and will have good players at Georgia. He possesses a special way of meeting people and making them feel good about themselves. He seems to be a good organizer and a good disciplinarian. However, it's hard to envision him having as much success as the Georgia fans expect him to. After all, his teams are only supposed to win every game they play. That's very difficult to do.

Someone recently asked Coach Richt how long it would take his teams to beat Florida, and he replied, 'About four quarters if we play well.' I thought that was a great answer. Georgia and Georgia Southern have played twice since football was reinstated at GSU in 1981 with the Bulldogs winning 34-7 in 1992 and 29-7 in 2000. Do you think the schools should continuing scheduling games against each other?

Coach Russell: Yes. An ideal schedule for Georgia Southern would be to play Georgia in Athens and Georgia Tech in Atlanta in alternating years. That would be a great happening for the State of Georgia and would further spur interest in all three programs. I hope this will eventually happen. Would you like for Georgia Southern to eventually become a NCAA Division I-A school?

Coach Russell: It would depend on how Division I-A keeps developing. It seems that some of the powerhouse football schools are isolating themselves from I-AA schools. I'm sure the Georgia Southern administration will make the correct decision about playing up on the I-A level if the opportunity presents itself. However, I-AA Football has been very good for Georgia Southern and vice-versa. If Georgia Southern can keep playing for the national championship year-after-year such as we have consistently done, I'll be happy if the Eagles keep playing I-AA Football. What advice would you give a young, aspiring coach hoping to enter the coaching profession and achieve longevity?

Coach Russell: To follow the basic principles of coaching such as not letting anyone outwork you and obeying rules and regulations. Integrity can never be sacrificed. A head coach must be prepared to handle any situation that may happen in a game, surround himself with good assistant coaches, a good support staff and good players. He also needs the support of the administration and faculty in order to be completely successful. And perhaps most importantly, any coach needs to have a lot of luck. How have you managed to accomplish all you have?

Coach Russell: Quite simply, by hard work and doing things the right way. What do you want Erk Russell's legacy to be?

Coach Russell: I want people to think of me as being the luckiest football coach in the world. If you are a winner or are successful in any endeavor, you have to be lucky to a great extent. I consider myself to be the luckiest person to ever coach football.

Photo: UGA Sports Communications

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