Not long ago the team bus, a rusty and decrepit 1957 model, broke down for the umpteenth time, and an athlete placed a sign in its window before everyone left it forlorn by the roadside: THIS IS NOT AN ABANDONED BUS. See, Erk's positive approach rubs off on everyone. And it runs in the family. This is a guy who came home once after a loss only to learn from his wife, Jean, that he had to go to a costume party. He protested. Said she, "Come on, Erk. I'm just going to put a little perfume on your head and you can go as a roll-on deodorant."
And Georgia Southern has become a winner, apparently without cheating. "We'd like to cheat," says Russell, cheerfully of course. "But that costs money and we don't have it." So they traffic in fringe players, almost all from within Georgia. Ask Russell the reason for his success and he says, "Good players who play good together. I know I should say 'well,' but it's not the same."
Well, no, that's not it. Because if they had been good, somebody else would have them. All Erk does is make these guys think they're good. This is in line with a note stuck in a picture frame in his office: "The better you feel about yourself, the better the world looks." Russell tells his players, "You're good enough to play for me, and that makes you good enough to win."
The Eagles may be good enough again this year. Though the talent level is a bit reduced, Russell's stature with the players grows. Offensive tackle Ronald Warnock, heading into his third year as a starter, says, "If Coach told us to lie down in front of a truck, we'd do it, because we know that everything he tells us to do will be good for us."
Why Russell was not besieged with head coaching offers before Southern (the only bid he ever received was from The Citadel) is a mystery. He may have been so closely tied to Georgia and Dooley that he wasn't thought of as head coach material in his own right. Too, Erk used to bang his head into the helmets of Georgia players during the pre-game psych-up, which naturally drew blood. His. Many recall him only as the guy with blood running down his head during games. Some may have found that image inconsistent with the dignity of higher education.
But Russell is different, and therefore better, because he doesn't complicate things. As far as Erk is concerned, the only thing better than a simple idea is an even simpler idea. Jean got after him a while back for drinking too many cans of beer. He drinks far fewer cans now. He does, however, buy much bigger cans. Simple solution. It is this view that enabled him to develop Beautiful Eagle Creek as a shrine. Standing by it, slapping at the mosquitoes, Erk explains, "We don't have the best of everything, so we make the best of everything we have."
On four occasions Russell has taken water from Beautiful Eagle Creek to playoff games and poured it on the opposing team's field. Four times the Eagles have won; four times they scored more than 40 points. This water truly is offensive. And now when seniors graduate, they get a small vial of water from Beautiful Eagle Creek to keep forever.
Opponents have tried to counter this tactic, but to no avail. In the Division I-AA semis last year, Nevada-Reno showed up with water from their Truckee River. They lost 48-38. In the finals Arkansas State showed up with water from their Indian Pond. That failed too, 48-21. Nothing compares to water from Beautiful Eagle Creek.
Russell swats and slaps and looks happy as a pig in slop. "Plant operations came down here the other day to try to kill some weeds," says Erk. "But they killed the fish instead. Fortunately, they didn't disturb the gnats and mosquitoes." Where does Beautiful Eagle Creek originate? "Oh, up yonder." Pause for effect. "In somebody's septic system."
And talk about simple, as in simple pleasures. Russell shows up nearly every day around 6 a.m. at a café called Snooky's. He arrives at dawn "because if I don't, I'll miss the first wave of philosophers." They talk, he says, of the four F's—fighting, fishing, farming and, occasionally, football. Snooky's is a '50s throwback with torn black vinyl booths. The main decoration is a poster demonstrating the Heimlich maneuver.