The other day in Statesboro, Georgia Southern College football coach Erk Russell was standing on the bank of Beautiful Eagle Creek, which wanders majestically through the campus and alongside the practice fields. Its grandeur, observed in the right light, eclipses that of the Snake or the Colorado and certainly the Mississippi. "Once you are touched by these magnificent waters," says Russell, "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."
Indeed, once you are touched by these waters, you will also need a typhoid shot. For the truth is that Beautiful Eagle Creek is the sorriest river in the U.S. It is muddy brown and littered with beer cans and is no wider than 25 feet. And, says Russell cheerfully, "it is the most gnat-and mosquito-infested body of water per cubic centimeter in the world."
Russell, who's 61, puffs away on his cigar and looks downright pleased to have pointed this out. After all, it was Russell himself who renamed the stream Beautiful Eagle Creek a few years ago. What was it called before that? "Ditch," says Russell. "Just ditch."
The legendary Erk Russell labored for 17 years under Vince Dooley at Georgia as the brilliant defensive domo with the shaved dome. "I started shaving my head back in the '50s when haircuts went up to a dollar," he explains. Everyone figured Russell would eventually replace Dooley. But Dooley stayed and stayed, so Russell finally left in 1981 to take the head coaching job at Georgia Southern, a small college (enrollment: then 6,500; now 8,500) that had last played football in 1940. But not well. In 1937 the Eagles took on Miami in the first game ever on the Orange Bowl site and lost 40-0. That was reason enough for not resuming the sport after the war.
And all Russell has done, starting with absolutely nothing but a ditch, is build a program that in both 1985 and 1986 won the national championship in Division I-AA, a group of 88 universities a rung below the big-school classification. With a two-year record of 26-4, the Eagles have won more games over that time span than any other college team.
There is no way, none, that all this would have happened without Erk, who has not a pretentious thought in his head or an arrogant act in his past. Ask his plans for this season, and from somewhere behind a cloud of cigar smoke comes this: "I don't know. Our plans really are just to enjoy the fire out of our success until we kick it off on September 5.1 don't know what's going to happen. But I do know I'm afraid to know."
It is true the Eagles will be trying to soar without quarterback Tracy Ham, a player nobody wanted, who repeatedly made good things out of bad. In the championship game against Furman in 1985, Georgia Southern was behind 21-6 at the start of the third quarter; the Eagles ultimately won 44-42 as Ham completed 23 of 37 attempts for 419 yards. Still, no NFL team showed interest in Ham as a quarterback, so he is trying to make it with Edmonton of the CFL.
Gone, too, is Gerald Harris, a fine fullback and the second-leading rusher, behind Ham. "I think our only hope," says Russell, "is that our winning in the past is contagious. But as long as the ball is shaped like it is, we have a chance." Last year the Eagles fumbled a whopping 54 times yet lost only 15. How do you explain that, Erk? "Just luck."
Yet, the winning and losing is not the point at Georgia Southern. The point is the great good spirit that Russell has brought to this peaceful burg 50 miles from Savannah. Statesboro is football the way it ought to be. Nothing slick. Nothing fancy.
After the '85 championship win, the town had a big celebration, with doves flying triumphantly out of a small replica of the Statue of Liberty. Well, O.K., so they were pigeons and had to be prodded with sticks. Same thing.