There's just no question that Erskine Russell—"Erk" to his public—has been the biggest thing to happen to Statesboro, Ga. since Sherman burned the courthouse. Until last spring, Russell was Vince Dooley's right-hand man at Georgia, coaching the national champion Bulldogs' defense; now he's playing midwife to the football team-to-be at Georgia Southern College in Statesboro.
At the moment the Eagles are only a group of freshman walk-ons, and they won't play their first game until Sept. 11, 1982, but the town's agog anyway. Says Jimmy Hines, who, with his father, Jake (a star halfback for GSC's predecessor, Georgia Teachers College, from 1932 to '36), runs the Spee Dee Dry Cleaners across the street from the practice fields, "I wake up in the morning, and I still cannot believe that Erk Russell is coaching football in this town."
In his 17 years as defensive coordinator for the Bulldogs, Russell became known as the heart and soul of the program; certainly he was one of the most visible, and idolized, men in the state. He can't help but be visible. As bald as Mr. Clean, he patrolled the Georgia sideline in black pants and a lucky black windbreaker with cut-off sleeves. He used to get his defensive unit in the right mood during pregame warmups by butting heads with them. They wore helmets and he didn't, which meant that Erk often had rivulets of blood trickling down his shiny pate.
Variously known as the Underdogs, the Wonderdogs and the Junkyard Dogs—all Russell-supplied monikers—they toughed out four shutouts in 1971 and '76 and three in 1967, '69 and last season, when they also shut down Notre Dame 17-10 in the Sugar Bowl to clinch the national title.
Russell may have looked ferocious, but, says a secretary in the Georgia athletic department, "Erk is just as sweet as a pot of honey. I told him I'd just shoot myself if he left." Asked about his days as an offensive guard under Russell (1966-68), Bruce Yawn, a co-owner of Snooky's Restaurant, just across the parking lot from the Spee Dee Dry Cleaners, says, "He ran my butt off day after day, but I was never mad at him. All I could think about was how much I'd like to rub his old bald head."
And it seems everybody in the state feels the same way. As Jimmy DeLoach, an Eagles follower, put it while watching the fledgling Eagles practice the other day, "There was always Dooley on the sidelines with his tie and all, but to most everybody Erk was what Georgia football was all about—getting down in the trenches and buttin' heads."
A year ago it looked as if Russell would become head coach in Athens. Auburn had offered Dooley a reported five-year, $1 million contract to return to his alma mater. "It was pretty cut and dried that I'd have the head coaching job at Georgia," says Russell. "I never really thought the guy would take the Auburn job, but as time wore on and things built up, I could visualize myself as head coach because I had to. I wasn't surprised or disappointed when Dooley chose to stay at Georgia."
Down in the southern half of the state, GSC was preparing to join its neighbors, West Georgia and Valdosta State, in bringing collegiate football back to the area. Since taking over as president of 6,800-student Georgia Southern in 1978, Dr. Dale Lick had heard two questions at every fish fry from Brunswick to Hinesville. One concerned a rural nursing program—the area has a shortage—so Lick saw to it that GSC instituted a program to train nurses. The other question was, "What about football?" Lick ( Michigan State '58) had to ask himself the same question. In a region that had produced Herschel Walker, it seemed odd that folks had to drive four hours to see a college football game.
David (Bucky) Wagner became the Eagles' athletic director last Jan. 1. Ten days later the GSC advisory committee voted to approve efforts to raise $250,000 to field a Division II team, the school's first football team since the 1941 season. "All of a sudden," says Wagner, "here I am without a program, without a stadium, without any scholarships, staff or equipment trying to please a townful of fans who want to beat the 'Dawgs in '83. Now how am I going to get a coach?"
Russell heard about Southern's plans and expressed an interest in the job. Once Lick was convinced that Russell was serious, he asked him straight out, "How can you leave Georgia?" Says Erk, "The challenge of starting from scratch had a particular appeal to me, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it."