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."
A visitor recently asked Jean Russell, Erk's wife, what her reaction had been when Erk first mentioned going to GSC. "I thought he was joking," she said. "I did. I thought he was joking the first and the second times we came down to look at the area. The third time, I could tell he wanted to take the job, if I was willing."
There were some perquisites. Erk's perks: Russell's salary is a trifle bigger now (about $47,000) than it was in Athens, and he's eligible for the state teachers' retirement program, which he wasn't at Georgia. And in a way he can't lose: He has inherited neither a tottering program nor the pressures that go with a successful one (see Faust, Gerry). Besides, the bumper stickers are naturals, from WORK FOR ERK to NEVER BUTT HEADS
WITH A BALD EAGLE. And, says Wagner, "The money is out there."
The first potential booster Russell met was Lincoln Womack, a man in his seventies who owns considerable forest acreage. He arrived in a Statesboro lawyer's office in overalls—to listen to Russell's spiel about the coming glories of GSC football and the desperate need for equipment and practice fields. When Erk had finished, Womack said, "Mr. Russell, I don't know a thing about ball. I never had no time for ball myself. And I don't have a million dollars like they say I do. But I've got a million pine trees, and when I sell some of them, I'll help you out all I can." That help has come at unpredictable intervals; once Womack stopped by and extracted "a wad of hundreds the size of my fist," says Russell, and peeled one off for Erk's Eagles.
What Russell needs most, of course, is a stadium (in the meantime the Eagles will play on Statesboro High's Womack field). One plan for its location would do away with a pine grove that is a town landmark. There, in 1901, Dr. Charles Herty and Frank Klarpp devised a method of extracting resin from pine trees without damaging them, thereby revolutionizing the turpentine industry.
Russell has gone under in his zeal to come out on top. Last month, for instance, he was in the dunking chair at the county fair to drum up cash. Scott Lamb, a 14-year-old lefthander, paid one dollar to try to send the 55-year-old Russell plunging into the tub, and he did. Russell aggravated an old knee injury while being dunked, and for a while his normal limp evolved from late George Patton to early Amos McCoy.
Other acquisitions have come easier. Sam Johnson, who played defensive tackle at Jacksonville (Ala.) State and owns Johnson's Minit Mart in Statesboro, gave the Eagles weights from a health club he had owned. Jerseys were purchased second-hand from Ole Miss (including one of Archie Manning's No. 18s) and Georgia Tech, and grassing contractor Joe Smallwood is going to grade and re-turf two practice fields. For the time being the coaches' offices are in a 40-foot mobile home (complete with three-stool bar and mirrored bath) donated by Robert Mallard's Housing Center in Statesboro. "I'd feel a lot more comfortable," says Russell, "if they'd take the wheels off this thing; they're liable to roll me right out of town."
The team has been in pads for five weeks now, and scrimmages are coming up with the Florida State junior varsity, the Fort Benning Doughboys and the "Magnum Force" team of the Jacksonville, Fla. police. For now Russell has been treating his squad of walk-ons like Junkyard Dogs, and enthusiasm runs high. A linebacker from Macon, Tommy Raye, had GATA—an Erkism meaning, roughly, Get After Them Aggressively—shaved into his hair. "I'd like him on my side in a street fight," says Russell, "but he is small."
Back in Athens, Dooley confesses, "I miss Erk personally, first of all, and professionally because he's always been a perfect complement to me in every way. I'm excited for him because he's excited. It's a fun-type thing and Erk's a fun-type person."
When Georgia opened its season against Tennessee, the Russells were weekending on Hilton Head Island, S.C. Erk called Dooley after the Bulldogs' morning meal to wish him luck and to tell him his plans for the day, which were to take a cooler, some Red Man, a couple of cigars and a radio to the beach and listen to the game. "Jean and I sat there with our ears glued to that radio," Russell recalls. "What really amazed me was that there were 300 people in front of us on that beach, doing the things that people do, and not a one of them giving a damn about that game. For 17 years, I swear I'd never known that there were all those people outside of a stadium on a Saturday afternoon in the fall."