A remarkable man ... Erk Russell
by Jeff Dantzler
georgia sports communications
It is very rare in the world of collegiate athletics
for someone to be beloved by two schools.
The late Erk Russell is an iconic exception to the
rule. This giant of a man is one of the great treasures
to ever coach at Georgia. Programs, franchises
and teams have their Mt. Rushmore’s of
In Statesboro, Erk Russell is the mountain
He is the biggest reason this game is happening.
College football’s most well-known assistant
stalked the Bulldog sidelines with red and
pants and a bloody head for 17 seasons as the
game’s premier defensive coordinator. It was
1980 and Georgia was a perfect 11-0, Southeastern
Conference champions, and bound for
the Sugar Bowl to play Notre Dame for the national
But Auburn had a head coaching vacancy,
firing Doug Barfield. They were calling one of
their own to come home. And Auburn graduate
Vince Dooley was listening to an enticing offer
to be the Tigers head coach and athletics director.
Over the next month or so, three historic
1. Dooley turned Auburn down to remain
2. Georgia had its greatest of days, defeating
Notre Dame 17-10 on January 1, 1981 in
New Orleans to capture the undisputed national
3. Erk Russell left Athens to start a football
program at tiny Georgia Southern, which
had not fielded a gridiron team since World War
His success in Statesboro was phenomenal.
By 1984, the Eagles were playing at the Division
I-AA level, the second highest in college athletics.
In 1985, Russell led Georgia Southern to the
I-AA national championship. In 1986, the Eagles
won it again.
In 1988, on the heels of his 200th win at
the Georgia helm – a 24-3 victory over Tech between
the hedges – Dooley announced he was
retiring. Russell, who’s Eagles were set to play
for another national championship, was everyone’s
choice to take over the Georgia program.
This was the ultimate no-brainer hire. It had
come close to happening in 1980, but now the
timing seemed right. Unfortunately, Dooley had
also retired as athletics director to pursue political
There was a void of leadership.
The hiring process was botched and it was
not to be.
Erk Russell coached one more year, leading
Georgia Southern to the 1989 Division I-AA
national championship with a perfect 15-0
record, winning the title game in Statesboro.
Soon after, he announced his retirement
Erk Russell passed away in September of
2006. It was a Friday.
Every now and then, in life, you might be
lucky enough to come across a wonderful person
that nobody ever had a bad thing to say
Erk Russell was that man.
As a coach, he had that incredibly rare quality
of not having to ask his players to go hard for
him. It came natural. Nobody wanted to disappoint
him. Players went as hard as they could
for him, because they wanted him to be proud.
“He never really had to raise his voice to us,”
says Chris Welton, starting rover for the 1980
national and SEC champion Bulldogs. “If you
messed up on a play in practice, he would just
give you a look, and that was enough. You did
everything you could not to disappoint him.”
Hugh Nall, stating center for the 1980 national
and SEC champion Bulldogs, began his
highly successful coaching career as an assistant
for Russell in the early days of Georgia Southern’s
He recounts one of his first recruiting trips,
and asking coach Russell what he was looking
for in terms of size, speed, technique, etc?
“Hugh,” Nall remembers, “I want you to go
find us some guys with a bad case of the wants.”
He brought out the best in everyone. From
walk-ons to All-Americans, everyone laid it on
the line for Erk Russell.
Whenever he would come back to Athens
for reunions of Georgia’s great teams, his would
be the loudest of ovations.
His accomplishments at Georgia Southern,
an astounding three national championships and
four trips to the national title game over a five
year stretch from 1985 – 1989 for a program just
reborn, are remarkable.
He would have had the same incredible
level of success at Georgia. Or Alabama. Or
Florida. Or Auburn. Had it worked out and
had he gotten the opportunity at a Southeastern
Conference superpower, Erk Russell’s name
would be next to Bear Bryant’s and Knute
Rockne’s amongst the greatest legendary head
coaches in major college football history.
As it is, Erk Russell is the greatest coach in
Division I-AA annals and the most celebrated assistant
in major college football lore.
But his accomplishments stalking the sidelines
pale in comparison to the enormity of his
humanity. He touched countless lives – his players,
fellow coaches, close friends, kids, fans, supporters,
alumni, and so many others.
Just like nobody ever wanted to do anything
to let him down or disappoint him, Erk
Russell had an incredible God-given knack of
making everyone he knew feel special in some
way – often through a clever nickname he would
come up with. He made you smile and feel good
inside. Erk Russell was one of the warmest people
who ever walked the world.
As a kid, I got to play tennis with him. The
first time, he was in his 50s and I was 15, the
best junior at our club. He flat out wore me out.
We squared off a few more times. The results
were much the same. But for me, just being on
the court with him created some of my fondest
ever memories. I also enjoyed sitting on the deck
of the tennis shop watching him play our old
friend, and fellow monster Bulldog fan Billy
Rushing. Whenever coach Russell would miss
a drop shot, he would yell at himself – “Oh why
did you try that?! Because you’re yellow?! You
just wanted to end the point!” After the match,
they would then drink a tall Budweiser and
coach Russell would get pelted with football
questions from me, and without fail, always
shared great stories and insight.
In my 20s, we played golf together three
times. He had to quit tennis because of bad
knees. Within a few months he was breaking
50 on nine holes. The last four sport letterman
in Auburn history (football, basketball, baseball
and tennis) was just a great natural athlete.
Yes, I was very lucky.
As was everyone he ever knew.
The day after coach Russell passed away,
Georgia shut out South Carolina 18-0 in Columbia.
It was the Bulldogs first road shutout in
a true SEC road game since a 27-0 win at Kentucky
in 1980. His final year on the Bulldog
It was the most fitting of tributes, and the
one he would have most wanted.
And as Georgia and Georgia Southern
square off between the hedges, there is one thing
that 100 percent of the faithful for programs
unanimously agree on – an incredible love for a
most remarkable man.