YARBROUGH COLUMN: Erk Russell belongs in the College Football Hall of Fame

Published 9:30 am Wednesday, September 7, 2022

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Erk Russell should be in the College Football Hall of Fame. Period. End of story. But since I still have quite a bit of space to fill here, let me tell you why he should be and why he is not.

For those of you recently arrived in our fair state, Erskine “Erk” Russell was the head coach of the Georgia Southern Eagles football team in Statesboro; the man who resuscitated the program after a 40-year hiatus. Georgia Southern had fielded a football team until World War II whereupon it was suspended and lay dormant until 1981. That is when Russell arrived.

Between 1981 and 1989, the Eagles won three NCAA Division 1-AA national championships and finished second once. In addition, Georgia Southern became the first 15–0 team of the 20th century.

Prior to restarting football at GSU, Erk Russell was the legendary defensive coordinator at the University of Georgia for 17 years, including the 1980 national championship team. Russell helped popularize the now-familiar phrase, “Junkyard Dawgs.”

“There isn’t anything meaner than a junkyard dog,” he once said. “They aren’t good for nothing except for being mean and ornery. That’s what we want our defense to be.” And they were. And so was Erk Russell. He was famous for head-butting his helmeted players on the sideline to fire them up and leaving himself with a bloody forehead.

Many thought Russell would succeed Vince Dooley as head football when Dooley retired, but the job went to Ray Goff instead. We all know how that turned out.

Erk Russell was a master motivator, always looking for ways to inspire his players. At Georgia Southern, he renamed a tiny stream that ran through the practice grounds “Beautiful Eagle Creek.” He would have players scoop the supposedly magical waters from the creek in a jar and pour the contents onto the opponent’s field at away games as a motivational tactic.

In the early days of the program, the team was transported to and from games in two yellow school buses that the Bulloch County school system sold the Georgia Southern Athletic Department for $1 each. Long after the school could afford charter buses, Russell insisted the team stick with the yellow school buses as a way of staying connected to their humble beginnings as a college football startup. Today, the players still ride yellow school buses to home games.

Russell, who died in 2006 at the age of 80, was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1987 and into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1991 (He was a four-sport letterman at Auburn University) and was named Georgia Coach of the Decade by USA Today in 1989.

So, why isn’t he in the College Football Hall of Fame? According to the rules of those who make the selections, he doesn’t qualify. Coaches must have coached 100 games and had at least a .600 winning percentage. Erk Russell coached 106 games and had a winning percentage of 78.3.

But the rules also state that candidates must have been a head coach for 10 years. Therein lies the rub. Russell coached only eight seasons at Georgia Southern. And for a mere 730 days, one of the greatest coaches, motivators and a miracle workers to ever grace the game of football is denied his rightful place in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Incidentally, one of this year’s inductees, Billy Jack Murphy who coached at Memphis from 1958 to 1971, had a winning percentage of 67% and never won a national championship.

The roadblock seems to be Steve Hatchell, CEO of the National Football Foundation. Erk Russell’s inclusion would require a waiver. Georgia Southern University president Kyle Marrero and athletic director Jared Benko sent Hatchell a letter on Aug. 5 formally requesting a waiver on the 10-year requirement. To date, no response. 

Gov. Brian Kemp has contacted Hatchell, as well. “Georgia is proud that the College Football Hall of Fame calls the Peach State home, and we ask you in the spirit of Coach Russell’s motto — “Just one more time” — you honor him with this distinction,” Kemp wrote. Still no response from Hatchell.

Let’s all be positive and think that Hatchell and the National Football Foundation will do the right thing and grant a most-deserved waiver for Erk Russell to join the College Football Hall of Fame. If not, that crowd will clearly be the loser because Coach Erskine “Erk” Russell is and always will be the epitome of a winner.