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Erk Russell: This Was a Man

Do you not realize that a prince and a great man has fallen in Israel this day?

King David
II Samuel 3:38

As I write this, a little more than 12 hours have passed since the sad news of Erk Russell's death was made public and I, like every other citizen of Bulldog Nation, am still in shock.

Susan, Thomas, and I went to a football game at Starr's Mill High School in Fayette County earlier this evening and, before the national anthem, the public address announcer took a moment to inform the crowd of Coach Russell's passing and to offer a brief eulogy on what Erk embodied, not just for the sport but for the lives of all those who were influenced by his example.

It was a fitting tribute and I would like to think that it was duplicated at every high school football stadium in the state tonight. Personally, I think the governor---a former Georgia walk-on from the era in which Coach Russell was still stalking the sidelines in the Classic City---should have declared a day of mourning and closed every public school in the state, the way Alabama did when Bear Bryant died.

Erk Russell. (Photograph from Athens Banner-Herald.)

I suppose it's a bit silly for me to be upset over the death of someone I met only once and never knew personally . . . but we are, after all, speaking of the defensive coordinator after whom I considered naming my son, who I wish had replaced Vince Dooley at the Georgia helm in 1981.

Coach Russell was a master motivator who did not forget that, as someone who molded young men in a university setting, he was a teacher first and foremost. He passed along life lessons, and not just defensive techniques, to his players and he knew how to get his message across to them.

While Coach Dooley was still contemplating the dismissal of several Bulldogs after the infamous hog incident of 1980, Coach Russell was the one who saw how it could be used to bring the team together. When Len Bias died of an overdose in 1986, Coach Russell conveyed the dangers of drug use by throwing a rattlesnake on the floor in a team meeting to make sure his analogy would be remembered. During a road game at historic Grant Field, Coach Russell saw a Yellow Jacket trainer in a sweatshirt reading "G.T.A.A."---"Georgia Tech Athletic Association"---and came up with the idea of rearranging the letters to produce what is perhaps the sport's most memorable slogan: "G.A.T.A."

Musician Mark Wiggins wrote and recorded a song called "One More Time Coach Russell," about which he had this to say:

Growing up, my hero was Erskine "Erk" Russell. Erk was a bigger than life personality to me. He was a genius of a coach, hilarious, and tough as nails. Some folks think Bear Bryant or Vince Lombardi, but for me it was always Erk as the greatest motivator on a football field.

Erk used to head-butt the players without a helmet on to fire them up on the sideline. He'd be calling plays and yelling as his forehead bled. Who wouldn't want to win the game with that kind of spirit behind you?

When I got home from work this afternoon, I pulled the American Football Coaches Association's Defensive Football Strategies off of the bookshelf and began reading the chapter penned by Coach Russell for the Bulldogs' 1977 summer manual. The treatise is entitled "Eliminating Options With the Junkyard Eight" and it describes the use of the Split 60 defensive alignment to stop the Veer and the Wishbone. In Erk's inimitable fashion, he began with these words:
Following a season when we had our worst defensive record ever at Georgia and with little prospect of being any better the next season, we started calling our defensive unit the Junkyard Dogs in an effort to give our players a point of pride to rally around. I made arrangements with our band director that if we ever did anything good on defense, our band would strike up with Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," who was "meaner than a junkyard dog." . . .

By our own definition, a Junkyard Dog is a dog completely dedicated to his task, that of defending his goal line. Further, he is very often a reject (from the offense) or the runt of the litter. Nobody wants him, and he is hungry. We had three walk-ons, four QBs, and three running backs in our original Junkyard Dog starting cast, which averaged 208 pounds across the front. In short, a Junkyard Dog is one who must stretch and strain all of his potential just to survive. Then he can think about being good.

How successful was Coach Russell at getting his players to stretch and strain all of their potential? During the 17 years that Erk served as Georgia's defensive coordinator, the 'Dawgs played 192 games and held the opposition to 17 or fewer points in 135 of them. In 74 of those contests, the Red and Black D kept the other team's scoring in the single digits, including 27 shutouts. Coach Russell's Georgia defenses allowed more than 28 points just 18 times in 17 seasons.

That's the Georgia football I grew up with, which should help explain why I am so adamant in my insistence that you win championships with defense.

Dave the Dawg hit the nail on the head, in a manner that reminded me of another of my heroes, Henry Lewis Benning.

Henry Lewis Benning. (Photograph from Joseph Henry Lumpkin School of Law.)

Benning was the 19th century statesman from Columbus who, after graduating from the University of Georgia, served as a Georgia Supreme Court justice and a Confederate general. (Fort Benning is named in his honor and his portrait hangs on the third floor of the law school in Athens.)

Benning, whose troops knew him as "Old Rock," is buried in Linwood Cemetery in his home town of Columbus and the inscription on the slab covering his grave reads simply: "This Was a Man." That same concise compliment needs to be hewn into the marble covering Coach Russell's final resting place, as well.

Erk Russell was a man. His memory will be cherished, his lessons will be remembered, his legacy will be glorified, and the world will be a poorer place without him in it.

We'll miss you, Coach.