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Erk Russell Has Been Nominated for the College Football Hall of Fame

Yesterday afternoon, I told you I wouldn’t be posting anything new until today and that an explanation would be forthcoming. Your patience is, of course, appreciated. This is what occupied my time on Tuesday:

Last spring, I joined the National Football Foundation so that I could nominate Erk Russell for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Last summer, I verified the eligibility criteria with the Foundation’s director of special projects.

While I have been silent upon the subject publicly in the months since, I have been working behind the scenes in pursuit of what everyone agrees is a worthwhile objective. Because one of the groomsmen in my wedding a dozen years ago is now a professor at Georgia Southern University, I had an avenue by which to reach out to the proper people in Statesboro, and their graciousness and willingness to lend whatever aid they could have only confirmed for me the correctness of the universal estimation of Coach Russell as a great coach and a better man.

Many people have provided assistance, support, and information, including Ric Mandes, the co-author of Coach Russell’s autobiography, Erk: Football, Fans & Friends (of which I received a copy as a gift from The Blogger Who Came In From The Cold following the birth of my daughter, Elizabeth Rose King, whose monogrammed sweaters one day will spell out the nickname of my favorite defensive coordinator). I spent yesterday afternoon and evening compiling the paperwork for Coach Russell’s nomination, and, when I wrote to Coach Russell’s son, Jay Russell, to confirm his contact information as the nominee’s next of kin, he was nice enough to send a very kind response.

The nomination deadline is this Friday, December 11. The package containing the requisite forms and documentation was sent out via overnight mail this morning, accompanied by the following cover letter:

Ms. Hillary Jeffries
Director of Special Projects
The National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame
433 East Las Colinas Boulevard, Suite 1130
Irving, TX 75039

Dear Ms. Jeffries:

I hope this letter finds you well. Enclosed please find a completed Hall of Fame Nomination Form, along with accompanying letters of recommendation and biographical information. The required photographs of the nominee will be sent to you via e-mail. Finally, please accept this cover letter as an additional letter of recommendation in support of the nominee’s candidacy and the reasons why it ought to be considered.

It is my great honor and genuine privilege to place into nomination for induction into the College Hall of Fame the name of Erskine Russell, the late former head coach of the Georgia Southern Eagles. Coach Russell, known to every Georgian as "Erk," was and remains a beloved figure in the Empire State of the South. No head coach at any level ever had a deeper connection with or made a greater contribution to his community than Coach Russell did through his bond with Statesboro, Ga., the site of what was still Georgia Southern College when he arrived but is Georgia Southern University today.

Prior to resurrecting the dormant football program at Georgia Southern, Coach Russell spent 17 seasons as the defensive coordinator at the University of Georgia. During his tenure in Athens, Coach Russell crafted defenses which earned twelve bowl appearances, four Southeastern Conference championships, and the 1980 national title. While serving as the Bulldogs’ top assistant, Erk Russell coached an Outland Trophy winner and four National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award recipients.

One of those players who excelled both on the field and in the classroom was Billy Payne, the Georgia defensive end who said of the nominee: "I would follow him into a blazing fire. Never have I known anyone who could lead young men like Erk Russell." Mr. Payne is one of the many former student-athletes whom Coach Russell helped to mold into successful adults, as attested to by Mr. Payne’s recent receipt of this year’s National Football Foundation Distinguished American Award.

In the spring of 1981, Coach Russell was hired to revive a Georgia Southern football program that had not fielded a team for 40 years. When Erk arrived in Statesboro, the college did not have a stadium, any equipment, or a staff; on the day of the press conference announcing Coach Russell’s hiring, the Georgia Southern athletic director had to run to the store to buy a football to hand to the new head coach when he was introduced before the cameras.

The record book shows that Erk Russell’s coaching career in Statesboro began in 1982, but he actually assumed his duties on July 1, 1981, and spent the following months building a program literally from nothing. The result was one of the great success stories in the history of college football.

The Eagles won three FCS national championships with Coach Russell prowling the sidelines. The first came in 1985, in the just the fourth year that Georgia Southern had fielded a team in the modern era. The last came in 1989, when the Eagles went 15-0 in Erk’s final season at the helm of the program. He turned over an established winner to his successor and Georgia Southern has remained a fixture among the elite programs of the Football Championship Subdivision, subsequently capturing three more national crowns, producing two Walter Payton Award recipients, and winning eight league championships in the Southern Conference, which the Eagles joined after Coach Russell’s retirement.

Erk Russell, who was enshrined in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and the Blue-Gray Game Hall of Fame during his lifetime, received honors too numerous to recount during his long career as a molder of young men and an inspirational leader. Several organizations named him coach of the year on multiple occasions and Coach Russell received the 1989 Eddie Robinson Award as the country’s best coach in what was then Division I-AA. In 1990, Coach Russell was recognized as the "Georgian of the Year" by the Georgia Association of Broadcasters and invited to deliver the keynote speech to the American Football Coaches Association at their yearly meeting. The Statesboro Rotary Club acknowledged his myriad contributions to the local community in which he lived and worked on a daily basis by naming Coach Russell the 1986 man of the year.

For most Georgians, and certainly for all who were fortunate enough to have had their lives touched by Erk Russell, the question is not whether he is worthy of induction into the College Hall of Fame, but why he is not there already. Earlier this year, Tony Barnhart made the case for Coach Russell’s inclusion in the enclosed article. His absence is attributable to the fact that he fielded only eight teams during his service at Georgia Southern.

By every measure other than longevity, Erk Russell easily exceeds all of the criteria required of a candidate for the College Hall of Fame. His 83-22-1 record and .788 winning percentage with the Eagles are proof enough of that. The requirement that a nominee be a head coach for a minimum of ten years is all that stands between Erk Russell and the recognition that rightfully is his due.

Fortunately, the National Football Foundation has a history of displaying wisdom and exercising judgment in the enforcement of this requirement with respect to worthy candidates. Just last year, when Jim Donnan entered the Hall of Fame as part of its divisional class, consideration was given despite the fact that Coach Donnan spent only six seasons as a head coach in the Football Championship Subdivision. Rather than permit an arbitrary technicality to bar his candidacy, the National Football Foundation prudently gave Coach Donnan credit for his five years as the head coach at Georgia, a Football Bowl Subdivision school, in order to make him eligible for admission to the divisional class.

Similar consideration is warranted here. Although Coach Russell fielded only eight Eagle squads from 1982 to 1989, he served a ninth year as the Georgia Southern head coach in 1981, when he was creating a championship college football program from scratch. In addition, Coach Russell spent six seasons as the head football coach at Grady High School between 1952 and 1957, compiling a 42-14-3 record during his stay there. Finally, during the era in which first-year collegians were ineligible for varsity competition, Coach Russell served as the head coach of the Auburn freshman team (which competed against rival schools’ freshman teams) in 1958, 1959, and 1960.

The Foundation demonstrated the sound sense of discretion to allow Jim Donnan to count towards the ten-year requirement for admission to the divisional class his five years as a head coach at a non-FCS institution; a similar willingness to give due weight to all relevant factors ought to prevail in the case of Erk Russell, as well. All told, Coach Russell spent 18 years as a head football coach. Even if we discount his first year at Georgia Southern because his diligent efforts to create a new tradition from the ashes of the old did not include coaching in intercollegiate games, he still has 17 years to his credit; even if we discount his time as a head coach at the high school level and stick strictly to the years Coach Russell actually was leading college football teams in competition against other college football teams at the same level, he still has eleven years under his belt, one more than is needed to entitle him to consideration.

I would, therefore, respectfully request that the National Football Foundation give credit to Erskine Russell, as it has done for other deserving candidates before, for the full scope and breadth of his career, so that he might be considered free from any technical impediments. I am certain that, if Coach Russell is able to be evaluated on his substantial merits, both as a coach and as a man, he will be found a worthy addition to the College Hall of Fame. The good people of Statesboro, Ga., and more than a few in Athens, as well, would be pleased to see Erk receive the recognition he richly deserves.

Sincerely yours,

T. Kyle King

The National Football Foundation staff will evaluate the candidates in January to ensure all requirements have been satisfied. Quite frankly, given Coach Russell’s qualifications, this is by far the biggest hurdle his candidacy faces. In February, the nominations will be submitted to the district screening committees.

If it gets that far (and if the rules permit it), I plan to contact as many of the members of the appropriate screening committee as I can. If the membership of our local screening committee has not changed since the last time I checked the Foundation’s website, the folks we will need to convince include representatives of Clemson University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Georgia.

Obviously, having a Georgia representative there is nothing but good for the cause. Inasmuch as Erk Russell was listed among the candidates to replace Frank Howard in the late 1960s and he played a major role in advancing Paul Johnson’s coaching career, I suspect that having representatives from Clemson and Georgia Tech will be more helpful than harmful, as well.

On March 15, the approximately 60 top vote-getters from the district screening committees will be listed on the national ballot, which will be mailed to all Foundation members, including me. The ballots are due on March 31. The National Football Foundation’s honors court will meet in April to select the Hall of Fame class, which will be announced in May.

With any luck, this approach will work; if not, the harder route---getting the arbitrary ten-year rule changed---will have to be taken. As always, stay tuned.