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The Ties That Bind: Thoughts On A Truly Friendly Rivalry.

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Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Seth Emerson has an interesting article up this morning on Bulldog fullback Brendan Douglas’s close family connection to the Georgia Southern football program and Coach Erk Russell in particular. Seth’s article hints at  it, but Brendan’s father Pat is among the most important figures in the history of Georgia Southern football. Douglas was the first scholarship football player on Russell’s newly reformed squad, and a captain of that first team. He was also the lone senior in Russell’s first senior class in 1982. Douglas played one year in Statesboro as a defensive back and tallied an impressive team-leading 6 interceptions.

He then coached by the banks of Eagle Creek for three more. While coaching he roomed with another GSU assistant, Paul Johnson. Where was Pat Douglas before showing up in Statesboro? Athens. Older Bulldog fans with keen memories may, just may, remember that Douglas was a prep star in Augusta who walked on at Georgia and was one of Erk Russell’s scout teamers for three seasons, including the 1980 national title run.

You could fill a decent-sized book with a catalog of all the connections between these two programs. Obviously there’s Coach Russell,  who is both respected as one of the architects of the brightest period in Georgia football history and as the very regenerator of Eagle football. A lot of younger fans don’t know that when Russell came to Statesboro from Athens he brought with him not only Douglas but a phalanx of other young assistant coaches from Athens. It’s hard to get really established football coaching names to move to a small college town in south Georgia that doesn’t yet have a football program, you know.

So Russell relied on some of “his boys”, men who would have followed Russell literally anywhere in the world if he’d asked. There was Hugh Nall, who would later enjoy a long, successful coaching career, was only just removed from his days as the Bulldogs’ starting center when he became the offensive line coach at Southern. Across the line Bulldog great Pat McShea* coached the defensive tackles, and behind him former ‘Dawg Ricky McBride tutored the linebackers. Former Bulldog running back Al Pollard coached the running backs.

Those connections also run deep across fanbases. There are literally thousands of Georgians who hold degrees from both institutions and thousands more who count themselves as fans of both teams. Personally, while I never matriculated at Georgia Southern I do have at least four family members who did. I grew up cheering for the Eagles almost as vigorously as for the ‘Dawgs. I attended football camps in Statesboro and, to be perfectly honest, ran around my backyard dreaming of big wins over Nevada-Reno in the 1-AA championship almost as often as I dreamed of throwing the winning pass to beat Florida in Jacksonville. I didn’t attend Georgia Southern, but I have an affection for it, and have for most of my life.

I don’t think I’m alone in that.  If Georgia’s long rivalry with Georgia Tech is Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate, I would characterize our games with Georgia Southern as “Clean, Sibling Admiration.” Georgia Southern may still feel like little brother. But Bulldog partisans must admit that little brother ain’t so little anymore. Georgia Southern comes to Athens Saturday as a bowl eligible Sunbelt Conference contender. They’ve come a long way from the 1981 spring game, which was actually played at the Shamrock Bowl in Dublin (it’s hard to play a big exhibition game when you don’t really have a functional stadium yet).

Georgia has played the Eagles frequently under Mark Richt, and while I don’t know that it’s always the best strategic move, I do think that it’s a great thing for the state and for the University system. I hope that those games will continue, though obviously there comes a point as the GSU program advances when it becomes less a way to help little brother keep the lights on and more a matchup with real skin in the game. That’s an exciting development. I hope that Georgia fans, even those who’ve never taken Highway 80 through Hopeulikit, or eaten breakfast at Snooky’s (R.I.P.), can take pride in what successive generations of Georgia Southern football staff and players have built. Because there’s been a lot of Bulldog red and black that helped make the navy and white-clad Eagles what they have become,

*I’ll give a virtual gold star to the first person who can tell me what McShea’s biggest contribution to the Dawgs’ 1980 victory over Tennessee was. Hint, without McShea, Herschel Walker might have had a really nice touchdown run in a losing effort.

P.S.: I still hope Georgia beats you guys like a rented mule who stole something. My south Georgian pride only goes so far.