"You better sit back and enjoy the moment, it doesn't get any better than this."

Georgia Southern assistant coach John Pate remembers those words from his late father, Durwood.

Together, they sat in the parking lot of Paulson Stadium, waiting for traffic to clear after a most satisfying December Saturday afternoon for the Eagles in 1989.

Georgia Southern finished a perfect 15-0 season with a 37-34 victory over Stephen F. Austin for its third Division I-AA national championship.

"So many times in life we don't take the time to enjoy the moment," said Pate, still an assistant at the school. "We're rushing around with our heads cut off, trying to do more. That football season Georgia Southern couldn't have done more. We met all the challenges. It was a good day to be an Eagle. It was a good season to be an Eagle."

No doubt, Georgia Southern College (the school gained university status in 1990) took a memorable 4-month trek into college football history.

Legendary football coach Erk Russell retired after the Eagles became the first Division I team in the 20th century to post a 15-0 record.

Southern was also the first I-AA team to win a national championship on its home turf, an opportunity a record 25,725 took advantage of nine days before Christmas.

"I'm biased, but I think that was the best time to be playing football at Georgia Southern," said former Eagles kicker Mike Dowis, now the head football coach at Richmond Hill. "Not to take anything away from the guys today and the great teams they've had, but there was still a newness surrounding the program then that made every accomplishment special.

"And, of course, Erk was still there."

Russell, a beloved defensive coordinator at the University of Georgia, helped restart Georgia Southern's program in 1981 after a dormant period of 40 years caused by World War II.

Russell brought instant credibility to the Eagles who went from club football to Division I-AA in just three years. In 1985 and 1986, Southern surprised college football followers by winning consecutive national championships.

Along with winning football, Russell brought fun to the program. He made positives from negatives, naming a drainage ditch that ran along the practice field, Beautiful Eagle Creek.

And he had a storyteller's way with words. Once, he promised his wife Jean he would cut back on the number of bottles of beer he drank in a day.

So, he started buying quarts.

"(Russell) had this relationship with people that can't be defined by us mortals," said former Eagles quarterback Raymond Gross, now an assistant football coach at Clark Atlanta University.

In 1988, Gross learned multiple lessons during a 17-12 loss to Furman in the national championship game. His critical fumble inside the Paladins' 10-yard line midway through the fourth quarter proved to be the game's turning point.

When the game ended Gross and his family were distraught.

Russell found Gross' mother Beverly and they hugged and cried together.

"He took the time to let my mother know everything was going to be all right," Gross said. "We weren't just football players to him and when you're coach proves to you he's that special, there isn't anything in the world you won't do for him."

In 1989, Russell turned 63 years old. Many around the program thought he would retire. His players wanted the coach to leave with one more taste of a title.

Gross (175 pounds) and fullback Joe Ross (195), labeled by Russell as the skinniest backfield in Division I, led the Eagles' triple option offense that season. Slotbacks Karl Miller and Darryl Hopkins provided speed on the outside. Ernest Thompson was a short-yardage runner, who specialized in going airborne at the goal line for touchdowns.

Sammy Twiggs played center at 220 pounds.

Defensively, Giff Smith, Steve Bussoletti and Tim Brown keyed the line. Five-foot-10, 200-pound linebacker Mike West was one of the team's top tacklers. Michael Berry became one of the school's best outside linebackers.

In the secondary, Rodney Oglesby and Kevin Whitley played the corners. Randall Boone and Taz Dixon were ball-hawking safeties.

Dowis and David Cool kicked field goals. Terry Harvin punted and held on extra-point and field-goal attempts.

"Georgia Southern has had bigger guys, some have run faster 40 times, some have bench-pressed more weight," Pate said. "But (in 1989) we had a bunch of guys who were overachievers. They liked playing together."

The Eagles opened with a victory over Valdosta State. Three games later, they played one of their most memorable games against Middle Tennessee State with Hurricane Hugo bearing down on the Coastal Empire.

The game was played on a Thursday night and would be televised nationally as part of ESPN's special series.

Hugo, headed straight for Statesboro, took a right turn and hit Charleston, S.C. More than 16,000 fans braved the torrential rains and cheered GSC to a 26-0 victory over the Blue Raiders.

Dowis kicked four field goals.

"I remember just before the half we lined up for a field goal and I looked up at the flags on the uprights and one was pointing to the right and the other to the left," Dowis said. "Harvin turned around and asked me where I was aiming. I just shrugged and said, 'I don't know.'"

There were other memorable games. The Eagles defeated Shannon Sharpe and undefeated Savannah State, blew past Terry Bowden-coached Samford and rallied to win at James Madison.

In the regular-season finale, Ross ran for 280 yards in a victory over Marshall.

GSC averaged more than 47 points a game during its first three playoffs wins to advance to another championship game.

During warm-ups of the title game, Russell shed his jacket, revealing a worn out T-shirt that donned the Eagles' favorite slogan, "BIG TEAM, little me."

After jumping out to a 14-0 lead, the Eagles fell behind by a touchdown in the fourth quarter. But Thompson scored on a 1-yard run with 5:58 to tie the game.

Then Dixon came up with an interception to set up Dowis' 20-yard game-winning field goal with 1:41 to go.

"This is why we do what we do," said Harvin to Dowis as they trotted onto the field.

And Dowis was perfect.

And nearly 25,000 tore down their first goalpost in the 'Boro.

"It was a fitting end to the Erk Russell legacy," Pate said. "You can't help but sit back and think about every now and then. My dad was right. It doesn't get any better."

GSU's 15-0 season in 1989 remembered