By Charles Odum
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (March 07, 2000)


The introduction of football to Georgia Southern could not have come in a more humbling environment.

It was May 23, 1981, when the school then known as Georgia Southern College scheduled a news conference to introduce Erk Russell as the new head coach for the new football program.

But there was one problem: The new football program didn't own a football.

So on the morning of the press conference, athletic director David "Bucky" Wagner - hired only five months earlier - had to make a dash to the nearby K-Mart to buy a football for the new coach to hold while posing for pictures.

"We didn't have a ball," remembers Wagner, no longer the athletic director but still a faculty member at Georgia Southern. "We didn't have anything. We didn't have lockers."

Added Wagner: "I remember looking at Erk and I said 'Coach, this is going to be different.'"

Different? Indeed.

But different can be good.

Introduced as a varsity sport in 1984 - after two years as a club sport, playing teams like the Fort Benning Doughboys - Georgia Southern won its first I-AA national championship in 1985 and just kept winning. The Eagles have made the I-AA playoffs 11 times, posting a 30-6 playoff record while advancing to seven championship games and winning five titles - including the 1999 crown.

The first three national titles - 1985, 1986 and 1989 - came under Russell, who retired after a perfect 15-0 season in '89.

As the long-time defensive coordinator under Vince Dooley at the University of Georgia, Russell was one of the most respected assistant coaches in the country and perhaps the most beloved icon in the Bulldog nation.

Only one year earlier, it appeared Russell was on the verge of rising to the job of Georgia head coach when Dooley, in the midst of the 1980 national championship season, strongly considered a move to Auburn.

Instead, Russell accepted the challenge of reviving football at the school which hadn't fielded a team since the outbreak of World War II, when Georgia Southern was known as Georgia Teachers College.

Russell brought a truckload of second-hand equipment with him from Georgia, but the revered coach with the bald head provided far more than shoulder pads and shoes.

"For the people supporting the program, he gave them immediate legitimacy," said John Mulherin, who in 1981 was a Georgia Southern student and now heads the athletic department's booster organization.

Before Russell became the figurehead of the program, the idea of bringing college football back to Statesboro had created little interest on campus.

Georgia Southern teachers were especially wary of turning their institution into a football school. As Georgia Southern president Dr. Dale Lick polled his faculty, he found 63 percent to be against football.

Even GSC students responded to questions about football with a yawn; an inquiry in the student newspaper generated only 25 responses, and only five students showed up for a forum conducted by Lick.

Then came Erk.

Wagner says he knew he was getting a coach with great name recognition, which was most important. Ray Goff, then an assistant coach at South Carolina but more importantly a well-known South Georgia native, was Georgia Southern's second choice.

Wagner knew about Russell's reputation of butting heads with his Georgia defensive players - when the players wore helmets - to fire up the team before a game, but he didn't really know the qualities Russell would bring to the job.

And no one knew Georgia Southern could enjoy so much success so quickly.

"I don't think anybody is that smart," Wagner said.

"The things you underestimate are his compassion and his ability to just draw people around him. You think of Erk with that rubber suit jacket on and his head bloodied from head-butting people and you would think that's the toughest person. 'I bet he beats the kids. I bet they're scared to death of him.' It was just the opposite. He was the most compassionate man and coach I've ever been around. I never heard him raise his voice to the kids."

Russell remains Georgia Southern's biggest booster, fund-raiser and living legend.

Asked about the Eagles' Sept. 2 season-opening game at Georgia, Russell quickly says "I can tell you it's 197 days away."

Added the 73-year-old Russell: "I really am looking forward to it. I missed the first Georgia Southern-Georgia game (a 34-7 Georgia win in 1992). I had hip-replacement surgery."

Russell was the last four-sport (football, basketball, baseball and tennis) letterman in Auburn history, and he brought the same do-it-all approach to Georgia Southern football.

"It was kind of an adventure," Russell said. "I had no idea what would happen, how many people were interested in playing football at Georgia Southern. All of those things were exciting. At the same time, my days were filled with asking people for $5 for a pair of socks and $20 for a jersey, trying to get matching uniforms."

Russell's first victory came in Columbus at Fort Benning in 1982 after his cast of mostly walk-ons lost to Florida State's junior varsity the previous week.

Lick set the course with his vision. Wagner sketched out the plan after endless market studies and other research of costs and resources. Russell tied it all together.

The three were the perfect team, each playing a vital role as Georgia Southern paved a new path. Other schools like Valdosta State and West Georgia had launched football in Division II or Division III, respectively, but starting off in I-AA was a different challenge.

"I didn't have any idea of what to expect and I certainly didn't think we would go to the moon as quickly as we did," Russell said.

A key for Georgia Southern's I-AA decision was the fact it already was competing in Division I in basketball and baseball. Another key was scheduling.

"You've got to look at who can I play that will come to my place and play," Wagner said. "You have to get in a schedule that you can compete with the resources you have and get in a schedule that is glamorous enough that the people will come out and support you. If it's too easy and you win, the competition will quit playing you and the fans will say play somebody better."

A final piece of the puzzle was the donation of more than $1 million from Allen E. Paulson of Savannah for the stadium that bears his name.

The Eagles used Statesboro High's Womack Field and Savannah's Memorial Stadium until their own stadium was finally ready for its debut on Sept. 29, 1984.

Russell dubbed Paulson Stadium "the prettiest little stadium." What mattered to the Georgia Southern people was that it was their stadium.

"It was really something to walk in that first game," Mulherin said. "It was a surreal experience."

The stadium, scheduled to be paid off in 2004, currently seats 18,000 but was designed for expansion phases to 35,000 and then 50,000.

For Wagner, most important was the idea that when Georgia Southern made its debut in the stadium, it was ready to be a winner.

Georgia Southern has won - on and off the field. Enrollment, only 6,000 in 1982, now sits at approximately 14,500. The biggest growth came from 1984-90.

"Your football program becomes the marketing tool for the college," Russell said. "It just works that way, especially if you can win and get in the playoffs and get on TV every now and then. Fortunately, it didn't take us long to do that, just our second year. We didn't have near enough money to buy that kind of marketing."

Russell cautions that immediate success is not a given. "You've got to prepare the other way," he said.

Still, other universities look at Georgia Southern as the football start-up example to follow.

Wagner serves as a consultant to other schools launching football programs.

"It can do tremendous things for your institution if done properly," Wagner said. "It can also be an albatross if not done properly. You can't get into it partway."

Asked what advice he would give Columbus State, Wagner said: "Just tell them you've got to take your time. When you get to that point, you better be ready to play. The concept is not just to have a team, but to have a winner."

Added Wagner: "When you have a great act, you don't put it first. The great act is when you finally walk into that stadium against a legitimate team. You can keep your fans all the way up to that point, and if at that point you aren't any good, then you've got a problem. It doesn't matter when you get there, but when you get there you better be competitive."

Football 101