Russell, Georgia’s iconic defensive coordinator from 1964 through 1980, left the Bulldogs to start the football program at Southern, but Athenians never really gave him up until Friday, when he died of what is believed to be either a heart attack or stroke while driving in Statesboro.
“He had two homes really, one was in Athens and one was in Statesboro,” said Chris Welton, who was a senior defensive back for Russell on Georgia’s 1980 national championship team. “Coach (Vince) Dooley obviously was a great coach and very successful, but I don’t know of any assistant coach anywhere in the country who had as much influence on the shape of program as Erk Russell did in Athens.”
A four-foot by five-foot picture of Russell’s trademark bald head, bleeding from head butting a padded player, still watches from the back of every gathering in the Bulldogs’ defensive team meeting room, and, as of 9 p.m. Friday, Georgia officials still were trying to determine a way to honor Russell during tonight’s 7:45 game at South Carolina.
“This is a sad day for the Bulldog Nation,” UGA athletic director Damon Evans said. “Erk truly embodied what it means to be a Georgia Bulldog.”
The Bulldogs’ defense became known far and wide as the “Junkyard Dawgs” under Russell, but he never got a chance to be a head coach until the Eagles called. Russell always worried that his bald head and scowl gave the wrong impression and cost him the chance at some head coaching openings, said Loran Smith, the executive secretary of The Bulldog Club.
In 1972, Smith found himself having a conversation on an airplane with Bud Carson shortly after Carson was fired as Georgia Tech’s head football coach.
“Bud said, ‘You know what I should have done, I should have hired somebody mean as hell and tough like Erk Russell. He’d grab them and shake them and make them play,’” Smith said. “I said, ‘Bud, you don’t know Erk. He coaches through love and salesmanship.’”
In fact, the only time Russell ever raised his voice on the practice field or in meetings was to praise a player, Welton said.
“He looked like a mean son-of-a-gun, but that’s not really how he was,” Welton said. “There’ll never be another one like him. He’s just a unique character and exemplified everything that was best about the game and what a coach should be.”
Georgia led the nation in total defense in 1966 and in scoring defense in 1967 under Russell.
“This is a total shock,” Dooley said in a statement released by the school late Friday. “To say that Erk was a great coach doesn't do him justice. He had a wonderful sense of humor, combined with a tremendous ability to motivate. He had a unique ability to relate to players in a very special way and was the epitome of a players’ coach.”
To this day, more people ask Welton about Russell than about Dooley.
“I have all the respect in the world for Coach Dooley, but he’s not as much of a personality as Coach Russell was,” Welton said. “People knew there was something more there than met the eye so they were curious about that.”
Russell, who withdrew his name from consideration for Georgia’s head coaching job before Ray Goff was hired in 1989, won three national titles at Georgia Southern as well as three Division I-AA coach of the year awards.
“I’ve never known a better football coach than Erk,” said Dan Magill, Georgia’s former sports information director and unofficial historian. “He’d have made a great head coach at Georgia. I just hate it that it never worked out that he got the chance. He was a beloved coach if there ever was one.”
To the end, Russell was a gentleman, Smith said, taking the time to send handwritten letters of congratulations in a penmanship so elegant that it almost couldn’t have come from his craggy hand.
“There’s a certain air of stiffness around some people with status or success. You are reticent to walk into their midst,” Smith said. “You don’t know if you can go up to them and shake their hands. I think people felt like if they walked by Erk’s house and he was having breakfast, they could walk in and have breakfast and talk with him. He wouldn’t have minded a bit.”