The other day in Statesboro, Georgia Southern College football coach Erk Russell was standing on the bank of Beautiful Eagle Creek, which wanders majestically through the campus and alongside the practice fields. Its grandeur, observed in the right light, eclipses that of the Snake or the Colorado and certainly the Mississippi. "Once you are touched by these magnificent waters," says Russell, "you become the meanest s.o.b. to ever put on a uniform, and from then on, losing is the most disgusting thing that can ever happen."
Indeed, once you are touched by these waters, you will also need a typhoid shot. For the truth is that Beautiful Eagle Creek is the sorriest river in the U.S. It is muddy brown and littered with beer cans and is no wider than 25 feet. And, says Russell cheerfully, "it is the most gnat-and mosquito-infested body of water per cubic centimeter in the world."
Russell, who's 61, puffs away on his cigar and looks downright pleased to have pointed this out. After all, it was Russell himself who renamed the stream Beautiful Eagle Creek a few years ago. What was it called before that? "Ditch," says Russell. "Just ditch."
The legendary Erk Russell labored for 17 years under Vince Dooley at Georgia as the brilliant defensive domo with the shaved dome. "I started shaving my head back in the '50s when haircuts went up to a dollar," he explains. Everyone figured Russell would eventually replace Dooley. But Dooley stayed and stayed, so Russell finally left in 1981 to take the head coaching job at Georgia Southern, a small college (enrollment: then 6,500; now 8,500) that had last played football in 1940. But not well. In 1937 the Eagles took on Miami in the first game ever on the Orange Bowl site and lost 40-0. That was reason enough for not resuming the sport after the war.
And all Russell has done, starting with absolutely nothing but a ditch, is build a program that in both 1985 and 1986 won the national championship in Division I-AA, a group of 88 universities a rung below the big-school classification. With a two-year record of 26-4, the Eagles have won more games over that time span than any other college team.
There is no way, none, that all this would have happened without Erk, who has not a pretentious thought in his head or an arrogant act in his past. Ask his plans for this season, and from somewhere behind a cloud of cigar smoke comes this: "I don't know. Our plans really are just to enjoy the fire out of our success until we kick it off on September 5.1 don't know what's going to happen. But I do know I'm afraid to know."
It is true the Eagles will be trying to soar without quarterback Tracy Ham, a player nobody wanted, who repeatedly made good things out of bad. In the championship game against Furman in 1985, Georgia Southern was behind 21-6 at the start of the third quarter; the Eagles ultimately won 44-42 as Ham completed 23 of 37 attempts for 419 yards. Still, no NFL team showed interest in Ham as a quarterback, so he is trying to make it with Edmonton of the CFL.
Gone, too, is Gerald Harris, a fine fullback and the second-leading rusher, behind Ham. "I think our only hope," says Russell, "is that our winning in the past is contagious. But as long as the ball is shaped like it is, we have a chance." Last year the Eagles fumbled a whopping 54 times yet lost only 15. How do you explain that, Erk? "Just luck."
Yet, the winning and losing is not the point at Georgia Southern. The point is the great good spirit that Russell has brought to this peaceful burg 50 miles from Savannah. Statesboro is football the way it ought to be. Nothing slick. Nothing fancy.
After the '85 championship win, the town had a big celebration, with doves flying triumphantly out of a small replica of the Statue of Liberty. Well, O.K., so they were pigeons and had to be prodded with sticks. Same thing.
Not long ago the team bus, a rusty and decrepit 1957 model, broke down for the umpteenth time, and an athlete placed a sign in its window before everyone left it forlorn by the roadside: THIS IS NOT AN ABANDONED BUS. See, Erk's positive approach rubs off on everyone. And it runs in the family. This is a guy who came home once after a loss only to learn from his wife, Jean, that he had to go to a costume party. He protested. Said she, "Come on, Erk. I'm just going to put a little perfume on your head and you can go as a roll-on deodorant."
And Georgia Southern has become a winner, apparently without cheating. "We'd like to cheat," says Russell, cheerfully of course. "But that costs money and we don't have it." So they traffic in fringe players, almost all from within Georgia. Ask Russell the reason for his success and he says, "Good players who play good together. I know I should say 'well,' but it's not the same."
Well, no, that's not it. Because if they had been good, somebody else would have them. All Erk does is make these guys think they're good. This is in line with a note stuck in a picture frame in his office: "The better you feel about yourself, the better the world looks." Russell tells his players, "You're good enough to play for me, and that makes you good enough to win."
The Eagles may be good enough again this year. Though the talent level is a bit reduced, Russell's stature with the players grows. Offensive tackle Ronald Warnock, heading into his third year as a starter, says, "If Coach told us to lie down in front of a truck, we'd do it, because we know that everything he tells us to do will be good for us."
Why Russell was not besieged with head coaching offers before Southern (the only bid he ever received was from The Citadel) is a mystery. He may have been so closely tied to Georgia and Dooley that he wasn't thought of as head coach material in his own right. Too, Erk used to bang his head into the helmets of Georgia players during the pre-game psych-up, which naturally drew blood. His. Many recall him only as the guy with blood running down his head during games. Some may have found that image inconsistent with the dignity of higher education.
But Russell is different, and therefore better, because he doesn't complicate things. As far as Erk is concerned, the only thing better than a simple idea is an even simpler idea. Jean got after him a while back for drinking too many cans of beer. He drinks far fewer cans now. He does, however, buy much bigger cans. Simple solution. It is this view that enabled him to develop Beautiful Eagle Creek as a shrine. Standing by it, slapping at the mosquitoes, Erk explains, "We don't have the best of everything, so we make the best of everything we have."
On four occasions Russell has taken water from Beautiful Eagle Creek to playoff games and poured it on the opposing team's field. Four times the Eagles have won; four times they scored more than 40 points. This water truly is offensive. And now when seniors graduate, they get a small vial of water from Beautiful Eagle Creek to keep forever.
Opponents have tried to counter this tactic, but to no avail. In the Division I-AA semis last year, Nevada-Reno showed up with water from their Truckee River. They lost 48-38. In the finals Arkansas State showed up with water from their Indian Pond. That failed too, 48-21. Nothing compares to water from Beautiful Eagle Creek.
Russell swats and slaps and looks happy as a pig in slop. "Plant operations came down here the other day to try to kill some weeds," says Erk. "But they killed the fish instead. Fortunately, they didn't disturb the gnats and mosquitoes." Where does Beautiful Eagle Creek originate? "Oh, up yonder." Pause for effect. "In somebody's septic system."
And talk about simple, as in simple pleasures. Russell shows up nearly every day around 6 a.m. at a cafè called Snooky's. He arrives at dawn "because if I don't, I'll miss the first wave of philosophers." They talk, he says, of the four F's—fighting, fishing, farming and, occasionally, football. Snooky's is a '50s throwback with torn black vinyl booths. The main decoration is a poster demonstrating the Heimlich maneuver.
Banana pudding is 80 cents, but only 50 cents if you order a meal with it. The regulars can sit for hours and nobody cares. "Anybody with the guts to drink this coffee deserves a place to sit for as long as he wants," says Russell. "But it is kind of a good place to start the day."
Snooky's is also a good place from which to watch "our sunrise services." Players who misbehave must run Snooky's Trail, a two-mile course, much of which can be seen from the restaurant. It is at Snooky's that Russell philosophizes. Asked what players can learn from him, he says: "Nothin'. Except how to block, tackle, catch it, throw it." He also teaches G.A.T.A. (Get After Their Asses or, in polite surroundings, which Snooky's is not, Get After Them Aggressively) and Do Right. Says Russell: "We teach those things pretty good, and if they learn them O.K., they'll be in good shape in life."
Erskine Russell grew up in Birmingham, the son of an accountant and a housewife, graduated from Auburn in 1949 and received his master's in education in 1952. He was also the school's last four-sport letterman. He coached Grady High in Atlanta to a state championship in 1953, quick-kicking 10 times in a torrential rain to preserve an early lead. Simple solution. Erk coached at Auburn and Vanderbilt and in 1964 joined Dooley at Georgia. While in Athens he had the famed Junkyard Dogs, and occasionally, the Underdogs, but never, until coming to Georgia Southern, No Dogs.
Building a football program out of nothing is a huge step that never would have happened at Georgia Southern without the maverick ways of the president at the time, Dale Lick, now president at the University of Maine. In April 1981 the faculty senate voted about 2 to 1 against the university's starting football. "The faculty has the tendency to think what they decide is the way it will be," says Lick with a smile. "That's not true. Any university you have a high regard for has a football team. Just going to class and studying isn't healthy. You need something to break it up."
The faculty, though, had an important ally. Vernon Crawford, then boss of the Georgia Board of Regents, told Lick, "If I wanted to kill a school, the first thing I would do would be to build a football stadium." But Lick pressed on and got his team. Was there ever any sort of feasibility study? Says Russell: "Sure. We went around the state and said, 'If we get up a team, will y'all come?' " Simple.
Average home attendance last year was 12,527, doggone good for a town with only 15,300 residents. The first year the football budget was $180,000; this year it is $820,000. Says athletic director Bucky Wagner, "Many I-A schools waste as much money in a year as we run our program on." Indeed, the uniform pants still have no stripes, because that would increase the cost $4 per pair. A huge boost was the more than $1.35 million contributed by Allen Paulson, CEO of Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. in Savannah. That earned him his name on perhaps the finest small college stadium in the land.
Next year Georgia Southern plans to spend $300,000 to put up lights—just in case TV might want to catch the Eagles in night flight. The booster club now numbers 1,282, an increase of 1,282 over 1981. That year football raised $120,000; this year it raised $509,624.62.
These days, Russell—who makes about $60,000 a year plus another $300 a week for an in-season TV show and gets a $2,700 housing allowance plus a Chevy Impala—is busy letting his players know what he expects them to give. He has sent calendars, for example, that offer suggestions for each day: "The stars indicate you should take a trip today—like two miles in 13 minutes."
So, Erk, everyone else looks at you and sees a genius. How do you look at yourself?
"Mostly in a mirror," he says.
O.K., are you pleased with what you see?
"Naw, I'm too fat."
And then he gazes out toward Beautiful Eagle Creek and says, "You know, when that water clears up, you can see even more junk on the bottom."
Erk starts his day at Snooky's with a taste of Statesboro's local flavor.
Bottling the creek's elixir has helped win two national titles.