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November 16, 2012

Unfolding of the UGA-GSU "Rivalry"

In 1981, Erk Russell started to build the GSU
football program from the ground up literally.
Under head coach Vince Dooley, the Georgia football team first began facing I-AA competition in the mid-1980s.  It started with a game against Richmond in 1986 and William & Mary followed two years later.  Around the same time, three and a half hours southeast from Athens, Georgia Southern had been quickly transformed by former Bulldog defensive coordinator Erk Russell from a school which didn't even have a football program at the start of the 1980s to a I-AA national power. 

Nearing the end of the decade, GSU seemed like a logical choice as an upcoming lower-division foe for Georgia.
In 1988, two old friends Dooley and Russell reached a verbal agreement for the two schools from Georgia to square off.  Dooley thought it would create a lot of interest around the state while assisting a fellow state school without conflicting recruiting interests.  Erk believed the meeting could further the growth of his GSU program even more while opening the door "for competition with other large in-state institutions," according to Russell (which could have only meant Georgia Tech).  Nearly an entire decade removed from facing the Yellow Jackets, Erk evidently still wanted to G.A.T.A., or get after Tech's ass (Tech wouldn't schedule a meeting with the Eagles until 2009 to be played in 2015).
Soon after the agreement between coaches, the planned game was dealt a twist of irony.  In mid-December of 1988, Dooley resigned as the Bulldogs' head coach after 25 years at the helm and Russell appeared to be his logical replacement.  Dooley even recommended Russell for the post to an eight-man committee assembled to select Georgia's next head coach.  The committee pondered over a list of candidates, including NC State's Dick Sheridan and Arkansas' Ken Hatfield, but there seemed to be only one man perfectly fit for the job.
The day after Dooley's resignation, the committee recommended Russell to UGA President Charles Knapp.  Believing Russell would accept the position, the committee reportedly even sent champagne and flowers to Erk's hotel room in Montgomery, Ala., where he was preparing to coach in the Blue-Gray All-Star game on Christmas Day.
Here's where the details become a little fuzzy...  What is known is that Russell told the media the job was offered to him but he turned it down.  This claim was denied by Knapp and committee chairman and Athens banker Bob Bishop, indicating the job wasn't offered to Russell in the first place.  Knapp would later say it was a "misunderstanding," while Erk said the denials made him look "stupid."
Regardless, a temporary rift resulted between Russell and the UGA administration, Ray Goff was eventually named Georgia's head coach, and even today there are many Bulldog boosters who haven't gotten over what Knapp did to Erk.  Still, the show must go on, and in March of 1989 the first Georgia-GSU football game was officially scheduled for October of 1992.
Immediately following the scheduling of the game, the Bulldogs' new, young head coach said that he didn't necessarily believe in a nothing-to-gain/everything-to-lose scenario by facing Georgia Southern.  "I say that's the case every Saturday," said Goff at the time.  However, three and a half years later, the Georgia head coach had changed his tune somewhat:
"We're in a no-win situation," said Goff the week of the GSU contest in '92, "This is probably the most difficult game I've ever been involved in."
The I-AA Eagles had proved to be a difficult opponent for upper-tier opposition.  In capturing four national titles by 1990, GSU had gone 0-3 versus East Carolina, but had a losing average margin of just four points against the Pirates.  Two years after dropping their season opener of 1986 to 13th-ranked Florida by a respectable 38-14 score, the Eagles led 6th-ranked Florida State 10-7 midway through the fourth quarter before the Seminoles rallied for a victory.  In 1991, under head coach Tim Stowers (Russell retired following the '89 season), GSU jumped out on 17th-ranked Auburn 17-0 and led by two touchdowns at halftime before the Tigers came back in the second half for a win.

Twenty years ago, UGA combated a stellar GSU ground 
game with 173 yards and two TDs from Garrison Hearst.
"This is a game I've been dreading for four years," declared Goff just days before the highly-anticipated meeting.  As for Erk Russell, the former GSU head man actually couldn't make the game because he was to undergo hip surgery.  In true Erk fashion, the most popular Eagle of all time said of his surgery, "I wish I had the damn thing done six months ago, so I wouldn't have to miss [the game]."  

For the game, GSU brought 10,000 loyal and rowdy fans into Sanford Stadium.  Georgia would hand the Eagles a $140,000 check for their efforts and the Bulldogs would hand over a quick 7-0 lead, allowing GSU quarterback Charles Bostick to rush for a 40-yard score on 4th and 1.  The Eagles would finish the contest with 232 rushing yards against an excellent Bulldog defense, but fumbled twice inside Georgia's 10-yard line and eventually lost, 34-7.

In fact,  GSU has been a pesky opponent for the Bulldogs in all four of their meetings (1992, 2000, 2004, 2008).  Against Georgia teams that entered with an average AP national ranking of sixth, the Eagles have averaged 205 rushing yards, nearly a 4.0 yards-per-carry average, while the average final score has been only 39 to 16 in favor of the Bulldogs in a game which was initially recognized by Erk Russell as "big" for both schools.

"It's big.  It's real big," Russell said to a newspaper writer from his home phone 20 years ago just prior to the first UGA-GSU game.  "It must be big.  You're about the sixth person to call me."

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Mr. Garbin:

Thanks for sharing this. I went to that first game in Athens and missed Southern's only TD because I went in the wrong gate. I grew up in Statesboro and was in high school when Erk arrived. Then, I went to Southern and finally graduated in '88. The last game I saw in person was Erk's last win to cap off the 1989 undefeated season.

I started watching UGA (& listening to Munson) in 1975. When it was announced that Erk was starting a football program at GSU, it was hard to believe. He was already a legend at Georgia and could stay there or move on to something bigger, right?

People were just crazy about him. He helped the school more than double in size and reputation too. Autumns in sleepy little Statesboro suddenly got a lot more fun.

Anyway, it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if he had taken over after Dooley. Oh well, I enjoy your work and will share it with my Dawg friends.


John Conley