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January 14, 2014

Lemons Into Lemonade

As Georgia bids adios to its defensive coordinator and searches for another, I thought it might be appropriate to post an edited piece from my Georgia-Florida book on the greatest defensive coordinator in the history of college football.  Whereas the Bulldogs' last head of defense had a forgettable tenure, getting mediocre results from NFL talent a year ago to getting his players simply confused this season, Erk Russell was quite the opposite.  He could turn, as they say, lemons into lemonade, during a coaching career that was rather memorable.
On a personal note, I actually met Erk once sort of when I was just a few years old during the late-70s.  His wife was a friend of my mother’s and the Russells were invited to our house for dinner.  Even today, more than seven years after his death and 33 years after his time at UGA, I still brag how Coach Russell ate dinner at my house, while my father, even today, still brags that his son actually sat in the lap of the legendary Erk.
The absolute best of Coach Vince Dooley’s supporting staff was undoubtedly Erk Russell – Georgia’s defensive coordinator from 1964 through 1980.  Russell was not your run-of-the-mill assistant coach and is held in high regard by Bulldog fans, still today.

Just four years after graduating from Auburn, where he remains the university’s last four-sport letterman, Russell guided Grady High School (Atlanta) as its head football coach to a Georgia state championship in 1953.  He was later an assistant with Dooley at Auburn from 1958 to 1962 and would eventually follow him to Athens for the start of the head coach’s tenure at the University of Georgia in 1964.

In 17 seasons and 192 games at Georgia, Russell’s defensive units allowed a paltry 13.9 points per contest, while yielding roughly the same average (13.8) in 17 games against the detested Florida Gators.

Perhaps no assistant in the history of college football was known for being as much as a motivator and communicator with his players than Russell.  His distinct shaven bald head would often be bleeding during games since he frequently rammed it into his players’ helmets during pregame drills for motivational purposes.
After Georgia upset Florida in 1964, Russell was so overwhelmed with emotion that he jumped up on a table and led a bedlam-filled Gator Bowl locker room to a repeated cheer of “DAMN GOOD TEAM!” 

Russell once noticed a Georgia Tech student trainer with a sweatshirt reading “G.T.A.A.” – Georgia Tech Athletic Association.  The defensive coordinator swapped the two middle letters and came up with a celebrated slogan for his own team – “G.A.T.A.” – Get After Their Asses. 

Russell also devised the Bulldogs’ big “TEAM,” little “me” T-shirt, declaring that the individual player was always less significant than the entire team. 

Later on, he also created the rallying cry of “Tuck Yech,” and, well, you can probably figure that expression out on your own.

Coach Russell with Junkyard Dog-turned-Runt
Dicky Clark 
The Bulldog Nation's favorite inspirational tactic of Russell was his creation of the “Junkyard Dogs” defense of 1975.  Georgia’s defensive unit had lost nine of 11 starters from 1974, including two All-SEC performers, and was also switching to an unfamiliar “Split-60” formation.  As fall practice began just three weeks prior to the season opener, seven of Georgia's starting defensive positions were unsettled.

Because of the defense’s new faces and formation, Russell felt the unit needed a nickname.  For what the defense lacked in experience and raw ability, it more than made up for it with intensity and an aggressive style of play demonstrated during fall drills. Plus, as Erk stated, “there isn't anything meaner than a junkyard dog,” and a moniker was formed. 

According to Russell, the 1975 defense “had three walk-ons, four [former] quarterbacks, and three running backs in our original Junkyard Dog starting cast, which averaged 208 pounds across the front.”  Regardless, by the end of a surprising 9-2 regular season for Georgia, its no-name defense had yielded just 15 points and 307 yards per game while proving that it’s not always how quick the feet and size of the body that counts the most, but rather how quick the mind and size of the heart. 

After Georgia won its national championship in 1980, Russell left the school and ventured to Statesboro, Georgia, for the challenge of restarting the Georgia Southern College football program, which had been dormant for 40 years.  Remarkably, by the program’s fourth season of 1985, head coach Russell had already won his first of what would eventually be three Division I-AA national titles.  After capturing his third national championship as head coach of the Eagles in 1989, Russell retired from coaching with an 83-22-1 overall record in eight seasons at Georgia Southern.
QUOTES from ERK cherished by the Bulldog Nation  
*You’re good enough to play for me and you’re good enough to win.” (Addressing his first defensive unit at Georgia in preseason practice of 1964)

*There isn’t anything meaner than a junkyard dog.  They aren’t good for nothing except for being mean and ornery. That’s what we want our defense to be.” (Summer practice of 1975)

*[The Junkyard Dogs] have to be in the proper frame of mind for this one.  We call it intelligent fanaticism, with a little more emphasis on the fanaticism.” (Prior to the 1975 Florida game)

*"If we score, we may win. If they never score, we'll never lose."
*"THERE AIN’T NOTHING LIKE BEING A BULLDOG ON A SATURDAY NIGHT - - - - - AFTER WINNING A FOOTBALL GAME.  I mean like whipping Tennessee’s ass to start with, then ten more and then another one.” (In a July 7, 1980 letter addressed to Gentlemen: (and Linemen))
*"I can grow hair with the best of them.  It’s just poorly proportioned."
*"I looked down and there was a dime on the ground.  I picked it up, put it in my left shoe. …We beat Clemson that day…I taped the dime in my shoe so I wouldn’t lose it, and made sure that I wore it throughout the season. We were 12-0 and won the national championship, and I’m sure the dime did it.”
*"The best way to win a game is not to lose it.”
*"At Georgia Southern, we don’t cheat. That costs money and we don’t have any."
*"If you don’t have the best of everything, you make the best of everything you have."

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