College Football Hall of Fame needs to abolish draconian rule and admit Erk Russell

Cornerback Riyahd Jones #24 of the Georgia Southern Eagles hugs the Erk Russell statue Bennett/GettyImages)
Cornerback Riyahd Jones #24 of the Georgia Southern Eagles hugs the Erk Russell statue Bennett/GettyImages) /

There are three coaches’ names that are spoken with solemn reverence by football fans in Georgia — Wally Butts, Vince Dooley, and Erk Russell. One of them is unfairly omitted from the College Football Hall of Fame. 

I want to offer a preamble to this column. I’m a huge supporter of the College Football Hall of Fame. Their work is vital and they are an institution that keeps the story of this nation’s most endearing sport alive. Without their work in preserving not only the actual artifacts but the stories and players behind them, the sport of college football would be a mere shadow of its own existence.

With that, there is one area where the College Football Hall of Fame can make an immediate impact by making a small but significant change. That change involves what a coach must accomplish to be inducted as a member.

Georgia football legend Erk Russell belongs in the College Football Hall of Fame, and an outdated rule is the only thing keeping him out.

For a coach to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame they must meet the following criteria.

  • Coached at least 100 total games
  • Have a .600 minimum winning percentage.
  • Have been a head coach for at least 10 years

It’s that last bullet point that has kept legendary college football player and coach Erk Russell from taking his rightful place in this honored hall.

Russell’s credentials are well-documented, and it seems almost ludicrous for a man who coached 106 games and had a winning percentage of 78.3, three Division 1-AA national championships, as well as numerous coach of the year honors to be omitted from the Hall of Fame.

The brains and brawn behind the famed “Junkyard Dawgs” at Georgia coached for 31 total years. From 1958-1962 he was an assistant at Auburn, spent one year as an assistant at Vanderbilt, and then came to Georgia where his influence can still be felt to this day.

For 17 seasons he was the master motivator in Athens, bringing Georgia’s defense to national prominence, and helping head coach Vince Dooley lead the Bulldogs to their first national title since 1942.

“There isn’t anything meaner than a junkyard dog,” Russell is quoted as saying. “They aren’t good for nothing except for being mean and ornery. That’s what we want our defense to be.”

The Dawgs were that and more on defense under Russell’s watch.

After that famed 1980 season at Georgia, Russell took on the task of reviving the football program at Georgia Southern University. To say he was successful at this task is a massive understatement. He compiled an 83–22–1 as the Eagles’ head coach without a single losing season, taking them to four national championship games, winning three of them.

His memory at Georgia Southern is so revered that players still hug and head-butt his statue at Paulson Stadium, a nod to Russell’s habit of doing the same to his players on the sideline until his exposed scalp was bloodied.

Erk Russell died in 2006 at the age of 80, and has been inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame (1987) and into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame (1991) as well as being named Georgia Coach of the Decade by USA Today in 1989.

Yet, his resume is viewed as less than Hall of Fame worthy, because he only logged eight seasons as a head coach.

730 days, two brief autumns – that’s all preventing one of the greatest coaches in the history of college football from being rightfully honored in its most hallowed institution.

The College Football Hall of Fame has been sent countless letters and requests over the years from Georgia governors like Brian Kemp, to university presidents and athletic directors from both UGA and GSU, pleading for the Hall of Fame and National Football Foundation to give Russell a waiver.

Maybe it’s time to adjust that request.

Erk Russell deserves to be more than just a waiver case

Instead of making Russell a “special case” and asking for a waiver, maybe it’s time to just do away with the 10 years as a head coach requirement. There are a lot of assistant coaches and coordinators who may never get — or even want — a shot at being a head coach whose accomplishments are more than Hall of Fame worthy. Why should they be left out?

After all, it’s a Hall of Fame that encompasses the entire sport not just a select portion of it, and many is a head coach whose accomplishments would be severely diminished without the help of their assistants and coordinators.

It’s a College Football Hall of Fame, and to have someone who impacted the sport of college football as much as Erk Russell left out is a crime. He exemplified everything good about the sport, he commanded respect at every stop, and yet he is shunned because of what amounts to a technicality.

Erk Russell is one of the greatest stories in the history of college football, and, as its primary storyteller, the College Football Hall of Fame should have a hand in making sure every generation knows about Erk.

The ballots for the 2024 Hall of Fame class will be sent out in a few short months. It would be an incredible sight to see Erk Russell’s name included.

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