I’ve been drafted to take part in something that I don’t think I’ll have much impact with — but I will get after it aggressively.
It’s “Operation Do Right,” the push to somehow convince the National Football Foundation to consider Erk Russell for the College Football Hall of Fame. As hard as it is to believe, it’s true — Erk isn’t in the College Football Hall of Fame and without some changes, won’t even be considered.
When Erk stepped down following 1989’s perfect 15-0 season — the first 15-0 season recorded in nearly 100 years of intercollegiate football — he had been a head coach for eight years. That’s two short of the hall of fame’s requirements.
Under their criteria, a coach must: have been a head coach for at least 10 years; coached in at least 100 games; and won at least 60 percent of his games. A coach also becomes eligible for consideration three years after his retirement.
But the group of 185 coaches in the College Football Hall of Fame includes Bobby Bowden, Joe Paterno, Chris Ault of Nevada and John Gagliardi of St. John’s in Minnesota. All four are still active coaches, those there may be some smart-alecks who claim that Bowden retired years ago but still shows up to practice and games anyway. Ault had retired but came out of retirement to coach Nevada again.
Erk’s record at Georgia Southern was 83-22-1, a winning percentage of 78.8, in eight seasons. He was named USA Today’s “coach of the decade” for the 1980s. He’s in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. He was also the last athlete to earn letters in four sports at Auburn.
And he finished his coaching career the only way possible — leading the Eagles to the first 15-0 record in the 20th century and to a third national championship.
The night before he died, he addressed the Eagles — as fitting as that 37-34 win over Stephen F. Austin was in his last game as 1989, his last act too may have been perfectly scripted, telling the team what it means to put on the plain blue jersey, put on the plain white pants and step between the lines of the prettiest little stadium in America.
Should the voters ever get to think about Erk to include in the hall, they’ll look at cold, hard, empirical data. Maybe they won’t get to hear or see just what Erk meant to everybody he came in contact with. I never played a down at Georgia Southern — but I knew Erk well as a student and in later years. I was snot-nosed punk sports writer for the Statesboro Herald in 1988. I even got a ride home from practice from Erk on a couple of occasions.
Along with my dad and the brilliant Dr. Arthur Woodrum, my advisor at Georgia Southern, Erk remains one of the three great influences on me to this day.
And if he had ever asked me, “Patrick, I need you to run through that brick wall for me,” I’d have said, “Yes, sir,” and charged headlong into that damn wall until either it or me gave way.
Tony Barnhart, the CBS Sports and Atlanta Journal-Constitution college football expert, asked in his blog earlier this week why Erk isn’t in and decried the great man’s lack of inclusion. It was a wonderfully-written piece, and I couldn’t have agreed more. I hope enough of the bigwigs and bigshots who pay attention to Mr. Barnhart’s coverage of college football pay close heed to his words on Erk. His impact on the game and most importantly on people can never be underestimated.
The National Football Foundation won’t get to determine if Erk is hall-worthy until a change is made in the requirements. If active coaches who are not anywhere near retirement can be inducted while they are still breaking down video and drawing up plays and eating the home cooking of a recruit’s mother, maybe one more exception can be made. Maybe the board of directors can be prevailed upon to do right.