The future of Bulloch County and Georgia Southern changed drastically in 1981 when former Georgia Southern College President Dale Lick made the decision to renew football at the school after not fielding a team since 1941. From 1981 to 2013, the enrollment at Georgia Southern increased from 6,603 to 20,517 and the population of Bulloch County increased from 35,785 to 71,214. Much of the growth has been attributed to the success of Georgia Southern’s football program over the last 30 years, including recognition of such by current President Brooks Keel.
The successful program started when Erk Russell, the defensive coordinator for UGA’s 1980 national championship team, was persuaded to leave UGA to become the head coach at Georgia Southern in 1981. Russell made the decision despite the widespread assumption that he would be the first choice to replace Vince Dooley when Dooley retired. Lewis Grizzard commented on the hire by stating “When they landed Erk Russell, they got themselves a franchise.” Grizzard definitely got that one right.
Erk was tasked with creating the program completely from scratch. They did not have a field to practice on, a stadium to play in, or football equipment and gear to use. The athletic director at the time, Bucky Wagner, had to go to K-Mart to purchase a football to use at the press conference to announce Russell’s hiring, as the school did not even own a football. Erk’s office would be housed in a single-wide trailer. It definitely was a far cry from the University of Georgia.
The community quickly came together to rally behind Erk and the football program. Money was raised to help support the team and build Allen E. Paulson Stadium. Its namesake, the founder of Gulfstream, donated over $1 million towards the building of the stadium. The football field is named after former Georgia State Senator Glenn Bryant of Hinesville, who donated over $250,000 for the property purchase.
A practice field was set up near the magical and mystical Beautiful Eagle Creek (really a drainage ditch) that still flows next to the practice field today. Dan Patrick, sports radio and TV personality, traveled down to Statesboro in 1988 and did an interview with Erk that also highlighted the creek. The video thankfully still remains and stands as a testimony to the years under Erk Russell.
Georgia Southern played its first NCAA game in 1984 as a member of the I-AA subdivision. They won the first of their six National Championships in only their second year by beating Furman in 1985. They would also win it all again in 1986. Erk Russell went out in style in his final season as a coach in 1989, as he led the Eagles to a 15-0 season and their third National Championship in front of a crowd of 25,725 at Paulson Stadium. I was twelve years old and in the crowd with my dad on that cold day cheering on my Eagles.
Though he passed away in September, 2006, Erk’s legacy still remains a strong presence on the largest public campus in Georgia, from the players riding to home games in yellow school buses to the shouts of “One More Time” from the stands to the ever present motto of GATA all over campus. The plain uniforms and helmets being worn by the Eagles today are a carry over from Erk’s attempt to put together a uniform as cheaply as possible. A bust of Erk stands at the edge of the football field and is rubbed (and sometimes headbutted) by players for luck.
In an interesting side note to Georgia’s political history, Erk Russell personally called Casey Cagle to recruit him to come play football at Georgia Southern, which he did in 1984 until an Achilles tendon injury led to Cagle giving up football.
Georgia Southern would add its fourth national championship in Coach Tim Stowers’ first year as head coach in 1990. It would be the last national championship before joining the Southern Conference in 1993. Tim Stowers was still at the helm as Georgia Southern proceeded to win the Southern Conference championship in its first year.
They would go on to win 10 Southern Conference championships in football over the next 20 years. They also added two National Championships in 1999 and 2000 under Coach Paul Johnson, the current Georgia Tech head coach. To the glee of Eagles’ fans (and many UGA fans), they went into The Swamp last year and defeated the Florida Gators for their first ever win against a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) opponent.
This year, Georgia Southern entered the FBS by joining the Sun Belt Conference. Many people said that Georgia Southern could not make the leap to the big stage. The Sun Belt coaches predicted them to place 8th in the conference. Southern is proving them wrong. They are one of only two teams in the Sun Belt to remain undefeated in conference play and the first team ever to start 4-0 in its first year in the conference.
On Saturday, Georgia Southern plays Georgia State for the first time on the gridiron. Georgia Southern is currently a 17.5 point favorite in the game. They are the nation’s FBS leader in total rushing yards and rushing yards per game. Georgia Southern has already beaten two of the teams that have beaten Georgia State this year. Georgia State is still looking for their first FBS win. On paper, it looks like an easy victory.
However, Georgia State is a much improved football team from the previous years. They have lost 3 of their 4 Sun Belt games by only a field goal. Matt Brieda, a running back for Southern, stated to the Statesboro Herald: “They’re not a bad team at all. They’re talented and disciplined, and they’ve been close each week. We’ve got to bring our A game, because they can come out and beat us.”
There should be a lot of Southern fans in attendance. Georgia Southern fans have already purchased all of Southern’s ticket allotment, so the University had to request more tickets from Georgia State. Southern has issued a “whiteout” call for the game, encouraging Southern fans to dress in white to show their support. They will be loud as they turn the Georgia Dome into Paulson North.
While I am definitely proud of Georgia Southern’s past, I am equally as excited about the future of the school that I am an alumni of. Of course, I am also looking forward to seeing the Eagles kick some Panther butt on Saturday.
Hail Southern. #SouthernNotState