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Foundation of football

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    In 1924, the hiring of first head football coach, E.G. Cromartie, brought a collegiate football program to the students at the Georgia Normal School.  He was replaced in 1927 by head coach H.A. Woodle, who himself was replaced by head coach B.L. “Crook” Smith. His “Blue Tide” even played a football game in the then-unfinished stadium which has since become known as the “Orange Bowl” down in Miami, Fla. While the athletic programs at South Georgia Teachers College enjoyed some success, the involvement of America’s armed forces in World War II resulted in the discontinuation of all athletic programs at SGTC in December 1941. With the conclusion of the war, some sports programs were restarted, but not the football program.
    In 1978, Dr. Dale W. Lick became the latest president of Georgia Southern College (the fifth name). In February 1980, Dr. Lick established a committee which eventually published a report entitled “Football at GSC: A Feasibility Study.” They recommended re-establishing a football program if the following conditions were met: if the program was financially affordable; if the college could come up with $250,000 in start-up costs; if the team played at the highest levels possible; if consultants were used to ensure all proper rules and regulations were followed in its establishment; and finally, if the program guaranteed that all NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) strictures were obeyed. On Jan. 19, 1981, the college hired Head Athletic Director Dr. David B. “Bucky” Wagner to oversee the program’s creation.
    A group of local luminaries from Bulloch and the surrounding counties assembled to lend a hand getting the football program off the ground. Known locally as the “Dirty Dozen” (or DD), this group included Roy Akins, Al Burke, Hugh Colson, Jimmy DeLoach, Sammy Johnson, Robert Lamp, Morris Lupton, Donald Nesmith, Bobby Olliff, Frank Pearson, Ronnie Pope, Bobby Underwood, Si Waters, and Bruce Yawn. Mr. Lupton, the founder of the “Time Savers” stores throughout the Southeast, took the lead in establishing business contacts all over the region. Ric Mandes (GSC Director of Institutional Development), Dr. Wagner, Dr. Lick, and members of the DD went looking for potential sponsors and recruiting players at area high schools and colleges. On April 9, 1982, Dr. Lick and Dr. Wagner held a news conference to formally announce the start of the football program in the 1982-3 college year.
    On May 23, 1982, the new head coach of the GSC football team was introduced to the public: his name was Erskine Russell. He was not an unknown to most of those assembled. “Erk” as he was affectionately known, had been the defensive coordinator of the much-feared “Junkyard Dawgs” of the University of Georgia’s football team from 1964-1981. In fact, Sports Illustrated writer Brooks Clark called Russell “the most loved sporting figure in our state” and stated that this was “the biggest thing to happen in Statesboro, Ga., since Sherman burned the Courthouse.” Just as the cameras were getting ready to record the moment for posterity, Dr. Wagner was informed that there was not a football to be found on the GSC campus, so he ran across the street to the Kmart and bought one for Erk to hold as he was introduced.
    It turned out that Frank Inman (a former assistant football coach who had worked with Erk at UGA) knew that Erk had been denied the head coaching spot at UGA when Vince Dooley became Athletic Director (Dooley kept the top coach’s job as well) and had failed to get the top job at his alma mater, Auburn University. He suspected Erk might be up to the challenge, and after getting Dr. Lick’s approval, made Erk an offer he couldn’t refuse. Aside from his salary of $52,500 a year (plus benefits), he would get to hire his own men, pick his own players, and build his own offenses and defenses from scratch. The University of Georgia football staff contributed jerseys and helmets for the team, and many other schools (including Vanderbilt and Mississippi) also supplied the team with equipment.
    They played their first practice on Sept. 28, 1982. Over 120 players showed up, including some of the University of Georgia football players Erk had coached who still hadn’t graduated. The rallying cry heard around the campus became “Work for Erk” as the team strove to become worthy of their name: the Georgia Southern Eagles. The players used lockers at the Hanner Fieldhouse, and crossed back and forth across the drainage ditch between the fieldhouse and the field they practiced on. Erk seized on the mystical properties of the water of what he named “Beautiful Eagle Creek.” All of a sudden, getting covered with the dark dirt from the ditch became a symbol of pride for his players and getting wet by the water became a harbinger of good luck for games to come. Erk’s first home at GSC was a donated mobile home, and his office was the back bedroom (mirrored hot tub and all), which was parked in a campus parking lot next to the ditch. Erk became known for shouting “GATA” at his players while they were on the field, which was his way of telling them to “get after their asses” in a nice sort of way.
    Their first game was an intra-squad game played in Dublin. There was a caravan (that seemed to stretch for miles) of cars, trucks, and buses full of families, friends, students and staff that followed the Eagles to the game. They played the next two scrimmages in Florida: the first against the Florida State University Junior Varsity Team (the Eagles lost); and the second against the Fort Benning Doughboys, comprised of players from the Army base at Columbus, Ga. (the Eagles won). Their third scrimmage was held in front of 4,288 screaming fans at Womack Field on the Statesboro High School campus, against the Magnum Force, a team comprised of law enforcement from the Jacksonville area (the Eagles won here too).
    Dr. Wagner established the Southern Boosters, an alumni organization to support the needs of the team, and brought in Ken Winstead, who had run the very successful Cougars Club at the University of Houston. The Bulloch County School Board agreed to allow the Eagles to use Womack Filed for their home games until the school could prepare a field for their team.
    In 1982, the team played in Division III and had a record of 6 wins, 3 losses, and one tie. In 1983, the Eagles moved up to Division II, and had a record of 6 wins and 5 losses. In 1984, the Eagles moved up to Division I-AA, and had a record of 8 wins and 3 losses. In 1985, the Eagles won their first National Championship, with a victory over Furman of 44-42. In 1986, they won the National Championship again, with a victory over Arkansas State,  48-21. In 1987, the Eagles lost to Appalachian State in the second round of the playoffs. In 1988, they lost in the title round to Furman by a score of 17-12. In 1989, the Eagles won their third National Championship, with a victory over Steven Austin, 37-34. It was several days after this game that Erk decided to retire. His final record with the Eagles was a remarkable 83 wins, 22 losses, and one tie, for an overall percentage of .788. He was replaced by his offensive coordinator, Tim Stowers. The Eagles went on to win three more National Championships (1990, 1999, and 2000). They were the only college team to have amassed a record of 15 wins and no losses (from their 1989 season) in the 20th century.
    For his efforts at UGA and GSC, Erk was honored by virtually everyone: he was the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame Coach of the Year for 1984, 1985 and 1986, and then was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame for his own lifetime of service. He was inducted in to the Alabama Sports Hall Of Fame in 1991, was named the USA Today Coach of the Decade in 1991, was named the CBS Sports Coach of the Year in 1991, and was a torch-bearer at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.
    Erk died on Friday, Sept. 8, 2006 as a result of a stroke he had while he was driving the family car in Statesboro. Ironically, Erk had just spoken with all of the 2006 team members on Thursday night, saying he was quite excited about the football game, and indeed the entire upcoming season. While the GSU football team will carry on, the field (and the game) will never be the same without the man known as the father of football in the Boro. Already, there are discussions of erecting a monument to Erk to ensure that his presence will continue to be felt in the future.

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