STATESBORO, Ga. - In this college town where Georgia Southern football casts a shadow over virtually everything that goes on, Erk Russell was more than a coach.
That was evident Friday after word of his death quickly spread throughout the city.
The baldheaded, barrel-chested Alabama native who, in the 1980s, turned a dormant football program here into a perennial national champion, died Friday morning after suffering a possible stroke in his car. He was 80.
He was remembered for his impact on Georgia Southern and Statesboro. Some said Russell, more than any other individual, symbolized his university and his adopted hometown.
"He was our damn Statue of Liberty," said former university administrator Ric Mandes, who helped recruit Russell to the school.
The town seemed to change almost as soon as Russell announced he was leaving Georgia's successful program for small Georgia Southern, Mandes said.
The numbers back him up. Georgia Southern - formerly Georgia Teachers College - had about 6,600 students in fall 1981, when Russell left a national championship team at Georgia.
In 1989, the year he retired, Southern had more than 11,000 students. Today, it has a projected enrollment this fall of 16,850.
"This tidal wave of growth we've seen is a direct result of Erk Russell standing up and saying, 'Folks, I'm turning in red and black for blue and white,' " said Mandes, referring to the two schools' colors.
The school began generating interest from students in larger cities who before would have only considered going to Georgia or Georgia Tech.
"He is truly an icon in our community and he'll be sorely missed," Statesboro Mayor Bill Hatcher said. "When you hear his name, you think of Statesboro and you think of Georgia Southern."
For all the praise about his role in growing Statesboro and the university, Russell was an incredibly humble man, said Bruce Yawn, an offensive lineman at Georgia when Russell was defensive coach there.
"He would be embarrassed about people even thinking that," Yawn said. "To me, that's what made him the man he was."
RUSSELL ON ...
Georgia's 1980 champion season:
"When you beat everybody, people say you were lucky, Well I'd rather be lucky than good."
Herschel Walker in 1980:
"Coach (Vince) Dooley said he thought Herschel would be ready for varsity competition by the fifth game. After he had been in Athens a few weeks it wasn't hard to tell he was the best runner I had ever seen."
His first news conference at Georgia Southern in 1981, when athletic director Bucky Wagner had to run out and get a football:
"We've come a long way since then," he told The Augusta Chronicle. "We now have a bag full of footballs."
GEORGIA SOUTHERN RECORD
*Won Division I-AA title
Source: Georgia Southern