Quick. Name the first college football team to go 15-0.
It's the 1989 Georgia Southern team. The Eagles, playing in Division 1-AA's Southern Conference, went 11-0 during the regular season, then swept through the playoffs, winning the national championship game in Statesboro, beating Steven F. Austin, 37-34. I was at that game.
That was the last game coached by Erk Russell, who is a legend in the state of Georgia. That game was also the first football game my son, who had turned 3 the month before, ever went to. He doesn't remember much about that game, of course. But he remembers the "bald-headed man at the game." He remembers Erk Russell.
Erk Russell died Friday of a stroke while being treated following a wreck.
He was a special person to fans of Georgia football ... and I don't just mean UGA. Let me explain.
In the 1970s, Erk was defensive coordinator for Vince Dooley's University of Georgia Bulldogs. His players loved him. Georgia fans loved him. He had a sense of humor and exuded confidence.
He used to butt heads with his players during practice ... and during games. The players had on helmets. Erk used his head. His bloody forehead didn't look too good. But his players played real good. (Yes, I know it's "played well" ... but I don't care.)
In 1980, UGA won the national championship after being the only undefeated team in college football. I was at the game where they moved to number 1 (26-21 win over Florida in Jacksonville) ... and at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans when they beat Notre Dame, 17-10. It was great.
After Georgia won it all, Auburn came calling for Vince Dooley. Dooley was an Auburn grad (as was Erk), and was tempted to take the job. In fact, it looked like he would return to his alma mater (he eventually turned it down). The chance of Vince Dooley leaving ... and one silly phone call from Statesboro ... prompted Erk Russell to met with UGA president Fred C. Davison. Erk was told he would not be considered for the job if it came open.
That's when Erk returned a call he had received earlier from Statesboro. Seems Bucky Wagner, Georgia Southern College's Athletic Director, had the crazy idea to bring football back to Statesboro. And he wanted Erk Russell to lead that.
Erk, though, wanted to coach Georgia. So, he asked Davison if he'd be in the running. Told "no," Erk did the next best thing. He accepted the job at Georgia Southern College.
He got in his car and headed down towards Statesboro. A news conference was quickly called, and they were going to announce the football program ... and the coach ... as soon as Erk got there. Only they had to run to K-Mart first. They had to get a football.
So, with in idea, a K-Mart football, and a head coach, Georgia Southern started a football program.
In 1981, they played club-level football against teams like the Ft. Benning Doughboys. In 1982, they played a Division III schedule, finishing 6-3-1. In 1983, they played a Division II schedule, finishing 6-5. In 1984, GSC moved to Division 1-AA, and finished 8-3, just missing the playoffs.
Then came 1985. Georgia Southern went 9-2, and made the playoffs. Then, they did the most amazing thing. They kept winning. They played three playoff games on the road, winning all of them, and advancing to the National Championship Game in Tacoma, WA against Furman University. And, lo! and behold! GSC won the darn thing, 44-42. In their 4th official year of football, they were national champions.
I was working in Jacksonville then. And had a friend who was a huge Florida Gator fan that got me tickets to their home opener in 1986. Against Georgia Southern. And while GSC got beat 38-14, I was impressed with what I saw. I told my friend afterwards "You saw this year's national champions playing today." He thought I was crazy.
Until Erk's Eagles beat Arkansas State 48-21 in the title game in Tacoma.
Erk led his teams to the playoffs again in 1987, but they lost in the 2nd round, 19-0 to Appalachian State, the only time any of Erk's GSC/GSU teams were ever shut out.
1988, was the season was when I took my daughter to some of the games. She was 5, and still liked to go places with her daddy. So, I strapped her into her seat, put the Eagles Greatest Hits in the cassette player, and drove to Statesboro to watch the Eagles play.
She thought it was funny that the singers were the Eagles and the players were the Eagles, but they weren't the same Eagles. We stayed for all of most games. Although, sometimes, she was ready to leave after the band finished playing. Still, I saw most of the games we went to.
GSC made it back to the title game, but lost to Furman in Pocatello, ID, 17-12. I watched the game on TV, and was heartbroken when they lost ... especially to Furman.
It was the last game Erk Russell would ever lose as head coach.
In 1989, I took my daughter to an occasional game. But I went to the rest of the home games myself. But my son finally went to his first college football game. Since Georgia Southern had played in 3 of 4 title games, Statesboro bid on the title game. And got the bid. So, in 1989, the first of 3 title games was played in Statesboro. And, for the first time ever, the home team was in the title game.
My son didn't understand the history he was seeing being made. He saw Erk Russell and Georgia Southern run their record to 15-0, the first time that had ever been done. He also saw Erk Russell coach his last game.
Erk Russell retired with a 83-22-1 record. That's a .788 winning percentage, if my math is right. But, for years afterwards, Erk sat in his position at the end of the end zone in front of the clubhouse, watching his beloved Eagles play football.
A couple of years ago, he had a falling out with GSU. He thought they handled a situation poorly. And it affected his family. They made up during the last year. And Erk had planned on being at the game Saturday night.
His wreck Friday morning, and his fatal stroke, prevented that.
Georgia Southern lost their game Saturday night. But that wasn't the loss that mattered.
Erk Russell is gone.
And nothing will ever be the same.