Georgia Southern Football
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The Georgia Southern Eagles are the most successful program in the history of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) I-AA football, winning six national championships between 1985 and 2000. Georgia Southern University, located in Statesboro, and the surrounding community have both benefited from the team's success.
From World War II (1941-45). After the war, the college resurrected many sports, but football was not one of them.
When Dale Lick became president of the college in 1978, he was intent on bestowing the school's new nickname, the Eagles, on a football team. Both the faculty and the Statesboro community were ambivalent to the proposal. On April 9, 1981, Lick decided to start an intercollegiate football program and begin playing in the fall. "There is something about football that really gets people moving in the South," said Lick. "Georgia Southern needed football, and when I realized that, the answer was easy." Now all the Eagles lacked were a division, football equipment, uniforms, players, and, most importantly, a coach.
Erskine "Erk" Russell, University of Georgia football team, a position he had held for seventeen years. To the surprise of many, Russell jumped at the opportunity to "start literally with nothing, and to see what could be done" at Georgia Southern. Bucky Wagner, the athletic director, and Ric Mandes, the director of institutional development, helped put together the football program. Area colleges and high schools provided secondhand equipment, and the community also donated money. Allen Paulson, founder of Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation, donated $1.3 million toward a new stadium. The Eagles players were all homegrown walk-ons (or nonscholarship players). They competed against club teams at Statesboro High School for their first three years, to moderate success.
Russell's strategies at Georgia Southern brought the team success. He was a creative recruiter, signing players that were overlooked by larger schools. Russell's teams also became known for their wide-open, high-energy styles of offense, rather than for their defense. Russell also had a knack for finding transcendent players who could almost single-handedly win championships. The Eagles would continue these trends even after Russell retired.
The Eagles began and ended the 1990s with back-to-back championships, winning in 1989, 1990, 1999, and 2000. The 1989 squad was lead by all-American quarterback Raymond Gross. That team dominated the season, recording fifteen wins and no losses. The 1989 team was also the last to be coached by Russell, who at age sixty-three finished his career at Georgia Southern with an 83-22-1 overall record. His teams averaged an astounding 10.4 wins per year against I-AA competition.
Although small-time football programs generally do not make money, when successful, they can enhance a school's marketability, boost enrollment, and help raise funds. Georgia Southern has name recognition that many other schools of comparable size do not enjoy. When Russell arrived, Georgia Southern's enrollment was stagnant at about 6,000. By the time he retired, it had doubled. In 2014, enrollment was 20,542, the sixth largest in Georgia. The team's home games also generate substantial revenue for both the university and the Statesboro community.
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