Recently I had the opportunity (thanks to my friends at Original Retro Brand and my good friend Andy Hyman) to go to the Touchdown Club of Atlanta's weekly luncheon honoring the week's top football players and coaches and the event is concluded with a guest speaker. This week however, the guests were members of the University of Georgia's 1980 National Championship team. Today's blog is a recollection of my experience at this event as well as a compilation of the stories that were told about the great Junkyard Dawg defense. Enjoy!
The smell of great food, and the discussion of how good or bad different teams are is going on, and football is definitely in the air. But this wasn’t the campus of Georgia, Auburn or Georgia Tech. It was the Fox Sports Grill at Atlantic Station at the Touchdown Club of Atlanta weekly luncheon. And on this day Buck Belue reminded us all of something that most Georgia fans and college football fans seem to forget…”Herschel never played defense.” The 1980 National Champions had a RB that rushed for 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns. Yes, they also had a pretty good QB in Belue and receivers in Amp Arnold and Lindsay Scott. But their defense was the anchor to their undefeated season, and eventual title. The Junkyard Dawgs never gave up more than 21 points in any game and against a high-powered Notre Dame offense in the title game, they gave up just 7 points. The Junkyard Dawg defense was created, motivated and loved by none other than 3-time National Championship coach Erkskine “Erk” Russell. According to 1980 Team Captain Frank Ros (pronounced Ross), as the I-Formation was becoming more popular the Split 60 defense was used to stop the Veer and Option, but Russell morphed the defense to move the Sam linebacker (strong side) to a D-tackle, and then would move back out, and the end would shift back in to stop the I-form, Iso, and Dive plays. Thus with the combination of speed, intelligence and motivation, this defense earned their nickname“Junkyard Dawgs”. Frank Ros, Bob Kelly and Robert Miles all agreed that their defense was centered around Russell. For instance there is a pretty famous picture of Erk that most college football fans of that era have seen with Erk’s head gushing blood, but this wasn’t from his famous head butts of defensive lineman. You see he created a tradition with his defensive lineman where in pre-game warm ups he played a game called “Bull In The Ring”. For those that don’t know, it’s when one player would stand in the middle of a circle of other players, and they would come from all over to hit the man in the middle, one at a time. Well, Erk would stand in the middle and he would butt his head into his player’s chest. He had a player that just moved from linebacker to D-line who didn’t know this, and he dropped his head and the screws on the helmet cut Erk’s wrinkled bald cranium. Frank Ros recalls that before going out on the field that Erk stopped him at the door, swiped his hand across his head, and wiped the blood on Frank’s jersey. Ros told us “At that point I would have run through the wall for him”.
Russell had an uncanny ability to motivate his players by knowing their personalities and loving his players. All the players on the panel agreed that Russell’s coaching style was to never criticize the athlete, and instead he would only critique the action. Never saying “you screwed that up” or negative statements that would potentially put someone down, but instead he loved and respected his players enough to use positive motivations and only talk about the action. In closing, there are two other notable points that I found worthy of mentioning. Bob Kelly recalled that when the Dawgs lost homecoming in 1979, Coach Vince Dooley moved curfew up to the moment they returned back to the dorms. Then the next morning (Sunday morning) the trainers woke them up for practice at 7am. At this point they still had a JV team who was going to play Clemson Sunday afternoon. After practice was over, the JV was put on the bus with a sandwich and sent to the stadium. After that experience they didn’t want to lose another game so they just went undefeated the next year. They all also agreed that in their era, having a Junior Varsity team and everyone having to play on the Scout teams helped propel them to the Elite. That and bloody Tuesday’s! As Buck Belue said referring to Bloody Tuesday’s, “When you have that #1 offense going against the #1 defense in practice how could anyone beat us.”
Personally, I had a great time filling in for Andy at the Touchdown club, and I honestly enjoyed hearing about Erk and his Junkyard Dawgs. As a former high school football coach, it was nice to hear that a coach treated his players the right way, and could still win. Now days too many coaches think they have to belittle and berate players to get them to perform, and Vince Dooley and Erk Russell remind us of how you can win and treat players as people. Coaching means you are the teacher, and these legends were the perfect example. In conclusion, I have to give a shout out to the Georgia High School Lineman of the Week Joe Turner, who was noted for making 11 tackles, and played offensive line in a game in 2009 with a broken wrist! Now that’s a beast! Thank you to Andy and Original Retro Brand for the opportunity to write this blog.