To say that Derek Sills loves Georgia Southern University and legendary football coach Erk Russell is an understatement. A walk through his home is like visiting a museum dedicated to the iconic coach and a tribute to Eagles football.
But Sills does more than simply follow the Eagles. An alumnus of GSU, he sits on the school’s alumni board, the GSU Athletic Foundation board and is a member of the presidential steering committee working on developing new GSU football facilities.
What’s more, Sills is president of the Coastal Eagle Club based in Midway, and the Liberty County resident said he is proud his local alumni club is spearheading a project he and many others feel was a long time in coming.
The Erk Russell Project was born after a series of events left Sills wondering why the father of GSU football wasn’t recognized by a life-size statue as other coaches have been. Sills said he read an article in Sports Illustrated containing an interview with Urban Meyer. The story included information about a bronze plaque being placed at the University of Florida football field containing a quote by star quarterback Tim Tebow. This led Sills to investigate a bit deeper.
“I started doing research on the Internet about iconic coaches and southern football,” Sills said. “You know the Bear Bryants, Vince Dooleys and Bobby Bowdens of the world. And they all have statues of themselves at their respective stadiums. And I thought, well that’s not right. Erk is as loved as any of those guys are throughout the state of Georgia. He is probably one of the most recognized names in football in Georgia.”
Then, in November 2010, Sills flew to Delaware to attend the Football Championship Series semifinal game between GSU and Delaware.
After landing in Baltimore, Sills and company decided to visit the Maryland Sports Hall of Fame. While touring the facility they saw a statue of Testudo, the Maryland Terrapins’ mascot.
“And I was like ‘Oh no, if the turtle gets a statue, Erk is going to get a statue,’” he said.
That moment was the birth of The Erk Russell Project.
Sills started making phone calls to Eagles fans, alumni, former players and college coaches. He spoke with the sculptors who created statues of Dooley, Bowden and at Notre Dame.
Through word of mouth, Sills began collecting donations and as word spread, so did support. He even got a letter and donation from Dooley, once Russell’s boss at the University of Georgia.
Russell served as defensive coordinator under Dooley for 17 years and led the famed “Junkyard Dawgs” defense before he became head coach at Georgia Southern in 1981.
Along with the donation, Dooley wrote, “I was very excited to learn there is a movement to have a lifetime statue erected at Georgia Southern in memory of my longtime good friend and coaching associate, the late and beloved coach Erk Russell. It will be a fitting tribute to one of the great all-time football coaches and one of the great all-time people that I have ever known. I never knew a coach that was more loved and respected as Erk Russell. His record as a coach speaks for itself.”
Sills said GSU President Dr. Bruce A. Keel is excited about the project.
“He was the very first person from GSU that donated money and he said, ‘I want this to happen,’” Sills said. “You know, GSU is working to build a new football facility at the stadium. I sit on that committee and we were at a meeting at GSU about a month ago, and the very first topic of business that was brought up by the president was not the football facility but ‘Derek, how are we doing with the Erk Russell Project.’ Dr. Keel is keenly aware what Erk Russell means to GSU and is completely behind this.”
The project even has the support of current GSU football coach Jeff Monken.
Just this week, ESPN guest analyst and Atlanta Journal Constitution freelancer Tony Barnhart, a former GSU student known by many as “Mr. College Football, tweeted, “Georgia Southern boosters are raising funds to build a statue of Erk Russell at Paulson Stadium. I’m in.”
Barnhart followed up his tweet with an email to Sills saying, “I am sending my contribution today and I am doing so with great enthusiasm. Erk Russell was the greatest motivator of people that I have met in my 35 years of covering college football. Like so many others, he touched my life and my career and I could never thank him enough for it. We all miss him.”
Sills said the plan is to erect the statue along the sidelines of the new football facility.
Currently, there is a bust of the legendary coach near the field.
“Our thought was the players get to touch the head busts, but that’s just for the players,” Sills said. “We wanted something that the public could access and have their picture taken by a life-size statue of Erk. When I was talking to the guy who built the Vince Dooley statue, he said it was probably the most visited thing in Athens right now. Every nickel that I raise goes to this project. And I am bound and determined that Erk Russell will eternally stand guard over his house. This is the Eagle Nations’ chance to do right by Erk.”
While several activities are being planned to raise money, local residents have the opportunity to participate in an event that will coincide with the Coastal Eagles Club annual alumni meeting. Tickets are being sold for a party May 27 at Sills’ Bluff Creek home. Tickets are $20 and guests will be treated to food, beverages, music, a chance to win $5,000 and the opportunity to mingle with the entire GSU coaching staff.
Sills said the IT department at GSU is working on developing a website for the project. In the meantime, folks can learn about the project and make donations online by visiting http://southernboosters.chipin.com/erk-statue-project.
Donations can be made payable to Georgia Southern Athletic Foundation by mentioning The Erk Russell Project in the memo line and mailing checks to 170 Bluff Creek Drive, Midway, Ga., 31320.
For more information about the May 27 party and the Erk Russell Project, call 408-6521.
Don’t know who Erk Russell is? See Wednesday’s Coastal Courier to learn why so many people think the project is a worthy cause.