Erk Russell and Howard Schnellenberger aren’t in the College Football Hall of Fame. Why not?

The ballot for the 2012 College Football Hall of Fame was released on Tuesday. There are 76 players and eight coaches on the ballot. The players’ list includes the likes of Tommie Frazier and Danny Wuerffel, both of whom probably ought to have been elected already, but at least they are on the ballot.

I’m going to post briefly about two men who aren’t on the ballot, Erk Russell and Howard Schnellenberger. Why aren’t they on the ballot, you ask?

Because, incredibly, neither is eligible to be nominated.

From the above link:

To be eligible for the ballot…Coaches must have coached a minimum of 10 years and 100 games as a head coach; won at least 60% of their games; and be retired from coaching for at least three years. If a coach is retired and over the age of 70, there is no waiting period. If he is over the age of 75, he is eligible as an active coach. In both cases, the candidate’s post-football record as a citizen may also be weighed.

The late Erk Russell was a longtime defensive coordinator at Georgia under Vince Dooley. Russell was a significant contributor to numerous outstanding teams in Athens, culminating in the 1980 national title. He was then hired at Georgia Southern to re-start its long-dormant football program.

Russell took the GSU program from club status to I-AA (now called FCS), fashioning an eight-year record of 83-22-1 (two of those years came before GSU joined I-AA), with three national titles. The last of those championships came during his final season as coach, when the Eagles were 15-0, the first time in the 20th century a college football team played 15 games in a season without a loss or tie.

Those numbers, while remarkable enough, don’t fully describe his impact on the school.  Stories about him (including the marvelous tale about how ‘Beautiful Eagle Creek’ became so beautiful) will be told for generations.  He was already something of a legend before he even took the job, as this 1981 article from Sports Illustrated suggests.  Tony Barnhart once wrote that “with the possible exception of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant in Tuscaloosa, no college campus in America still feels a stronger presence of one man than that of Erk Russell in Statesboro.”

Alas, Russell is not in the College Football Hall of Fame, because he was only a head coach for eight seasons, and as you can see, that makes him ineligible.  Why the National Football Foundation thinks a ten-year requirement is necessary in the first place is open to question.

What really rankles supporters of Russell is the fact that coaches like former Marshall head man Jim Donnan can be inducted into the Hall. Donnan coached six seasons at Marshall (winning one national title), but was also the head coach of Georgia for five years, and was thus deemed eligible to be enshrined as a member of the Hall’s “divisional” class, for non I-A schools, even though he didn’t last for ten years at the I-AA level (or the I-A level, for that matter).

I’m sure UGA fans are happy to know that Donnan’s tenure at their school contributed to his selection, while Russell’s history with the “Dawgs” does not matter to the Hall.

Howard Schnellenberger, who retired after last season, falls afoul of the other major eligibility requirement, that of needing to win at least 60% of one’s games to be considered. Schnellenberger was “only” 158-151-3 as a college head coach, so he doesn’t qualify.

Obviously, it’s ridiculous to judge Schnellenberger purely on wins and losses, because he is most famous for rescuing programs in dire straits (like Miami and Louisville) or starting a brand-new operation (Florida Atlantic). His records at both Louisville (54-56-2) and FAU (58-74) are actually very good, given the circumstances, and of course, he won a national title while coaching the Hurricanes.

It doesn’t seem particularly necessary to restrict eligible candidates based on their winning percentage as head coaches. The current ballot includes Darryl Rogers (.602 winning percentage) and Jim Carlen (.604), both of whom barely qualify for eligibility. With all due respect to them, no one can claim that Schnellenberger is less deserving of consideration than they are.

Like Russell, Schnellenberger was a colorful figure (so much so that he was occasionally the subject of parody) and a program builder. Both were assistant coaches for championship teams (Russell at UGA; Schnellenberger at Alabama under Bear Bryant, and under Don Shula with the Miami Dolphins).

The fact these two men aren’t eligible for the College Football Hall of Fame isn’t a reflection on their status as legends of the sport, for that was secured long ago. It’s an indictment of the institution itself, enough to make one question its relevance.

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