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Oct. 11, 2011
By Rob Daniels, Special to theACC.com
Larry Russell chuckles when asked if his children have been able to watch highlights of his Wake Forest playing career.
He knows such footage might as well be hand-held, one-camera cinematography of the Yeti in Nepal. (Then again, scouts say the Yeti could get baffled by the demands and nuances of the triple-option.)
The images are old but misleading, for they suggest guys like Russell and his 1970 ACC Championship team can't be linked to the modern age without raising Kevin Bacon to the eighth power. Although Russell still lives in the New England community in which he was born and raised, he has maintained substantial ties to his Demon Deacons, whose ACC title season of 2006 reminded him of his teammates' successes.
"Our coach, Cal Stoll, was great," Russell said. "He used to say we were small, slow and not very strong, yet we found a way to win games."
Russell, a financial advisor who resides in Newburyport, Mass., and works across the border in New Hampshire, is Wake Forest's ACC Legend for 2011. He accepts the honor as an emissary of his comrades.
The 2006 Deacons, coming off consecutive 4-7 seasons, were picked for the cellar of the relatively new invention known as the ACC's Atlantic Division. Their breakthrough performance was greeted with amazement.
But for even greater shock value, turn back the clock. When it took the field in 1970, Wake had produced two winning seasons in 17 tries in ACC play. That included the 1963 squad, which went scoreless for six straight weeks.
Russell's team was the consensus choice for irrelevance, and when it lost the season's first three games, it was even further buried in public thought.
As it turns out, the Deacs weren't that bad. They gave eventual national champion Nebraska a fight in the opener and nearly knocked off Florida State, which would go on to post a 7-4 record.
The Deacs broke through for a win at Virginia in their fourth game. Tragically, Russell's girlfriend had made the drive from Penn State and was on the way from Charlottesville to Winston-Salem when she was killed instantly in a single-car crash.
The Deacs rallied around No. 5, a shocked and saddened teammate, and took off without a backward glance.
Some 36 years later, Wake's run to a title would be inspired in part by similar tragedy. A few weeks before that season's start, linebacker Jon Abbate lost a brother in an auto accident. He asked to wear 5, his brother's number, in tribute.
During that run, somebody gave Abbate an old No. 5 practice jersey.
"It was actually my jersey," Russell said. "The guy who gave it to him had stolen it from the equipment room."
The 1970 Deacs had installed the Veer offense, a ground-hugging, option-based attack in which the quarterback has an especially heavy responsibility for analysis and quick decision-making. (Think the modern Georgia Tech teams. Seriously. In 1971, the Deacs ran for 304 yards a game, an ACC record that stood until the 2010 Jackets broke it.) The onus fell to Russell, who had a good enough arm to play three seasons of baseball for the Deacons but whose best attribute might have been his head.
Russell was a first-team All-ACC performer while throwing for 671 yards the whole season. When he didn't pitch the ball to Larry Hopkins, Wake's 2010 Legend, he often kept it. He held conference marks for rushing yards by a QB for several years after his graduation.
"Many times, I'd just call a play at the line," Russell said. "It was pretty simple. And we had some real track meets."
His team was off and running. And running some more. Wake, which had had never won more than four conference games in an season, went 5-1 in 1970, securing the championship with a 16-13 win over NC State in November.
They did it with two future NFL players, the lowest total in the ACC. Similarly, the 2006 Deacons won their title with exactly one player who had been rated with more than three stars on a 1-5 scale by one recruiting service.
"We won only because of the coaching," Russell said. "We had great coaches who taught us life lessons. Good coaches get you ready to play; great ones get you ready to play games, and they get you ready for life."
Stoll's staff in 1970 included future Georgia Tech head coach Bill Lewis. Russell's position coach in 1969 was Tom Moore, who years later would gain celebrity by directing Peyton Manning and the offense of the Indianapolis Colts.
One difference between the eras is the list of benefits associated with a conference championship. The 2006 Deacons' reward was a trip to the Orange Bowl. For Russell's crew? Pride and perhaps some jewelry. Back then, there were just as many teams playing major college football (123 to the current 120) but only 11 bowl games, about one-third of today's count. Tie-ins and guaranteed spots for conference champs were a decade or more away.
Wake's 1970 season ended with a loss at Houston in a previously scheduled regular-season game at Houston.
"We just wanted to win the ACC championship that year," Russell said. "That was our goal, and fortunately, we were able to do that. Times were so different. College football is more about entertainment than it was then. The movie Field of Dreams? That's what college sports were about then."
None of this is to say Russell disdains the modern college experience. Two of his five children, Tyler, 32, and Jessica, 30, are Wake Forest graduates. Russell endowed a scholarship at the university, and attends games when he can. Ashley, 28, Christopher, 19, and Alexandra, 16, are honorary Deacs. He and his wife, Karen, are talking about getting the whole family together, including granddaughter Avery, for the ACC's Night of Legends in Charlotte, when he will be honored.
So just how good was Russell in running the offense? When Stoll left Wake for Minnesota following the 1971 season, the first QB he recruited for the Gophers was a kid from Jackson, Mich., named Tony Dungy. Asked to describe the best way to make the Veer work, he showed Dungy some film. Russell was the star of the show.
Dungy, as fans now know, later coached a Super Bowl champion with a staff that included Moore. Now that's good for some relatively recent footage. High-def, even.