By Ken Shearer
Former Southern Miss football standout John Thomas Russell died May 3, at about 2:30 a.m. at a hospital in Austin, Texas. He was 76.
John had suffered a severe stroke on April 27. Funeral arrangements are incomplete but the funeral is expected to take place late next week in Tylertown with the burial at the family’s home church cemetery near Monticello.
John and Miriam had lived in Leander, a suburb of Austin, Texas, for a number of years where he had been in the building business.
John Russell was a starting tackle on the undefeated (9-0) 1958 College Division National Championship Football Team. He had come to then-Mississippi Southern from Monticello (Miss) High School, as a freshman in 1954. He was one of five 5th-year seniors that formed the nucleus for the 1958 team. The other four fifth-year seniors were Jimmy Taylor, Richard Johnston, J. C. Arban and Bob Yencho. All were starters and all were critical to the team’s success.
Listed at 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, Russell could have played for any team in the country but most schools didn’t think so and they passed over him. Head coach Pie Vann and line coach H. A. Smith took a chance on him and never regretted it. Because of his size, he was tested at guard several times, guard in that day being a position more welcoming to a player his size. However, he was always moved back to tackle where he lined up against men three to six inches taller and 25 to 50 pounds heavier. He prevailed anyway, lettered as a sophomore and became a starter by his junior season. These were the days of limited substitution so everyone played both offense and defense. Despite his size, Russell was equally good on both sides of the ball.
With John Russell’s death, all the tackles on the 1958 are deceased. The other regular starter was John Perkins, 6-1, 230. Sometimes starters were Sam Tuccio, Billy Goat Sullivan. The backups were Buddy Long, George Underwood, Charley Baetzman, and Hollis Wallace.
John Russell majored in Math and earned a MS degree in 1959 (his fifth year) and at the same time earned a MEd. degree. His adult life included two coaching careers and two business careers. Upon graduation he became an Assistant Coach for the legendary Dobie Holden at Pearl River Junior College where he served until Dobie’s retirement. At that time Russell became head coach and served successfully until he left to go into business in Texas, operating John Russell Builders, Inc. in Round Rock, Texas.
Russell and Jimmy Taylor, also a freshman in 1954, fifth-year senior and starting guard in 1958, were room-mates, both math majors at Southern Miss and were life-long friends. Taylor, Co-captain of the 1958 team, was also a former coach was already in the construction business in Texas so Russell left coaching and moved to Texas. After several successful years, there was a downturn in building business and Russell returned to Mississippi to become the coach at Copiah Lincoln Junior College. After serving at Co-Lin, and then as an assistant to Teeny Coats at East Central Jr. College, he left coaching again and returned to Texas to go back into the home building business. He retired from that business several years ago.
During Russell’s five years at Southern Miss, other linemen he played with Included P. W. Underwood, Don Owens, Buzz and Les Clark, Al Tregle, Pete Rich, Dave Fitzgerald, Pat Del Vicario, Joe Battaglia, Bob Rinehart, Charles Ellzey, Moose Godwin, James Norris, Burnett Blackmon, Bobby Little, Ray St. Pierre, Bill Martin, Dino Orphan and Wilfred Spencer.
The 1950′s were golden for Southern Miss and Russell was a vital part of teams that went 9-1 in 55, 7-2-1 in 56, 8-3 in 57, and 9-0 in 1958. In going 9-1 and winning the National Championship, along the way, the 1958 team defeated North Carolina State 26-14 and took apart Virginia Tech 41-0.
But the most unforgettable game of that memorable season was against UT Chattanooga, Thanksgiving Day, 1958. Then-Mississippi Southern defeated the Chattanooga Moccasins 20-13. The most memorable sequence of that season was a goal line stand that occurred when the Southerners held Chattanooga at the one-yard line for four downs. On November 28, 1958, Fitz McCoy writing for the Hattiesburg American described the play thusly: “The Southern defensive line (Hugh McInnis, John Russell, Joe Battaglia, Richard Johnston, Jim Taylor, John Perkins, Bob Yencho) became an impregnable, shoulder-to-shoulder unit that would not budge.”
John Russell was elected to the Southern Miss M Club Sports Hall of Fame in 1972.
John’s wife Miriam, whom he met and married while at Southern Miss, have two daughters and a son and several grandchildren.
Another Southern Miss great has gone home.