Saturday, 22 October 2016


The best head coach I ever had, Don Russell, was inducted into my university's Sports Hall of Fame  (our 1969 football team is already in en masse), along with our defensive coordinator, Pete Kostacopolous, who also, in his other role on campus, coached a Wesleyan baseball team all the way to an NCAA final. In fact, in this photo the defense must be on the field, and Don is probably yelling into the headset to ask Kosty what he wants to do!

Let me tell you a few things: when Don was 'recruiting' me (he spoke at a New Haven Register/National Football Foundation awards dinner where I was being honoured and mentioned I was headed to Wesleyan, which I had chosen after being recruited heavily by the University of Pennsylvania) he told me that if I came to Wesleyan I would play football because I wanted to, not because he or anyone else could make me, or take a scholarship away, and frankly, not many people on campus would care one way or the other. And that sold me on the school. That and my student guide around campus that day driving me home, rather than making me take two buses from Middletown to Milford.

In the summer of 1970, when there were layoffs at the Fafnir plant where my dad worked and I lost my summer job, Don got me one on building & grounds at Wesleyan, and I worked there all year round for two years. At that point, following the student strike, I was seriously debating not returning to Wesleyan, so by a strange synchronicity the loyalty of my football coach in getting me the job I needed to pay my share of the costs not covered by my scholarship was a big factor in my returning for my final two years of college. And doing much better at it than I had in the first two.

And when in 1972 I was applying for conscientious objector status I asked Don to write a letter of reference to the draft board. He wrote that although he disagreed with my stance, he respected the way I'd made my decision, understood my grounds for it as I'd expressed them, and would support me 100% because he believed in my honesty.

All three of those things meant a huge amount to me at the time, and still do. I want to thank him for that, and for being a fine coach who led us to an undefeated season, The Lambert Cup, and two Little Three titles in the two years I played for him (he stepped down in my senior year to concentrate on being AD; we stumbled to a .500 season that year and didn't win another Little Three title for more than 40 years). Don succeeded in part by recruiting a few very good players, but more by understanding that he needed to get the best out of a bunch of less talented players who played because they wanted to, because they enjoyed it, but who also had other options. We called him the Silver Fox, and it was a term of respect.

And I can't help by recalling how the defense on that undefeated team, which Kosty coordinated, featured among others a 175 pound middle linebacker and a 155 pound rover, and when asked by a reporter if he didn't think his players were a little too small, Don reportedly told him, 'we may be small, but we're slow'. And he told another reporter that the key to our beating Williams in 1969 was that we 'held Jack Maitland to 167 yards rushing'.

Plus he (and Kosty) chewed tobacco. I hadn't ever met anyone who did: it was reserved for red necks down south and baseball players, not two mutually exclusive groups. I always figured it was because they were from Maine. But what was frightening, and funny when the coaches' weren't looking at you, was watching the brown juice run down Don's chin when he got angry or excited. I can remember it once spattering over someone still lying on the ground who was being berated for doing something wrong and landing there. It was hard to keep a straight face, but as a football player you knew you had to.

I was very sorry I had to miss that induction banquet. To think all these years later I'd still be doing football on a weekend: this time the NFL playing their first ever game at Twickenham, which I first visited with my Wesleyan teammate Blake 'Mole' Allison, in 1972 to watch the Combined Services play the All Blacks.

1 comment :

Unknown said...

He was indeed great! Thank you for writing this, leaving it for granddaughter to show her children someday soon.

Russell, Donald M.
Donald M. Russell 93, born in Quincy, MA, passed away on February 2, 2021 in Plano, TX after a brief illness.
He graduated from Quincy High school in 1945 and enlisted in the US Coast Guard. When he returned and did a Post Graduate year at Thayer Academy in Braintree, MA. He then attended Bates College in Lewiston, ME and graduated in 1951. He played offensive and defensive tackle for the Bates College football team. After graduating from Bates, Russell was a high school social studies teacher and coach at Hollis High School in Hollis, ME, assistant football coach and headmaster at Thornton Academy in Saco, ME and Turner Falls High School in Turners Falls, MA where he taught social studies coached football, basketball and baseball and was the athletic director.
In 1960, Russell joined the coaching staff at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT as the freshman football, basketball and baseball coach. Russell took over as the head football coach in June 1964. He became Wesleyan's athletic director and chairman of the physical education department in 1968. His best season at Wesleyan as a coach was in 1969 when he led the Wesleyan Cardinals football team to an undefeated, untied 8–0 record. He was named New England Small College Coach of the Year while the team tied for the Lambert Cup. He led Wesleyan to Little Three football championships in 1966, 1969 and 1970. He served in leadership positions with the NCAA, ECAC and was a founding member of NESCAC.
He was very active in the Middletown community. He was a member of the Board of Education, the Common Council, Police Commission, Fire Commission, Chairman of the Middlesex United Way Annual Campaign, Board of Corporators of Middlesex Hospital, Palmer Field Renovation Committee, Park and Rec Commission, the Republican Town Committee and the Middletown Rotary Club.
Upon retirement, Don and Joyce split their time between Jekyll Island, GA and Lake ST Catherine's, Poultney, VT until they relocated to Plano TX in 2003. While in Plano he continued his love of football by attending many Friday night high school games. He also played some of the best golf of his life in his 80's and had three holes in one.
He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Joyce Hughes Russell; his children Beth Russell Campo and Norm of Barre, VT, Cathy Russell Pleines of Marshfield, MA, Andy Russell and Pam of Old Lyme, CT, Debbie Russell Smith and Andy of Woodbury, CT and his first wife, Helen O. Russell of Niantic, CT the mother of his four children. He also leaves behind Joyce's children; Jayne Creelman of Van Alstyne, TX and Ralph Eric Ellis and Michele of Palm Harbor, FL. He has 14 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his parents, George Cameron Russell, Lillian McIntosh Russell and his brother George.
There are no services planned at this time due to Covid-19. A quote from Don Russell from his high school yearbook was: He is one who has left a name behind him. Could not be better said.