The story of Brad Morris and the 1985 Georgia Southern national championship team

Brad Morris was born Waycross, but moved to live with his father in Virginia. 

McClain Baxley

In the spring of 1984, Brad Morris met the late Erk Russell at Snooky’s in Statesboro for lunch. Snooky’s was Russell’s go-to dining preference. The American-style country diner was a landmark for Statesboro, but also was the landmark where Morris was “recruited” to play for Russell.

Morris first met the hall of fame coach nine years prior at the UGA football summer camps.

“I knew that Coach Russell was starting a program down (in Statesboro) obviously because I was heartbroken when he left UGA, being a Bulldogs fan,” Morris said.

And that’s what the two men discussed at lunch—the newly developing Georgia Southern College football program.

“He was really up front and honest with me and told me everyone was pretty much starting from the same clean slate,” Morris said. “They were too poor to cheat.”

GS hadn’t fielded a football team since 1941 and had next to nothing to start a team. In 1978, GS President Dale Lick decided to resurrect the football program and hired Russell as head coach in 1982.

“They were going to do things the right way and build it from scratch,” Morris said. “It was typical Coach Russell style—straightforward. And I was sold.”

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Morris was born in Waycross, about two hours south of Statesboro, but moved to Virginia with his father to play football. His first year with the Eagles was the 1984 season and Morris was a backup center.

In the media guide, Morris was described as “undersized”, but “will add quality depth” to the position.

“It was an exciting opportunity because I wasn’t ready to play big time college ball,” Morris said. “When I showed up to practice that summer, I saw 80 to 100 guys that had that same mindset. We were all 10 pounds too light or two inches too short.”

But that was how Russell liked it. One of the head coach’s most famous quotes was when he said that runts try harder.

The Eagles were starting from nothing and had the players to show for it, but in just two years, there was a sense of expectation for something great surrounding the team.

“There was something about Statesboro at that time that you just knew was special, and it really turned out to be,” Morris said. “I don’t think any of us expected half of how special it would become.”

Between a legendary coach, a newfound offense and the best player to ever wear the blue and white, this GS team was shaping up for arguably the most remarkable season in Division 1-AA history.

The 1985 GS football season began with a close victory over Florida A&M in Jacksonville before suffering their first loss of the year the next week in Paulson to Middle Tennessee State. For the rest of the regular season though, the Eagles walked through everyone they faced, save James Madison on the road, setting them up for a playoff run led by the great Tracy Ham, who Morris gladly blocked for.

“I was playing with one of the greatest Georgia Southern players of all time,” Morris said of Ham. “Number one, he could beat you with his arm like no one else. But we started off with a core of that offense and the coaches put in flare that worked to his talents. He literally called a play in the huddle one time, had a mental breakdown and went the wrong way and still scored. You just stand there looking at each other wondering how did he do that.”

Ham’s number eight jersey is just one of two retired numbers at GS and for good reason. Without Ham, the 1985 would not have been able to do what they did.

“Our offensive line coach shut the projector off one time and said if all else fails, you need to protect that guy,” Morris said. “You need that guy to be upright and healthy.”

After two heavily contested playoff games, the Eagles had qualified for the national championship in Tacoma, Washington against the Furman Paladins.

“We had seen Furman on film because we played some teams from the Southern Conference,” Morris said. “We felt very much equal in terms of talent, very evenly matched.”

But the trip out to Washington was almost as exciting as the opportunity to play for the top team in Division 1-AA. Each player was allowed to bring one family member with them on the plane.

“I brought my dad and it was basically just a bunch of dads going out there along with some of the GS boosters,” Morris said. “It was just a great time, but we were all there for business.”

Both schools were from the south with Furman being in Greenville, South Carolina, so both teams were making a cross country trip. That was something that many of the players hadn’t experienced.

Furman was a small private school and even across the country, the difference in the two school’s class and prestige was evident.

“I think Furman was staying in downtown Seattle at a nice hotel and we were in a nice hotel, but we were in a place, ironically, called Auburn, Washington,” Morris said. “We were a pretty good ways out of town, so when we worked out at the stadium, we took buses to the stadium.”

While GS was at a disadvantage as far as driving distance, on paper and on film the teams were even. And at the end of the 44-42 thriller in the Tacoma Dome, it was the Eagles storming the field for the school’s first national championship.

“I was so excited and everything was new. You just kind of kept pinching yourself to see if it was really happening,” Morris said. “When the [championship] went the way it went, I’ve got people that tell me that’s the greatest college football game they’ve seen.”

The Georgia Southern Eagles were at the top of the Division 1-AA for the first of six times and the nation became well aware of Russell and Ham’s offense. And each play began with Morris’ flick of the wrist.

“The relationship [between Ham and Morris] was super tight,” Morris said. “We spent 10 minutes every day running the same three core option plays so you could understand the read.”

For 15 games in 1985, Morris and Ham worked and mastered the option that became known as the “Hambone” offense. The day after the win against Furman, the champions boarded the plane for Savannah. The bus ride from Savannah to Statesboro made it all worth it.

“It was like three or four in the morning and there was a family out there in quilts and coats because they watched the game on TV,” Morris said. “To see them out there with trash can campfires just to see us go by was something that resonates with me and makes me proud to be from Georgia Southern and be from South Georgia.”

Erk Russell’s team had evolved from playing with hand-me-down equipment and a bunch of undersized athletes to hoisting a national championship trophy and playing as a family. Morris wouldn’t have traded it for the world.

“It was a very family atmosphere,” Morris said. “I was about to quit and one of my (teammates) he said ‘why don’t you hang out for the weekend and my mom is going to bring us some food from home.’ She brought some chicken and rice and strawberry cake. We sat there and played ping pong all weekend and I told myself ‘I can stick it out with these guys.’”

And when he looks at his rings or talks with his former teammates at reunions, he is certainly glad he stuck it out.

“You go to these reunions and everybody is still ragging on each other like we’re still living in the dorms,” Morris said. “But they would also be the first guys to stand up for you if something was up. Just quality people all the way around.”

McClain Baxley, The George-Anne Sports Editor, [email protected]