Tuesday, July 13, 2010

SPORTS>>Russell returns to run Devils

Leader sports editor

The memories are intact for Rick Russell.

Jacksonville High School named Russell its football coach Tuesday, capping a whirlwind search that began when Mark Whatley stepped down on June 21 and ended when Russell, 51, agreed to leave the head coaching job at crosstown North Pulaski and return to where he has spent most of his coaching life.

“It played a big part in it,” said Russell, the former Red Devils assistant who was at North Pulaski for one year before his old employer came calling. “I spent 14 years here. I’ve been teaching for 20 and coaching for 27 and that’s over half my career at Jacksonville High School.”

Russell, the former Jacksonville defensive coordinator, was speaking from the fieldhouse where he spent so much time and where his two youngest daughters would play school, drawing on the coach’s blackboard, while waiting for their mother to pick them up after classes.

“It’s kind of like my home. It’s my kids’ home; they went to school here,” Russell said. “It was a family decision and a good decision for me.”

The decision to hire Russell was one of the first major moves by new Jacksonville principal June Aynie, who based her choice on the recommendation of a five-person committee thatincluded faculty members and administrators like Jacksonville athletic director Jerry Wilson.

The panel’s recommendation to hire Russell from a field of 18 candidates was unanimous, Wilson said.

“Well it had a lot to do with his knowledge of the kids around the community,” Wilson said. “That was a big selling point.

Experience. And an educator. All those things go with what makes up a head coach and we had good candidates this late in the game.”

Russell will sign a standard, one-year contract that pays $68,212 annually. Along with his coaching duties, which include track, Russell will teach physical education and business courses.

“We’re trying to get productive young men and women out there and that’s what you look for in a leader,” Wilson said.

Russell, who played college football at Arkansas, Ouachita Baptist and Central Arkansas, was Jacksonville’s defensive coordinator for eight years before taking the North Pulaski job.

He began the baseball program at Pulaski Academy and won two state championships, and he also served as the Bruins’ junior high football coach and assistant and held similar posts at Sylvan Hills and at Nashville before coming to Jacksonville in 1995.

Russell was 1-9 in his one year at North Pulaski, of the 5A-Southeast Conference. The Falcons scored their lone victory over Little Rock McClellan, 35-13, and Russell was in the process of punching up the offense with the Spread formation before taking the Jacksonville job.

The Red Devils last won a conference championship when they took the 6A-East and won seven games in 2006. They won six games in 2008 but were 2-8 last year under Whatley, who is taking the offensive-coordinator job at Springdale High School.

Jacksonville won a non-conference victory over Lonoke last season and a conference victory over Little Rock Hall.

Jacksonville, which will play in the 7A/6A East this year, already uses the Spread and became known last year for making games interesting late, with big plays on fourth and long.

But the Red Devils, who averaged 20.9 points a game while allowing 29.4, too often played from behind. Russell, the former defensive coordinator, will be trying to strengthen the defense at the point of attack, using stunts and shifts to disrupt the offensive line and put pressure on the quarterback.

“At the high school level the more pressure you put at those two levels the more successful you’ll be on defense,” Russell said.

Russell must hire three assistants, including an offensive coordinator, the job Whatley filled while head coach. The Red Devils are currently going through summer conditioning workouts and have a team camp planned with other programs at Vilonia on Thursday.

Russell said he wouldn’t try to implement major changes until practice begins in August, and said his new assistants, once hired, would have some impact on the playbook. By late Tuesday morning, Russell still had not had a chance to speak to the entire team, but he had met with many players during their morning weight training.

“We want that complete game,” Russell said. “We want to be in shape. The kids, when I talked to them today I told them ‘It’s my job to make you the most in-shape, successful athlete you can be.”

The hiring of Russell, with football practice starting in three weeks, completes one of the most urgent items of business for the Jacksonville athletic department. But the school still needs to find a coach for volleyball, which also begins in the fall, and assistants for volleyball, softball and girls basketball.

Wilson said he hoped to announce coaches for all positions before the weekend.