On Friday, Oct. 21, 2016, Don Russell was inducted into the Wesleyan Athletics Hall of Fame. Russell served as the Chairman of Physical Education and Director of Athletics at Wesleyan from 1968-to-1988, and also served seven seasons as the Head Football Coach and five as the Women's Squash Head Coach.
"I am honored to be amongst those that have already been chosen and those that are being inducted this week," said Russell. "It's obviously a great honor, and I'm very thankful for the people that chose to put me in there."
Russell's journey began in Quincy, Massachusetts where he played baseball, basketball and football at Quincy High School. In January of his senior year, he left school to join the United States Coast Guard. Upon his return, Russell attended Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass.
He went on to play football at Bates College, where he studied History and Government, and graduated in 1951. Russell's coaching and teaching career began shortly after at Hollis High School in Hollis, Maine where he taught Social Studies and coached baseball and basketball. After one year, he moved on to become the Social Studies teacher and Assistant Football Coach at Thornton Academy in Saco, Maine.
In 1956, Russell returned to Massachusetts and worked for four years at Turner Falls High School where he was the head coach for baseball, basketball and football, and also served as the Athletics Director.
After reading about a Wesleyan vacancy, he called Norm Daniels to inquire about the position and was encouraged to apply. In June of 1960, he was appointed as an Instructor of Physical Education, Assistant Freshman Football Coach, Freshman Basketball Coach and Freshman Baseball Coach.
In June of 1964, Russell replaced Daniels as the Wesleyan head football coach, and in 1968, he was named the Chairman of Physical Education and Director of Athletics. Russell remained at the helm of the football program for two more years until 1970, when the addition of women's programs and a new ice hockey arena made it difficult to oversee both positions.
During his tenure as Head Football Coach, Russell posted an impressive 37-19 record while coaching the Cardinals to three Little Three titles (1966, '69 and '70). His .661 winning percentage remains the highest among Wesleyan coaches in the modern era.
The 1966 Cardinals squad just celebrated the 50th anniversary of their Little Three crown, which was the first for Wesleyan in 11 years. The win over Amherst, also the first since the 1955 season, was a big step forward for both the football and athletics programs. And just three years later, Wesleyan went 8-0. The 1969 squad, which was inducted into the Wesleyan Hall of Fame in 2010, remains the last undefeated Wesleyan team. The '69 Cardinals also shared the Lambert Cup that year with Delaware as the best College Division Team in the East, while Russell was named the New England College Division Coach of the Year.
In addition to his success on the gridiron, Russell also helped found and establish the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC). Beginning in 1968, Russell and Athletic Directors from Williams, Amherst, Bowdoin, Colby, Middlebury, Trinity and Tufts – Bates, Hamilton and Union in 1969 – came together to create the league. It took three more years but by 1971, the NESCAC was established by the Presidents of each university. In 1973, Union was out as a conference member and Connecticut College was added.
Around the same time, Russell also faced several challenges on campus. As the University added women's programs in 1970, Wesleyan's facilities proved to be inadequate, plus the lack of funding put the department in a difficult situation. However, Russell credits the coaches and players for making it work, and by the 1980's, the department had stabilized and added women's locker rooms and more meeting rooms in the athletic center.
In 1988, Russell stepped down and took a sabbatical. He stayed at Wesleyan for two-and-a half years, teaching in the physical education department, until he retired in 1991. Russell remained in Middletown for three more years and had an office in the athletic center. He also continued to serve as a faculty advisor to the Student Judiciary Committee.
He now resides in Plano, Texas and has lived there the past 13 years. He plays golf three times a week and remains an avid reader. "I'm reading a book and newspaper all the time. I'm the only one getting two newspapers a day," he said with a laugh. Despite the distance, he returns to Wesleyan frequently, attending reunions and other special events.
"I have realized in the past 10-to-15 years, through contact with many alums, the impact this athletic program has had on their lives over the years," said Russell. "This is a great tribute to coaches and staff involved and to the University for the support it provides.
"I enjoyed my years in Middletown very, very much," he added. "I found it to be a great community with great people. I was involved in community affairs fairly deeply. That made the whole picture there great. I enjoyed my job and I enjoyed the community, and you can't do much more than that."