Despite meager practice facilities, Karr takes state’s-best 21-1 record to playoffs _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Karr coach Donnie Russell.

Eddie Robinson did so much with so little during his legendary career at Grambling.

So surely the late football coach would’ve been proud Saturday night at the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame Banquet.

The 2014 Eddie Robinson Award, named in his honor, went to another guy who did a lot with a little.

And it also went to a Grambling alum: Edna Karr baseball coach Donnie Russell.

Coach Rob knew Russell well.

Robinson, unsuccessfully, tried to lure him to his football team several times two decades ago.

Donnie Russell played catcher at Grambling.

Robinson wanted him as a guard or tackle.

“He tried to get me to play football every single day,” Russell recalled. “Being a big, guy who was pretty fast, he would always say “Hey, I need you on that offensive line Donnie.”

Russell never budged, sticking to the baseball diamond.

But those conversations and his relationship with the legendary coach made Saturday night special for Russell at the ceremony at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“It means a lot because I went to Grambling, and I knew Eddie Robinson,” Russell said. “That means so much. My whole family went to Grambling so it means a lot to even have been nominated, even if I wasn’t the recipient. It’s just touching.”

The honor is presented annually to an athlete, coach, team or athletic administrator in Louisiana who has demonstrated the qualities most closely associated with the man affectionately know as “Coach Rob”: Outstanding achievement in athletics, academics, sportsmanship and citizenship by maximizing the use of limited resources.

Robinson turned Grambling into a household name, doing so with subpar facilities and a less than adequate budget.

Russell, who just finished his fourth season at Karr, is trying to do the same at Karr.

And boy, were his resources limited.

The Karr baseball team doesn’t have a true practice facility.

Well, unless you count the football practice field behind the school that the team uses on occasion.

When they don’t use that, Russell would load up the bus and make a 20-minute trek from Algiers to Harahan to practice at an indoor baseball facility.

Players would have to pay $5 each.

Despite those odds, Russell led Karr to its first district title and first playoff win.

He’s trying to turn the West Bank school into a baseball power, just like Robinson turned Grambling into a juggernaut.

Robinson’s accomplishments are well documented.

He became the winningest coach in Division I football history.

More than 200 of his players went on to play professional football. He won 17 SWAC championships and nine black college football national titles before being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997.

But one thing he couldn’t accomplish was convincing Russell to play football, despite Russell playing two seasons of football in high school at St. Augustine.

“What made me quit playing football is every day I had to go up against guys like Louis Age and all these guys who went to the pros. I was a big kid, but I was a baseball player. I wasn’t going to take that abuse every day from those guys. They loved football. I loved baseball. I was wise enough to let that go.”

So Russell stuck with his first love.

Russell was one of three New Orleans high school coaches recognized Saturday night.

Former East Jefferson football coach Nick Saltaformaggio, who led the Warriors to the Class 4A state championship, was named Boys Coach of the Year.

Jose Ferrand, who guided the Ben Franklin girls soccer team to its second consecutive Division II title, was named Girls Coach of the Year.

Collectively, the trio of coaches had a combined 57-2 record.

Saltaformaggio’s team went 15-0 in East Jefferson’s storybook season.

Ferrand’s girls went 20-0.

And perhaps the biggest surprise of them all was Russell’s team that finished 22-2.

Coach Rob would be proud.

“Coach Rob was big on family and big on Grambling,” Russell said. “I think he was the reason I won this award. I believe in a higher being. In my eyes, coach Rob was the greatest coach in the history of sports. I don’t know how I had the guts to tell him ‘no’.”

Russell laughed.

And Robinson surely smiled.