The twin-engine Cessna lurched down the runway last Thursday night at College Station, Texas, took off and began bouncing and grinding toward its 4,000-foot cruising altitude en route to Houston. Texas A&M Football Coach Jackie Sherrill was off on his first recruiting trip for his new employer. "I like to recruit," said Sherrill, who only a few days before seemed entrenched at the University of Pittsburgh for another year, one which many observers felt would bring a national championship to the Panthers. "Recruiting is the one thing I can do for sure. But do you know what the best thing is about being here in Texas? It's so flat here that if you have plane trouble, you can land on any of those fields down there with no problem. It's not that way in Pennsylvania."
And that speaks volumes about Jackie Sherrill. For above all else, Sherrill is a realist. If you get yourself up in the air, you better have a way of getting down, right? Plan ahead. That's Sherrill. And, indeed, Texas isn't like Pennsylvania—geographically or fiscally.
Six days earlier, the 38-year-old Sherrill had stunned the college football world by signing a six-year contract with the Aggies for—hold on, folks—$267,000 a year, a total of $1,602,000. That makes him far and away the highest-paid college coach in the land.
There is, as always in matters of this kind, some dispute over the actual amount. A member of the beleaguered A&M Board of Regents says the contract specifies "about $200,000 for five years," a trifling $1 mil. Sherrill didn't want to talk about it ("I think Jackie Sherrill will earn his money," Jackie Sherrill said), but in a friendly guessing game with a writer, he acknowledged that $225,000 was "in the ball park." Frank E. Vandiver, the president of A&M, said all he knew was that Sherrill's base salary was $95,000—$5,000 more than his own—but equal to that of the dean of the medical school. How does it feel to be paid less than the coach? "When I got home after it happened and told my family, they were delighted," said Vandiver. "They felt I had finally gotten the comeuppance that I had long deserved."
In truth, Vandiver was taken aback by the sum (even though none of it comes from legislative appropriation or regular university funds) and by the Board of Regents' heavy-handed approach. So much so that he nearly resigned. "But in fairness," he said last Friday in his office, "I think about resigning about once every day. But my resigning wasn't going to solve anything." Further, he resented being bypassed early on in the discussions. ("Not so," says one regent. "Vandiver was part and parcel to the process the whole time.") Now Vandiver laughs and says he thinks he'll have a look at the book Who's in Charge Here?
Conversations with people who are extremely close to the situation, confirmed the accuracy of the breathtaking $1.6 million package the wily Sherrill has won for himself. It's a roll-over arrangement: The school will always owe him for five more years after the current year. Therefore, to give Sherrill the gate would cost the Aggies about $1.5 million. In Fayetteville, Ark., Razorback Coach Lou Holtz said, "This is overemphasis on football at its height, but so what? I just hope that our fans, as broadminded as they are, don't expect a poor old $40,000-a-year coach like me to be able to beat a $2 million coach like Sherrill." Typically, Holtz grossly understated his income, but in fact he's not in Sherrill's new financial class.
At Penn State, Joe Paterno said, "Heck, you know how naive I am. But I would be shocked if there is any other coach even making $200,000."
But Joe, Jackie says you're in the same money bracket.
"Jackie is all wet," said Paterno. "Give him a message for me. Tell him I'm proud of him and that if he could send a couple thousand a month up here to help a poor Italian boy, I'd be grateful."
Still, despite the levity among the boys, there is concern that the Aggies may have gone financially berserk. Asked if he is concerned, Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham said, "I think so. I'm afraid this will start an escalation in the bidding I don't like to see. Suddenly money doesn't mean anything. It becomes plastic. Everything is all out of whack."
Ironically, Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler was a principal player in the saga. He was offered about $2.25 million over 10 years to come to College Station. He was on the brink, then backed off, but his base salary at Ann Arbor quickly jumped from $60,000 to $85,000. And he was given a major interest in a pizza parlor in Columbus, Ohio that is supposed to grind out dollars, small, medium and large, hold the anchovies. "It's a lot of money," said Schembechler of the A&M deal, "but look, I'm not saying a coach doesn't deserve it. I don't look for this to start happening all over because there are very few places that can afford it."
At Oklahoma, Coach Barry Switzer said, "It's all relative to inflation." And at Texas, Fred Akers thought over the Sherrill arrangement and concluded, "They're not ordinary everyday numbers, are they?" But Sherrill, who also was named athletic director, persists in the notion that 20 or more coaches make as much money as he does. Jackie also still believes in Santa Claus.
At Pitt, where Sherrill just completed his third straight 11-1 season and where his career record over five seasons was 50-9-1, his base salary was $66,000. But there was a lot else. For example, he had a $90,000 mortgage at 6%, on which he paid only interest. The principal, had Sherrill stayed, eventually would have been paid by the $10,000 money market certificates he was given each year by the university. There were plenty of other baubles, and well-placed sources figure Sherrill earned around $175,000 at Pitt.
Television and radio shows brought him approximately $70,000 a year at Pitt and will be worth $130,000 to him at A&M. Private club memberships, cars and life insurance are provided at A&M, as they were at Pitt. Among the extras at College Station is this: It was agreed that athletic department funds will pay for half his house, up to $150,000, if he coaches for five years. The other half will be paid by Sherrill.
Naturally, the cry has gone up that this is way too much largess for a football coach, that the money should be spent on academics. But the money is contributed by Aggies who love football. And should Congress pass a law outlawing football, these same people aren't about to turn around and give to the chemistry department.
Harry Green, the salaried executive director of the Aggie Club, the athletic department's fund-raising arm (it raised more than $2 million last year), says he has heard a little grumbling over Sherrill's haul. "I have had people call me," he says. "They gripe and I listen, which is what my job is. Then they say, 'Oh, well,' and give me their pledge, and I take it to the bank." Holtz says, "This isn't exorbitant. This money tells people all over the country how important the people at Texas A&M think football is. Besides, Jackie Sherrill is worth it."
He'd better be, because Aggie fans are legendary critics. Invariably, they complain too soon and too loudly. Yet they give, give, give (and even tithe) to their university. The Aggie Club lists 250 people who give $2,000 a year; 300 more are anxious to get into the program when there is room for them. There are 75 boosters who have each given $30,000 to permanently endow athletic scholarships. When 48 suites were installed at Kyle Field two years ago and offered to the public at prices ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 for an eight-year period, they were sold in two hours.
The facilities at A&M may be the best in the nation. R.C. Slocum, whom Sherrill hired away from USC last week to be his defensive coordinator, and who has Aggie ties (he was assistant coach at A&M from 1972 to 1980), says, "These fans will do anything to help you. Anything. I just think they feel they haven't been properly rewarded." They haven't. Since 1942 A&M has won the Southwest Conference title only twice (in 1956 and 1967) and in 1975 shared it with Arkansas and Texas. Often A&M is its own worst enemy, living down to Aggie jokes. Emory Bellard quit as coach in midseason 1978 when he heard he was going to be fired later. Sherrill's predecessor, Tom Wilson, went to Vandiver's home shortly before Thanksgiving to request a one-year extension of his contract ($54,000 salary plus about $36,000 in perks) and said if that wasn't forthcoming, he would consider resigning or—according to H.R. Bright, chairman of the Board of Regents—he would not allow his team to return to the field after half-time of the upcoming Texas game. Vandiver told Wilson that he expected to honor his contract, which ran through 1982. Oh, yes, and did you hear about the Aggies who froze to death at the drive-in movie when they went to see "Closed for Season"?
But the Aggie spirit isn't only indomitable, it's infectious. Last season the student body of 35,500 bought 27,000 season football tickets. Amid the football fervor, Texas A&M has more than doubled in size over the last 10 years and claims the largest enrollments in the nation in four different disciplines (engineering, veterinary medicine, agriculture, and architecture and environmental design). Naturally, critics say The Sherrill Thing hurts faculty morale and harms the image of A&M as a serious academic institution.
When asked if he had been getting complaints about Sherrill's salary, Vandiver said, "My goodness, yes. They say we've blown the curve."
Do you think the priorities are out of whack?
"That's reasonable to say. No, wait, let's say that priorities are different for different people."
So how do you feel about the priority given football around here?
"I can deplore it but I also can understand it."
Are things settling down?
"Sure. When the shrapnel ceases coming through the walls, that's a hint things are getting better."
But did the university debase itself as an academic institution?
"No, it only embarrassed itself."
Indeed, the handling of The Sherrill Thing was atrocious. It happened that way simply because some members of the Board of Regents took the bit in their teeth and decided to work out the football problem their way. Chairman Bright was branded the heavy, but he pleads innocent. "I recommended a name for the job and it didn't fly," he says. "Nobody liked my man." Two other regents, William A. McKenzie of Dallas and John Blocker of Houston, were instrumental in hiring Sherrill. They and like-minded colleagues generally ignored the niceties of consultation; they often left Vandiver in the dark. Says Vandiver of the regents' action, "It was their perfect right and their procedural error. The way this was done shows considerable disarray."
And the timing was horrible. If the regents had wanted to fire Wilson, who led the team to a 7-5 record in 1981, including an Independence Bowl victory, they should have done it in December. Recruiting was hampered by rumors that Wilson might be going. Holtz even telephoned Bright and urged him to consider better timing, Bright didn't. So did you hear the one about the Aggie who named his pet zebra Spot?
Three days before getting down to serious talks with the Aggies, Sherrill told one of his assistants, Foge Fazio, that he, Sherrill, would coach through 1982 and that would be it for him at Pitt. (Fazio turned out to be his replacement.) That was because Sherrill had come down with a not unusual coaching malady: Feeling Unappreciated. He had perceived numerous slights, like learning during an elevator ride that a new opponent had been added to Pitt's schedule. Yet he obviously hated to leave before a season that even he expected would bring a national championship.
Sherrill, of course, was flattered by the Aggie attention. And he liked the smell of the money, but wasn't overwhelmed by it. "This kind of opportunity," says Jackie, "just doesn't come along...but it did."
It's easy to criticize the Sherrill deal. And the Texas A&M boosters would simply say that they believe it's a legitimate expenditure toward achieving a good football team.
Says Vandiver: "I think the disparity between what a distinguished professor of chemistry gets compared with the football coach can allow you to get bent out of shape. The professor might win a Nobel Prize and change the course of human affairs. But maybe we have to realize that football keeps the money coming in that will keep the professor's laboratories open. We need football here—for the support it brings, for interest in our institution and as a reference mark. Besides, the people want a major football program."
And if A&M could fill its 70,016-seat stadium—last year attendance averaged 63,833—the net increase in the school's revenue would be around $300,000. Which would, of course, neatly cover Sherrill's paycheck.
Vandiver recalls meeting a 70-year-old man who had never seen a single sports event in his entire life, save one lacrosse game. Vandiver, a great sports fan, said, "Think what you've missed." Said the man: "How would I know?"
There in lies the Aggie problem. They know what they've missed. It's called winning big.