The rest of college football may be shaking its head over Mississippi State's decision to hire Jackie Sherrill as its football coach, but the mood last week in Starkville, site of the university, was downright euphoric. The message on the marquee at the Holiday Inn—WELCOME TO BULLDOG COUNTRY COACH JACKIE SHERRILL—expressed the prevailing view, and the fans at Humphrey Coliseum gave Sherrill a wild, emotional ovation when he was introduced at halftime of State's basketball game against Eastern Kentucky on Dec. 11. One Bulldog booster even grabbed athletic director Larry Templeton and yelled, "This is the best deal since the Louisiana Purchase!"
That, of course, will depend on how well the 47-year-old Sherrill keeps his contractual pledge to avoid the kind of trouble that in 1988 caused him to leave Texas A&M in disgrace. After his seven-year hitch there as both coach and athletic director, during which A&M was slapped with an NCAA probation, Sherrill was regarded as such damaged goods in the eyes of many potential employers that not even his gaudy record (50-9-1 and three consecutive 11-1 seasons at Pitt, 52-28-1 and three straight Cotton Bowl trips at A&M) could overcome his liabilities. But in college football, the occasional reform movement notwithstanding, there will always be universities desperate enough for success to gamble on a winner, even a tarnished one, and that's exactly what has happened at Mississippi State.
Whatever else he may be, Sherrill is shrewd enough to understand the inferiority complex that exists in a place like Starkville. So his first item of business after taking the job at Mississippi State was to begin making Bulldog fans feel good about themselves by making them feel good about him. In press conferences, speeches and interviews, he reminded them of his upbringing in Biloxi, Miss., and his days at Alabama, where he played on a couple of Bear Bryant's national championship teams. He flashed the huge Cotton Bowl ring he wears on his left hand.
"The one thing I want," he said while sitting amid the clutter of his new office, "is to have all these Mississippi State people, who have bled all these years but still have bought their tickets arid sat in the stands, be able to have a gleam in their eye someday and throw their chest out and be proud of their school."
You can't imagine what that sort of talk means to Bulldog fans until you understand how much frustration they have endured over the years, and how much ridicule they have absorbed. Starkville (pop. 18,000) may be the most aptly named college town in America. It lies in flat, drab farmland in northeast Mississippi, far removed from an interstate highway and 18 miles from the nearest commercial airport. It has always been the Southeastern Conference's most forlorn outpost, everybody's least-favorite road trip, even though, as a result of a conference rule passed a few years ago, State fans can no longer ring their beloved cowbells at visiting teams.
This remoteness is the principal reason why Mississippi State has never been able to attract a big-name coach. Oh, sure, Darrell Royal and Murray Warmath did time there years ago, before they moved on to glory at Texas and Minnesota, respectively, but they quickly realized that a coach could not recruit well enough at State to be consistently competitive in the tough SEC. So Bulldog football has been mostly an exercise in mediocrity—the school has averaged one SEC victory per season over the past nine years—which is one reason why the university's 41,200-seat Scott Field is the second smallest stadium in the conference.
Sherrill's immediate predecessor, Rockey Felker, was only 32 when he got the State job in 1986. He was a popular choice because, in the early '70s, he had been the star quarterback on Bulldog teams that had enjoyed a modicum of success, including a trip to the Sun Bowl after the 1974 season, where they defeated North Carolina 26-24. But after a 6-5 record in his first season as coach, Felker went 4-7, 1-10 and, this fall, 5-6. The 1990 record wasn't bad by Bulldog standards, but it came in a year when Mississippi and Southern Mississippi, the state's other major programs, were earning bowl bids with records of 9-2 and 8-3, respectively.
"That had a lot to do with it," Felker said of his resignation two days after the season ended. "You can imagine the pressure that exists in the small towns of Mississippi. While Southern and Ole Miss fans have been holding their heads high, we haven't given State fans enough to be proud of, and that certainly created a problem."
It wasn't that Felker was unpopular, understand. To the contrary, everyone, including those who forced his resignation, talked about his honesty, his integrity, his hard work. But some of Mississippi State's most influential boosters simply lost confidence in him after a tough 17-15 defeat at Kentucky and a 17-16 homecoming loss against Auburn. These Bulldog fans made their feelings known to Dr. Donald Zacharias, who has been State's president since 1985.
"You have to understand that Coach Felker resigned because supporters promised that significant amounts of money would be withheld from the university if he didn't," says Roger Easley, a professor of veterinary medicine who heads the university's faculty council. "They just want to win more, I guess."
This is a dangerous practice, letting donors and boosters make personnel decisions, but it happens a lot more often than college administrators like to admit. After receiving Felker's resignation, Zacharias continued listening to the boosters while turning a deaf ear to his faculty council. In mid-November, the council, which rarely concerns itself with matters relating to athletics, had voted in favor of a resolution calling on the university to eliminate any candidates for the job who had "any history of NCAA rules violations directly attributed to them or in programs under their leadership."
Well, so much for faculty clout at Mississippi State. Of the four finalists for the coaching job, two had decidedly tarnished NCAA records. A lot of Mississippi State alumni wanted ex-Bulldog player Bobby Collins, so he became one of the finalists, even though he was the man in charge at SMU from 1982-86 when that school committed violations which earned it the only death penalty the NCAA has ever meted out. Now in private business, Collins has not coached since. Then there was Sherrill, who had been selling cars at his dealership in Houston since departing from A&M.
Sherrill apparently wanted Mississippi State as badly as Zacharias and Templeton, the two-man search committee, came to want him. The car business had not been good to Sherrill. Said one Southwest Conference official, "Jackie lost his ass in the auto agency—lost in a big way. He needed a job."
Sherrill denies that the dealership was doing badly and says that it was simply not big enough for both him and his partner to recoup their investments. In October, Sherrill sold his 51% interest.' In addition, he says, he is on the board of a company that rebuilds engines, and had also had offers from NFL teams. "I didn't have to come back to college," he says. "The only reason I took this job was to reestablish myself and to reconfirm that I am not a bad guy. It has nothing to do with anything else."
So Sherrill, who would have laughed at Mississippi State as recently as a couple of years ago, told Zacharias and Templeton what a "great opportunity" he saw in Starkville. They liked that, because they had probably never heard it before. They also believed Sherrill when he told them he had been a victim of circumstances at A&M. They even bought his argument that the NCAA had given him a "clean bill of health," even though what the NCAA really had said was that it had no record of direct violations by Sherrill in its files.
In an interview with the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, Mark Jones, an NCAA enforcement director, called State's characterization of Sherrill's status "misleading." Said Jones, "We keep a file, A to Z, on any coach who has been found to be directly involved in the infractions. If a coach—either a head coach or an assistant—has been involved, his name will be in there. If he hasn't been, then we simply say that we have no record of his involvement."
In truth, the case against Texas A&M during Sherrill's tour of duty was a serious one. On Sept. 9, 1988, the NCAA Committee on Infractions found A&M guilty of 25 rules violations, nine of which it termed "significant," and slapped the Aggies with a two-year probation that included a bowl ban for the 1988 season and a reduction in scholarships, and barred two assistants from recruiting off campus.
Nevertheless, Sherrill might have ridden out the storm at A&M had it not been for subsequent allegations from a former Aggie fullback named George Smith, who claimed that Sherrill had paid him "hush money" to keep silent about other infractions. Sherrill denied Smith's charges, and Smith kept changing his story—even recanting it entirely at one point—until the NCAA finally gave up on the case, citing an inability to determine the truth.
While Sherrill claims he left A&M because of his love for the school—"Nobody told me to go," he says, a hard glint in his eyes—he apparently was forced out by Dr. William H. Mobley, the A&M president. When the Smith situation arose two months after Mobley had promised the NCAA that he would personally guarantee Sherrill's compliance with the organization's rules, Mobley reportedly was so angry that he told A&M's board of regents either to let him handle Sherrill as he saw fit or the board would have to look for a new president. Understandably concerned about how it would look if Mobley left and Sherrill stayed, the regents let Mobley have his way. Says one A&M official, "It got to be a question of who was bigger—A&M or Jackie."
Either Zacharias and Templeton learned none of this when they checked out Sherrill with sources at A&M, or they were not bothered by it. Or perhaps they were convinced that as Sherrill told them, being out of football for two years had given him a "different perspective, a different light." Zacharias and Templeton also were undeterred by the fact that Sherrill had left Pitt after a nasty power struggle with the administration. After five seasons at Pitt, Sherrill had made a list of demands designed to increase his power—including his being made associate athletic director—and had told the administration that it had to give him an answer before the kickoff of the 1982 Sugar Bowl, in which Pitt was playing Georgia. When Pitt refused to knuckle under to this ultimatum, Sherrill bolted for A&M, which made him athletic director and offered him a five-year rollover contract worth nearly $270,000 a year, an astounding outlay at the time.
Sherrill won't be making nearly that at Mississippi State—his base salary is reported to be $75,000, and he will receive a $15,000 housing allowance from private sources—and it is not yet clear exactly how much control he will have over the football program. When word got out that State had eliminated Perkins from consideration for the job because he wanted too much control, an SWC coach laughed and said, "I feel sorry for that [Mississippi State] athletic director. He doesn't know what he's getting into. If he thought Perkins wanted control, wait until he gets a full dose of Jackie."
Last week, however, Zacharias and Templeton dismissed the reports about Sherrill's demands as the sort of gossip that a strong leader always engenders. The president said he had no problem with anything he knew of Sherrill's background or with any of the coach's requirements. Zacharias also said he owed it to State's fans to hire a proven winner. Sherrill fit the bill so well that Zacharias was even able to appease the alumni who had backed Collins.
"Nobody I talked with indicated [Sherrill] personally had any difficulties at Texas A&M," Zacharias says. "And no one I ever talked to questioned his coaching ability. Now how do you face your people and say, 'We're having trouble with Jackie Sherrill because the program he has been associated with had some difficulties'? I feel comfortable with the decision. The man inspires confidence. There's already a new level of excitement and expectations that I've never seen here before."
There is, indeed. Even the faculty council was quiet in the wake of Sherrill's hiring, despite the fact that the administration had totally ignored the council's resolution. Chairman Easley said that the only way to interpret the professors' silence was as a vote of confidence in Zacharias's ability to judge character. "Faculty people are not sports investigators," said Easley, "and we're somewhat naive about these things."
Naive is something nobody has ever accused Sherrill of being, and last week he was hard at work, selling himself to people who desperately want to be sold. At his first press conference, on Dec. 9, he ingratiated himself with State fans, who are sensitive about the university's backwoods image, when he said, "I grew up on a farm, and I spent a lot of time in the chicken house in Biloxi, and I know what it is like to work on an oil rig, to shuck corn and to pick cotton."
That sort of talk plays well in Bulldog country. Still, the only thing that really matters is whether Sherrill knows how to win without betraying all the Mississippi State people who now think it's so wonderful that he's getting another chance.