They didn't know him. That was the problem. They would've understood, otherwise. They wouldn't have sent all those letters and made all those calls. His poor wife, Peggy, had to pick up the phone in the middle of the night and hear that stuff. Why, one of the calls came from England. The voice was scratchy and far away, but clearly it said, "How could he do it? How could your husband do such a thing?"
Peggy knew right away what the woman was talking about. It was the same thing everybody else on the planet seemed to be talking about in September 1992: Wild Willie, the 400-pound bull her husband had castrated in front of his players.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs were getting ready to take on the Texas Longhorns, and Jackie Sherrill, in his capacity as the Bulldogs' football coach, had figured this would be a good way to motivate his troops. Before practice one day he asked the players if any of them knew what a steer was, and, no, no one seemed to. So Sherrill arranged to have an animal fixed, right there before their very eyes.
"Educational," he later described the operation.
Some years before, when he lived in Texas, Sherrill had seen dried bull scrota, dressed up as art pieces, hanging on people's living room walls. In those days he was the coach at Texas A&M, and when his team played the Longhorns, he didn't go so far as to castrate a bull, but he did round up a scrotum and show it to everybody. So operating on Willie didn't seem like such a big deal—not to a man of Sherrill's experience, anyway. It was how the world worked. Cats were fixed, mutts were neutered, bulls were turned into steers.
In no time, though, word of the castration got around, and the phone became one big crybaby, crying round the clock. Mail poured in. "What a——redneck!" wrote one guy across the bottom of a newspaper editorial that said the coach had shown no class. Sherrill read the unsigned letter and then had his secretary file it away with all the others.
Sherrill was by now used to being demonized. Just the year before, Ole Miss coach Billy Brewer had accused him of being a snob and a liar, among other things. Sherrill cheats, Brewer said, in the fashion of "all those [Bear] Bryant boys like Charley Pell and Danny Ford." Brewer added, "I saw him at a function in Jackson in December, and he came into the room and didn't acknowledge a damned soul. He's high-hattin' everybody. When he takes off his coat, he hands it to an assistant coach to hold. That's just the way he is."
Penn State coach Joe Paterno seemed to have found Sherrill equally abhorrent. Speaking to reporters one night in 1979, Paterno despaired at the thought of retiring and leaving the game "to the Barry Switzers and Jackie Sherrills of the world," men who could build great football teams but whose methods and personalities earned them as many enemies as friends.
Adding to Sherrill's reputation was his untimely departure from A&M in December 1988, three months after the NCAA hit the Aggies with a two-year probation for more than 20 rules violations committed while Sherrill was both football coach and athletic director.
Now Sherrill's detractors had Wild Willie, the former bull, to toss on the heap. "The last I heard," an irate columnist wrote in The New York Times, "Sherrill was still employed by Mississippi State, which tells me something about the people who run that place."
"First of all," Peggy says in her husband's defense, "how many bulls go through life with their balls intact? I'm sorry, but not a lot of them make it."
Jackie is adept at writing letters, although he sometimes has trouble articulating exactly how he feels. Over a period of several weeks he dictated to his secretary, Anita Griffin, a response to every last person who had written and complained about what a beast he was. "There was no inhumane or cruel treatment inflicted," Jackie wrote to a college professor in New York City. "I am enclosing a picture of the calf [after the procedure] so you will see that he is alive and well, and an article from the paper that will give you more insight into the kind of person I am."
The kind of person he was! How could anyone possibly find words to explain that? Sherrill himself still had a hard time doing it, and he was nearly 50 years of age.
Late one night he was at home watching TV when a commercial came on advertising a set of reference books. The pitchman said that there was a book in the deal called Roget's Thesaurus, which provided lists of synonyms. Heck, this was exactly what Jackie needed. Here was a miracle book, a weapon against his inability to converse with the world. A little study and it just might turn him into an oracular dragon, a real fire-breather.
Next morning he said to Peggy, "It's called Rogget's, or Rocket's. You see a word, and it gives you all the other words like it you might want to use." It was a revelation to him to discover something "everybody else has known about for a hundred years," as Peggy puts it. She looked at him for a while and tried not to laugh. Poor man, he really did want to be understood.
"Jackie," she said at last, "that's easy. I'll get you one of those." And that same day she did.
It's a sweltering summer day in Starkville, Miss., and the air-conditioning system in Jackie Sherrill's office is out of whack. All he has to cool him is an oscillating fan set on the floor by his desk, and it does little more than stir the soupy heat. All day the questions about his reputation and personal life have been coming hard and fast, and he appears finally to have grown tired of them. He leans back in his chair and uncorks a petulant snort.
"Nobody knows who I am," he declares, stopping his visitor in mid-sentence.
But don't his friends know him? Sherrill is asked.
"No," he answers.
And what about his wife? Does she know him?
"No," he says again, giving his head a shake.
And what about Sherrill himself? Does he even have a clue?
"Yeah, well, I know me," he says, his voice barely a whisper.
Sherrill may find himself hard to figure, but many people have definite opinions about him. And they have stories to back them up. Some of these stories paint a picture of a man who survived a lonely, impoverished childhood to become a loving husband and father and one of the best coaches the college game has ever known. Others describe a man of staggering hubris and hard-headedness who would use any means to win a point or have his way. Taken together, these stories create what even Sherrill has been heard to call "the Sherrill mystique."
If you listen to some people, this mystique was never more confounding than in 1977, at the end of Sherrill's first year as the coach at Pittsburgh. He was only 34 at the time, and he and his staff were meeting to discuss Clemson, their upcoming Gator Bowl opponent. Sherrill was unhappy with his team's 15-13 loss to Penn State a few days before. And practice that afternoon had been a bust. According to witnesses, Sherrill turned to one of his assistant coaches and said, "You lost the game for us."
Bob Leahy, the offensive coordinator, came to the assistant's defense and called Sherrill a "son of a bitch." Leahy and Sherrill exchanged insults, and then Sherrill jumped to his feet and lunged at Leahy, his face aflame, hands raised to strike. Although blows were thrown, not one landed as other members of the staff pulled the two men apart.
"After it happened," Leahy says, "a lot of the other coaches were patting me on the back and saying I did the right thing by sticking up for my assistant. But let me tell you, I was dead wrong. I questioned Jackie's authority, I backed him up against the wall, and you don't do that to your head coach."
Asked about the incident, Sherrill says, "It happened. But I never said anything about him losing the game for us. I was upset over practice. And you need to remember, I was a young coach then. When somebody challenged me like that, well, I wasn't secure enough to know how to respond. I didn't know better than to strike out at him."
A couple of years later Sherrill proved that he wasn't afraid to confront a rival coach either. Paterno's quote about not wanting to leave college football to "the Barry Switzers and Jackie Sherrills of the world" was less than a day old when Sherrill got wind of it and, as he recalls, decided to take up the issue with Paterno. Before Pitt's game with Penn State that weekend, Sherrill encountered Paterno at midfield. They briefly chatted, and then, as Paterno walked away, Sherrill said, "Hey, Joe, I'm sorry you're not going to leave football to the Switzers and the Sherrills."
Paterno wheeled around, a look of surprise on his face. "What do you mean? Where'd you hear that?"
"You said it last night, Joe."
Paterno hesitated before speaking. "But you wouldn't want me to leave, would you, Jackie?"
"It sure would make things easier on me if you did," Sherrill replied.
Paterno started heading off again, and Sherrill called after him, "Hey, Joe, you'd better get ready. You're going to be in for a long afternoon."
Through a spokesman Paterno says he has "no recollection of that ever happening." But the incident remains sharp in Sherrill's memory. He can repeat the exchange verbatim, along with the outcome of the game. Pitt won by 15 points, and as Sherrill will tell you, the Panthers beat Penn State the next year too, becoming the only visiting team ever to prevail at Beaver Stadium two years in a row.
There are still other stories about Sherrill's proud, defiant nature, one of which comes from Jimmy Johnson, the Dallas Cowboys' coach. As Johnson tells it, several years ago he and his wife at the time joined Sherrill and his wife at the time on a trip to Fishers Island, N.Y., a tony summer community on Long Island Sound. Johnson was then Sherrill's assistant head coach at Pitt, and he had looked forward to that holiday as a chance to relax and enjoy himself. The two couples Hew to the island on a private plane. According to Johnson, Sherrill argued with the pilot when the man refused to let him take the controls.
"I'm thinking, To hell with this," Johnson says. "Let's go! I want to get to that island! But there's Jackie—he doesn't even have his license yet—and he's trying to pilot the thing!"
That night, Johnson says, the two couples went to dinner at a country-club restaurant whose menu was so expensive that prices weren't even listed. A fellow at the next table was describing his trip to the island and lamenting the fact that bad winds had kept him from flying in, forcing him to take a boat. Sherrill was eavesdropping, Johnson says: "You could see he was really getting interested. Finally he turns to face this guy, and he says. "Why didn't you just fly?'
"The man looks at him and says, 'The wind was too bad, and I fly a Cessna such-and-such, and the runway at the airfield wasn't long enough to accommodate me.' Then Jackie tells him, 'You'd've had enough runway if you'd landed into the breeze coming off the surf.' The man looks at him awhile and then says, 'Hey, buddy, listen to me. I've been flying 45 years now. I should know what I'm talking about."
"Then they get into this big argument, Jackie and this guy. I'm trying to get Jackie out of the restaurant, but he wants to win his point. I mean, it's a heated argument. I'm starting to think there's going to be a fistfight.
" 'Jackie, let's go,' I tell him.
" 'That son of a bitch,' he says back.
"Finally this guy yells at Jackie, I was in the Navy, pal—in the United States Navy! You ever landed on a——aircraft carrier?'
"Jackie looks straight at him, and he doesn't even flinch. 'Yeah, sure," he says. 'Yeah, sure I have.'
"From then on," Johnson says, "I teased Jackie about that night. I'd see him and say, 'You ever landed on a——aircraft carrier, buddy? Yeah, sure. Yeah, sure I have.' And he didn't even have his license yet!"
When asked about the incident, Sherrill says, "My recollection is totally different from that. What I recollect, we're coming into the island, and the winds are real bad, and the runway's short. To make a point to Jimmy, I said it was just like landing on an aircraft carrier—it's what's called a hot landing. Jimmy said, 'How would you know? You ever landed on one?' And to make my point, I said, 'All the time, Jimmy. Haven't you?'
"It was said in jest between the two of us. And I did have my license at the time. I was on my second plane by then. As far as the person in the restaurant goes, I don't remember any of that. I don't remember any person, and I don't remember any big discussion about anything. And another thing: I would never have said something like that to somebody in the service.
"Now, as far as Jimmy Johnson is concerned, what does he know about flying, anyway? He has no knowledge whatsoever—not about planes or about aircraft carriers. None."
Did people know he was a clown? Not a real clown, they didn't. Or that every now and then he would put on the greasepaint, the fluorescent-colored clothes, the shoes as big as speedboats? Or that in his spare time he went to hospitals and sat with sick or crippled children?
And without a photographer anywhere near?
This is the side of Sherrill few make a peep about. And yet it's the side that some people believe best defines him.
For example, he can squeeze balloons into amazing animal shapes. Dogs and turtles are his specialties. He has magic in his hands. He can rub a balloon against the top of a kid's head and make it stick there like a hat. He understands the miracle of static electricity. Even better, he understands how it feels to be without a skinny hope in this world.
But did anyone care about Jackie Sherrill, the humanitarian?
This went against his image, and you didn't have to remind him what that was: Jackie Sherrill, the smug, self-satisfied cracker who had a knife put to Willie.
Until news of the castration made its spin around the globe, the last anyone seemed to have heard of Sherrill was in connection with the A&M scandal. During his tenure at College Station, from 1982 through '88, he guided the Aggies to three straight Cotton Bowl appearances. But at the outset of his last season there, the NCAA's infractions committee found the A&M football program guilty of 25 rules violations, nine of them "significant." Although Sherrill wasn't named in any of the serious violations, the committee did cite the school for "lack of institutional control," an indictment that struck at Sherrill's performance as both athletic director and football coach. The probation period decreed by the NCAA stretched over two years and included a bowl ban for the '88 season and a reduction in scholarships, but most people regarded it as a relatively light sentence. In fact, Sherrill himself was heard to quip, "Is this devastating? No. It's not like we will crater."
Not long after the NCAA made public its findings, however, more problems racked Sherrill and his team. Former Aggie fullback George Smith told a reporter for the Dallas Morning News that he had been paid some $1,400 by Sherrill to keep mum about cheating at A&M. Smith added that the last of the payments was made after the Aggies had been placed on probation. Sherrill denied the charges, and Smith immediately recanted his story, saying that much of what he had told the reporter was untrue. Then Smith recanted his recantation.
Sherrill was anything but humbled by these events. No one knew the NCAA rule book better than he did, his friends said. Sherrill saw himself as a martyr taking hits for the mistakes and indiscretions of others. Upon deciding to resign from A&M, he says, he met with university president William H. Mobley and told him that he was "playing Santa Claus, taking A&M's problems going back to the 1950s, putting them in a bag and walking off."
According to an A&M official, Mobley says that he "can't recall any such conversation," but Sherrill remembers it. And as with the Paterno incident, he has repeated it enough times to have perfected the dialogue. "I did tell him I was Santa Claus," Sherrill insists. "I said it to the president."
Had the NCAA discovered any truth to Smith's story, it might have meant the death penalty for A&M, since any school found guilty of major violations twice in a five-year period can have its program shut down for two years. Sherrill had almost single-handedly transformed the Aggies from perennial also-rans into one of the proudest, most cocksure teams in the country—a team, some would argue, in Sherrill's own image. And it burned at his guts now to see what he had worked so hard to build being threatened. "Losing A&M," he would say later, "well, it was just like losing a child."
Sherrill negotiated a contract settlement with the school and went off in search of what to do with the rest of his life.
His first marriage, many years before, had ended in divorce, and now his second, this one nearly two decades old, was breaking up. "Coaches just shouldn't be married," he said, underscoring his own failures to keep everyone at home happy. Sherrill had a daughter with his first wife and two sons with his second. But his daughter was grown and his sons were living with their mother, and Sherrill was all alone again, doomed at middle age to start over.
He gave himself three years to get his mind off coaching. If he couldn't do it by then, he would look for chances to return to football. After months of playing golf and studying assorted ways to invest his money, he exiled himself to Houston and a Ford dealership. Sherrill bought 51% of the business and threw himself into the work, putting in as many hours as he had as a coach. He never said so at the time, but he missed the players and the game, and try as he might to deceive himself, he wasn't suited for the business of moving cars.
One day he attended a charity auction in Houston at which he found himself bidding for a car phone against a woman named Peggy Bishop. After introductions, Sherrill learned that Peggy was divorced and the mother of two teenage girls.
He couldn't impress her with tales of his football exploits since Peggy could only vaguely recall ever having heard of him: also, she hadn't watched a football game in its entirety since her high school days, 20 years before.
Despite his fame Jackie seemed lonely, terribly so, and Peggy was attracted to that. She was the sort of person who stopped and picked up a stray dog when she saw it limping along the roadside. In Sherrill she figured she had encountered as certified a stray as there ever was.
"Floundering is the right word to describe him," Peggy says. "He was depressed, too, though I don't think he recognized it. His whole life he'd worked so hard...and it's over." She didn't know how big a part football had played in his life until she helped him move into a new apartment and found among his belongings hardly anything but Pitt and A&M memorabilia.
When a Mississippi State official called in late 1990 and requested a meeting, Sherrill was only too happy to entertain the overture. At A&M he had been the highest-paid employee of any college in the country when he signed on for a base salary of $260,000 a year, but by this time he probably would have worked for free, and in fact he had been thinking about doing just that for an NFL team.
Larry Templeton, State's athletic director, spent eight hours holed up with Sherrill in a Houston hotel room. "This is my main concern," Sherrill said at one point. "Is Mississippi State ready to do what it takes to win?" The question invited any number of interpretations, but Templeton understood it to be about heart and soul, not about sacrificing the school's integrity to climb to the top. "Well, Coach," he answered, "if I jumped from this eighth-floor window, would that convince you?"
To answer any doubts about Sherrill's character, Templeton flew to Kansas City and met with an NCAA official who had worked on the A&M case. Sherrill claimed to have a letter clearing him of any personal involvement in the scandal, and Templeton wanted to find out "if the letter was indeed factual." David Berst, the NCAA's head of enforcement, confirmed that he had written a letter to Sherrill, but he had only been "responding to a question" posed by the coach. "When I've heard about this letter," Berst says now, "it's been cited as exonerating [Sherrill], but it doesn't do that. It simply states that he wasn't named directly in serious violations." Berst adds that the A&M investigation "was considered a major infractions case, but an institution's infractions case. We only take action against an individual if he is named directly in serious violations."
While in Kansas City, Templeton also checked up on another candidate for the Mississippi State job, Bobby Collins, the former Southern Methodist coach whose program had been, in 1987, the first ever given the NCAA's death penalty. Like Sherrill, Collins was the kind of "proven winner" Templeton says he was determined to bring to his school. And how did Collins rate? "Like Jackie," Templeton says. "The NCAA had no problem with Bobby Collins either."
Not so long before, Sherrill had coached Dan Marino, Hugh Green and Rickey Jackson at Pitt while en route to a 50-9-1 record and three straight 11-1 seasons. At A&M he'd seemed on the verge of building a dynasty, producing teams that trounced once-mighty Texas five years straight. And here he was now, eager to sign on at long-suffering Mississippi State, a school whose last big lick of success had been an 8-4 record in 1981.
"We're offering you the job," Templeton told Sherrill one night on the phone. "The only thing I can guarantee you right now is $75,000 a year on the State contract." Eventually there would be more to the package—TV and radio deals, contributions from the booster club, a housing allowance—that would push the total to about $300,000 a year. But Sherrill, anxious to get back to what he did best and determined to prove that he wasn't a bad guy, didn't much care about the money. "I'll be there," he told Templeton.
Jackie and Peggy were married in Houston on Aug. 2, 1991, and the next day he reported to Starkville for the start of two-a-days. The Sherrills ended up settling in a big lakeside rambler in the Colonial area—a truly grand house that they gutted and refurbished. You would be surprised how many different ways there are to apply paint to a wall, but Peggy seems to know them all, and she employed them in decorating the place. Teal was a predominant color, and when Peggy suggested to Jackie that he use it to dress up Mississippi State's unremarkable maroon-and-white, he did just that.
Teal found its way into Sherrill's office. The pads on weight-lifting benches were covered in teal. The locker room walls were striped with teal, and so was the furniture. Teal tiles were glued to the shower and bathroom walls. About the only thing teal was not added to was the Bulldog uniform. "Just makes everything more livable," Sherrill said when queried about the color.
That first year in Starkville, 1991, he went 7-5 and took State to the Liberty Bowl. It was the Bulldogs' best record in a decade, though the season was marred by the death of Rodney Stowers, the big defensive lineman whose lungs hemorrhaged after surgery to repair a broken leg suffered in a game against Florida. In three years Sherrill had lost a wife, a job and now a player. Where he got the strength to continue was anybody's guess, but he managed nonetheless, winning the respect of his new friends in Starkville. The town paper named him its man of the year, an honor Sherrill had cinched even before he and his boys whipped Ole Miss in their last regular-season game.
After that win he and Peggy threw a party at their house, and nearly 1,000 people showed up, many of them strangers. Sherrill mingled with the crowd. His presence intimidated some guests, as even in celebration he remained reticent and somewhat distant. He was like Jay Gatsby at his fashionable West Egg mansion, forever the host of the party but never the life of it.
What was there about this man that never let him take his guard down? That made him seem so detached?
It was a mystery to some, however much they meant to like him.
Jackie was three months old when his parents split up. Either three months old or still in the womb: His age depends on whom you talk to. This was during World War II, and there was work in the California shipyards, and Jackie's mother, Dovie, couldn't keep her husband, Bill, from hopping a train out of Duncan, Okla., and heading west. Bill had held a score of different jobs over the years, including one with the WPA that had taken the family to 10 different stops in a single year.
Bill and Dovie had eight children together, Jackie being the last. Dovie was 39 when he was born. She liked Duncan, and her instinct was to stay there and nest. Bill's instinct was to go to where the work was, to get out of the dust and into the sunshine. All the other kids either left with him or had staked out on their own. Only baby Jackie stayed behind with his mother.
After the divorce Dovie found work at JC Penney, and Jackie sold newspapers in downtown Duncan. Not yet five years old, he would sneak out late at night and return with ink staining his fingers, the sun just coming up. When he was a little older, he stacked pins at the bowling alley and mowed lawns. Even then he was particular about his clothes. He wouldn't wear just anything—not jeans, for example, unless he had hay to stack in the fields. When it rained, he took his shoes off, tucked them under his shirt and walked home barefoot. He had worked hard to pay for those shoes, and he didn't want to ruin the leather.
"I think my father would've loved to have known Jackie," his sister Geraldine Martin says. "He was a real fine man, but my mother wouldn't let him in Jackie's life. I suppose Jackie was her last grasp at our family. All her other children...well, they'd gone off with their daddy, having chosen him over her."
Jackie was nine when his mother decided to enroll in nursing school in Oklahoma City. They moved there together, but Jackie wasn't happy. One day he told her he was going back to Duncan. She said fine, and he got on a bus and went. It was midsummer. He returned to their old house and discovered that it had no electricity. He ended up spending nearly a month there by himself, the little man alone in the collection of dark rooms. He took meals at a friend's place or at Geraldine's.
Finally Dovie moved back. When she said she intended to remarry, Jackie, only 13, called his brother John in Biloxi, Miss. "I can't take it here anymore," he said. "I'm quitting school."
"You are not," John told him.
It took some doing, but John got Jackie to calm down. He told Jackie to finish out the school year in Duncan, then to call him back; they would discuss Jackie's future then. John was 18 years older, a war vet, a father of two sons and a daughter. He ran a farm with 5,000 laying hens. Klaredale Egg Factory, he called the enterprise. Six weeks after he persuaded Jackie to stay in school, the phone rang again.
"Where are you?" John said. Jackie sounded close.
"Here in Biloxi. At the bus station. Come and get me."
Later that summer Jackie went out for football at Biloxi High. During two-a-days he fed the chickens before reporting to practice in the morning. After practice he spread more feed and graded the eggs. As soon as the afternoon practice was over, he rushed home and helped package eggs for shipping. There were always a thousand chores, never enough rest. Some days all he did was shovel chicken droppings. He never complained about it, though. After his life in Duncan the toil and regimen seemed to suit him.
"Sometimes I called him Son," John remembers. " 'Son, do this or do that.' I wasn't slipping up, either. And he really responded to that."
"Knowing how Jackie grew up really helps me now when he acts in certain ways that I just can't fathom," Peggy says. "His separateness from everything—he'll forget that there are two of us, and a family here, and that he has to come home for dinner. What he was deprived of as a child he now wants to be as an adult. It's like he needs to be everybody's daddy."
As a senior in high school Jackie was already man-size, big and strong, an All-America fullback who had colleges from all over the South recruiting him. When Bear Bryant came to visit, he and Jackie spent about two hours sitting around and talking. It has long impressed Sherrill that Bryant didn't once ask him to play for Alabama. Every other school had pressured him to commit, but Bryant just told stories about his players and about how nice a place Tuscaloosa was.
"I want to play for you, Coach," Jackie said to Bryant.
"I remember Coach Bryant telling me later on that that had never happened to him before," John says. " 'As many boys as I've recruited and scholarships I've given,' he told me, 'your brother Jackie is the first to want to play for me rather than the school.' The coach was very impressed by that."
At 17 Jackie had found the next man to fill in as his father. He had also met the one he would try to emulate for the rest of his life.
One of Sherrill's first big scores as a coach came in 1972 when he recruited future Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett, winning a hard-fought campaign against Penn State for Dorsett's services. Sherrill, then an assistant at Pitt under Johnny Majors, became such a regular at the Dorsett home that Tony used to wonder if he had moved in.
"You went to school in the morning," Dorsett says, "and there he was, hanging around the coaches' offices. Made it home at the end of the day, and he was sitting there with your mother, eating pecan pie." Sherrill had learned that pecans were a favorite of Myrtle Dorsett's, so he made a point of bringing her a pie.
"I can tell you I chose Pitt for one reason," Tony says now, "and that was Jackie Sherrill. I thought he was a guy who could communicate with black ballplayers. He could really talk to you. Maybe it had to do with his background, how he grew up."
One night in 1975 Dorsett was thrown in jail after arguing with a cop. He had gone out for a sandwich and was returning to his dorm when he spotted a police officer writing a ticket for his illegally parked car. Dorsett and the cop began to argue. "The guy had this dog," Dorsett says, "and he put the dog on me. He ends up taking me to a station downtown."
It was well past midnight when Sherrill rushed into the precinct looking tired and bleary-eyed. As Sherrill tells it, he quickly located the officer in charge and requested a moment alone with him. "Now, this is what we're going to do," Sherrill said, trying to keep his voice down. "I'm going to go in there and convince Tony not to press brutality charges and to forget what happened. And you're going to let him out of here. Or you can go ahead and keep him in. You keep him in, and that policeman of yours will have to answer some questions."
The police let Dorsett go. And that weekend, in a win over Notre Dame, he rushed for 303 yards, a Pitt record and the most ever against the Fighting Irish in a single game.
It was at about this time, the mid-1970s, that Sherrill developed an interest that would become a great passion: collecting clowns. He liked figurines and paintings that depicted big-footed jokers fishing or playing golf or riding swings. The toys were great to show to the kids whenever he stopped by the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and made the rounds. Everybody knew him there. He would walk through the doors and spread his arms wide, and children would scramble to meet him, some in wheelchairs, some shouting, "Hey, it's Jackie! Jackie's here!"
In the late 1970s Sherrill attended a charity banquet in Dayton, Ohio, and happened to sit next to somebody named Harpo the Clown. Sherrill tried not to stare at the wildly painted man. Unable to help himself, however, he finally leaned over and said, "I collect clowns."
One of Harpo's signatures is that he doesn't speak in public, so he simply nodded and smiled. "You could tell he was intrigued by me," Harpo says of Sherrill. "He watched me the whole time. It was like he was studying me."
Several years later, after they had become friends, Sherrill had Harpo fly down to College Station to entertain his players during two-a-days. In November 1987 he arranged for Harpo to return for another visit. Harpo took a commercial flight from his home in Palm Springs, Calif., to Houston and then flew to A&M in the private plane Sherrill had sent to fetch him. It was the week of the Texas game, the biggest of the year. It was also the time Sherrill decided to become a clown himself.
One night after practice Harpo rounded up his makeup kit and painted Sherrill's face. They went to a couple of fast-food joints and horsed around with the kids, neither of them saying a word. Sherrill was doing the mute thing too, and he was a natural at it.
Nobody recognized the coach, and this made the night even more interesting. Sherrill liked the anonymity. He was both himself and somebody else, although he never did get around to giving himself a clown name like Jacko or Silly Sherrill.
Eventually he and Harpo went to a nice restaurant for dinner. They pointed to what they wanted on the menu and sat through the meal without saying a word.
Wild Willie died last month, the victim of a freak accident. While tethered to a post, the two-year-old steer apparently became entangled in the rope and fell and broke a leg. His owners, two men from Greenwood, Miss., had him hauled to the Mississippi State vet school, but there wasn't anything the doctors could do. "We had to put him to sleep," says Frank Truitt, one of the owners. "We ended up cremating him. We didn't slaughter him. He wasn't hit in the head with an ax or made into hamburger meat."
Willie had become quite a star since his day with the Bulldog football team, earning about $50,000 for numerous charities in the state. Truitt had been hoping to get him inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, since he was, as everyone seemed to know, the most celebrated steer in the entire U.S.
The press called Sherrill's office for a comment, but he refrained from giving one. Privately he questioned why anybody would keep a steer tethered to a post and not loose to graze in some field, but by now he had learned when to keep his mouth shut, at least when it came to animals.
It was 1993, after all, the start of a new year in college football. Sherrill had been on the job at Mississippi State for only two years, but he had already taken the Bulldogs to back-to-back bowl games, just the second time that had been done in the program's 97-year history. On top of that, season-ticket sales had reached almost 25,000, threatening a record set the year before, and his team was being touted as a contender in the SEC.
No, Jackie Sherrill refused to speak publicly about Willie. He honestly had nothing to say to anybody. Even if perhaps he did.