Sherrill finds winning one way to wipe tarnished image clean

September 29, 1991|By Mike Dame | Mike Dame,Orlando Sentinel

Starkville is perhaps the most aptly named college town in America.

A farming community of approximately 18,000 tucked away on a far-away plain in northeastern Mississippi, Starkville -- the Southeastern Conference's most forlorn outpost -- has found it difficult to attract a big-time coach for its local team, Mississippi State.

Worse, the Bulldogs have personified the town, registering only two winning SEC seasons since 1963 and getting no closer than a television to a bowl game the last 10 years.

That said, it's easy to understand the euphoria that swept the town last December when Jackie Sherrill arrived as MSU's football coach. "This is the best deal since the Louisiana Purchase!" one booster reportedly yelled after Sherrill's introduction at a Bulldogs' basketball game.

A good deal for Mississippi State? Yes, considering Sherrill boasts a gaudy record of 108-46-2 and seven nationally ranked teams, including three 11-1 seasons at Pittsburgh and two 10-victory teams at Texas A&M.

A wise move? That's debatable. After all, Sherrill may be the Pied Piper of college football -- wherever he goes, the NCAA's watchful eye is sure to follow.

That stigma stems from 25 recruiting violations the NCAA uncovered at Texas A&M, a school Sherrill left mired in two years' probation in 1988 after seven years as its coach and athletic director.

Sherrill's outlaw reputation, gained during his days at A&M, didn't bother the Bulldogs. After watching Ole Miss and Southern Mississippi build winning programs while they wallowed under coach Rockey Felker (21-34 in five seasons), they were ready to win.

And Sherrill is eager to deliver.

"The one thing I want," Sherrill, 47, said soon after being hired, "is to have all these Mississippi State people, who have bled all these years but still have bought their tickets and 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."

Sherrill built that pride at A&M, only to depart in disgrace. The Aggies, who rose under Sherrill to make three consecutive trips to the Cotton Bowl, were placed on probation in September 1988. Two months later, George Smith, a fullback for the Aggies in 1982 and '83, said Sherrill had paid him "hush money" to keep quiet about rules violations during that period.

The day after Smith's story appeared in newspapers, he recanted the allegations, explained that the money was nothing more than a loan to help him get on his feet. The NCAA finally gave up the case, citing an inability to determine the truth.

Sherrill left anyway, apparently forced out by A&M President William H. Mobley after the Smith situation. Two months earlier, Mobley had promised the NCAA he would personally guarantee Sherrill's compliance with NCAA rules. Mobley reportedly was so angry he told A&M's Board of Regents either Sherrill left or they could find a new president. Out Sherrill went.

"What happened at A&M is something he is going to have to deal with forever, whether he knows it or not," Steve Sloan, a roommate of Sherrill's during their playing days at Alabama and the athletic director at North Texas, told The Sporting News. "It isn't just going to go away."

You can say what you will about Sherrill, but one point can't be denied: He's a winner.

Nine months after his arrival at MSU, appropriately enough, the Bulldogs have something to talk about in football-crazy Starkville. Mississippi State won its first three games -- including a 13-6 upset of then 12th-ranked Texas -- before losing at Tennessee, 26-24, last Saturday.

And when is the last time you heard of a team losing and moving up in the polls? That's what the Bulldogs did this week, improving from No. 23 to No. 21 before this week's game against Florida at the Florida Citrus Bowl.

"I've never seen the togetherness or the spirit as high," said Bob Hartley, who has publicized MSU athletics for 46 years. "I've never seen anyone that's come in and done such a fantastic job of getting students behind him."

Sherrill has done it in the true Southern tradition, using his down-home charm to make believers out of those who never had believed. He has traveled all over the state for speaking engagements, given countless interviews, reminded people of his upbringing in Biloxi, Miss., and his days at Alabama in the 1960s, when he played on two of Bear Bryant's national championship teams.

"I did that [met with people across the state] for a couple reasons," said Sherrill, ever the politician. "One, you go out and people get to meet you and see you eyeball to eyeball, and also you have a chance to let people know what you're about.

"I've been pleasantly surprised. We broke our record for ticket sales [some 25,000 season tickets, twice as many as Ole Miss]. There's a lot of things going on."

A big, smiling mug shot of Sherrill appears on billboards across Mississippi declaring "The Sherrill Era Begins," although a few have been defaced, vandals having crossed through "Era" and written "Error."

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