Sherrill not speaking Greek: We deserve to be ranked’

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 13, 2001

Jackie Sherrill addresses the Warren County chapter of the Mississippi State Alumni Association Thursday night. (The Vicksburg Post/C. TODD SHERMAN)

[07/13/01] Jackie Sherrill was speaking Greek before he got to the lectern. Once he got in front of the microphone, he was speaking pure Bulldog.

“Our defense is going to be a lot like ’99,” he told about 225 Warren County boosters at Vicksburg Country Club Thursday night.

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Before addressing the fans, he said, “We have a lot more talent on offense this year.”

Interpretation: The Bulldogs have a chance to be good really good.

MSU finished with a school-record 10 wins in 1999, relying heavily on the nation’s No. 1 defense to make up for one of the Southeastern Conference’s most anemic offenses.

This year, with third-year starting quarterback Wayne Madkin, preseason all-SEC tailback Dicenzo Miller and a stable of speedy receivers, the Bulldogs could finish even higher than No. 13, their final Associated Poll ranking for the 1999 season.

“Mississippi State has gone further than anyone in the whole league in the last four years,” Sherrill said. “We deserve to be ranked. The players worked hard for it. We have to perform that way now and the coaches, fans and alumni do, too.”

Sherrill wowed supporters within earshot by speaking fluent Greek as he signed a football for 4-year-old George Tzotzolas.

“It kind of impressed me,” said Buddy Hanks, the boy’s grandfather and husband of Jane Hanks, president of the Warren County Chapter of the Mississippi State Alumni Association.

“He was able to carry on a conversation in Greek,” added Hanks, whose son-in-law, Lester Tzotzolas, is Greek. “Coach (Dave) Wilson said he speaks Greek to the coaches all the time.”

Sherrill said he picked up the language while coaching at Pittsburgh and living in a Greek community.

But he didn’t want to talk about himself.

He wanted to talk about his players and the program that has earned nationwide respect after going 26-11 in the last three years.

A number of national preseason publications have picked the Bulldogs to finish first in the SEC West. Next week, a Sports Illustrated writer will come in to do a story about MSU strength and conditioning coach Mike Grant and his Navy SEAL training tactics.

The Bulldogs will be televised in at least nine of their 11 regular-season games. Three of those Sept. 3, Memphis; Sept. 20, South Carolina and Nov. 22, Ole Miss will play on ESPN as the only national game on TV. All three will be played at newly expanded Scott Field. The Memphis game will be on a Monday night.

“You can’t put a dollar sign on that kind of national exposure,” Sherrill said.

“ESPN likes to have Mississippi State on TV,” he said after telling that the Bulldogs played in three of the network’s 10 most-watched games in history and its top-rated bowl of the year, an Independence Bowl win over Texas A&M.

Fans have caught football fever, too. MSU has sold a school-record 37,000 season-ticket packages and a two of its five home games are already sellouts.

“Scott Field is not an easy place to play,” Sherrill said. “Everyone says The Swamp is tough, but you ask the guys at Florida, and they’ll tell you Scott Field is a tough place to play.”

The Bulldogs beat the Gators 47-35 last season en route to an 8-4 finish and a No. 24 ranking.

Wilson, who was also at the rally, said that the Bulldogs’ reputation has led young players to choose MSU.

“There’s a trend toward early commitments nationally … MSU is getting caught up in that trend,” said Wilson, MSU’s tight ends coach.

Warren Central quarterback Brett Morgan verbally committed to MSU last month. NCAA rules prohibit coaches from talking about players before they have signed.

But Sherrill praises the prep star’s older brother, Josh, a junior free safety.

“He should be all-SEC this year,” Sherrill said. “He’s intelligent … and he’ll hit you.”

The Bulldogs’ defense should be well-represented on the all-SEC team.

Defensive linemen Dorsett Davis and Conner Stephens, linebacker Mario Haggan and defensive backs Pig Prather, Morgan and Korey Banks “could play anywhere in the country,” Sherrill said.

He’s also been impressed with the new offensive line that will be blocking for Miller, Dontae Walker and Justin Griffith. Young receivers Ray Ray Bivens and Antonio Hargro, who was in Vicksburg until his ninth-grade year, have also caught his eye.

“Hargro can fly,” he said. “Ray Ray is the quickest player we’ve ever had.”

Other players with Vicksburg-area ties who have a chance to play are deep snapper Jonathan Busby (Porters Chapel Academy), special-teamer Curtis Stowers (VHS) and ex-Port Gibson star Jadice Moore, a defensive lineman.

Sherrill said he is most proud of the level and stability the program has attained.

“If something doesn’t go like we anticipate,” he said, “we’re at a point now that we shouldn’t fall off the cliff.

“Scouts say two things about our players they’re physical and they won’t give up.”

The alumni chapter awarded $1,000 scholarships to three students: St. Aloysius’ John Halpin Caldwell and Amanda Corley and WC’s Jeffrey Woleben.