Success has Sherrill settled down in Starkville

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 24, 2001

[07/24/01] Jackie Sherrill worked his way around the room, making small talk with big Bulldog supporters and big talk with small fans.

He patiently posed for pictures, signed T-shirts, footballs and posters and answered questions even one about what he writes between plays on his ever-present clipboard.

“I can’t say in mixed company,” he answered jokingly before explaining how and why he charts all offensive and defensive plays and kicks. “It’s just a way to keep me in the game.”

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Sherrill graciously handled all of the fans’ questions and requests with the countenance of a coach with a three-touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter.

In other words, the Jackie Sherrill who met with Warren County alumni earlier this month was nothing like the Jackie Sherrill of most of the 1990s.

It was the most successful decade in Mississippi State history. But the years were somewhat marred by Sherrill’s on-again, off-again relationship with alumni, fans and media. One season, it appeared as if everyone wanted him; the next, no one did.

At alumni meetings, he was often aloof.

“He would make his talk and leave,” Moody Culpepper, who will become president of the Warren County chapter of the MSU Alumni Association in January, said of Sherrill’s first few appearances. “It was almost like he came just because he had to.”

Buddy Hanks, whose wife, Jane, is the outgoing president, said, “It was almost like he was on the defensive all the time.”

Now, Sherrill is so at ease, he joked with alumni about Florida coach Steve Spurrier’s sideline antics, poked fun at Ole Miss for playing at Arkansas State as a non-conference opponent and even gave some off-the-record information about outspoken cornerback Fred Smoot.

Most of all, he talked about Mississippi State’s ascension into the big-time and his plans for the future.

Several supporters noticed his new air of comfort.

“He stayed there all night this time,” Culpeper said. “And he will always stop what he’s doing to talk to a child.”

On his post-game radio show, “used to he would cut someone off in a second … now he can talk to anybody,” Culpepper said.

After back-to-back bowl wins and national rankings, Sherrill seems to be settled in Starkville, his brand boldly on the program he steered no pun intended to new heights.

“This is my last horse ride,” Sherrill said with a smile, his eyes gleaming as he made direct eye contact with his interviewer. “It would take a lot of explosives to get my wife out of Starkville.”

Sherrill never gave the city that strong of an endorsement in 1992, after his second season at MSU, when rumors were swirling that he was headed to the NFL to coach Tampa Bay.

But the honeymoon was over right after that. He was humbled by three losing records, including two straight sub-.500 seasons for the only time in his storied, sometimes scandalous 23-year career as a head coach.

He made national news when he had MSU veterinary students show his players the difference in a bull and a steer by having the “de-bulling” procedure performed in front of them. That was just before they played the Texas Longhorns. He again made headlines when he was spotted in Tampa, believed to be interviewing for the Buccaneers head-coaching job.

After that, a Sports Illustrated poll said an overwhelming number of coaches voted Sherrill the coach they’d least like their sons to play for.

But he’s weathered all of those storms and now, headed into his 10th year in Starkville, he is the dean of SEC West coaches. Only Florida’s Steve Spurrier, with 11 years, has been in the conference longer.

“A lot of people were hoping he’d be gone by now,” Michael Lindsey, a former Vicksburg High star who played at MSU 1993-96, said with a laugh. “Fans just don’t understand what it takes to build a program.”

But even as support from fans and alumni wavered, the players always supported him, Lindsey said.

“He’s cool, laid-back,” he said. “He really gets to know you … The other night when I saw him, he said, How’s your mom … is she still working in Jackson?’

“He knows his players on a personal basis.”

Lindsey acknowledged that his coach has a reputation “for recruiting thugs,” he said with a laugh, beating a reporter to the question.

“He just knows that football is the only chance for some people, so he would give them another chance,” Lindsey said, adding that it didn’t matter if the wayward player was a superstar or a third-stringer.

What’s inarguable about Sherrill’s reign is that he’s helped bring unprecedented exposure and notoriety to MSU.

It’s also the first success he’s had that can be attributed solely to him. He stepped into big-time programs at Pittsburgh and Texas A&M to continue traditions. In Starkville, he is building one.

“Our reputation around the country is very, very good,” he said. “We’re getting (player) commitments now that five or six years ago, we wouldn’t have gotten.”

He distributes the credit to his players, coaching staff and alumni for helping make that happen.

“The gratification comes from seeing the players be successful,” he said, adding that plenty of them and former assistant coaches are now in the NFL. “We’ve been awfully blessed.

“I’m also comfortable with the support of the alumni. They’ve helped make us have much more success,” he said.

The Bulldogs will be on TV at least nine times this year and three times, they will be on national broadcasts as the only game on TV that night.

With the string of successful seasons an SEC West-best 31-13 over the last four regular seasons and two bowl wins Sherrill is confident that the program has a strong foundation.

“There’s no false reality here,” he said. “The fans still have to yell, we still have to be lucky and keep people healthy, but we’re at the point now where we shouldn’t fall off the cliff.”

He talked about plans in the works to play Notre Dame, Boston College, Oklahoma or Nebraska to boost the Bulldogs’ non-conference schedule and help the BCS ranking.

“Our thinking is, let’s get something out of our non-conference schedule,” he said. “With the exposure you get, you win even if you don’t win.”

Sherrill, who is already MSU’s all-time winningest coach, will almost surely become the winningest active Division I-A coach in America if he stays at it a few more years.

With the retirement of BYU’s LaVell Edwards, West Virginia’s Don Nehlen and Virginia’s George Welsh, and the firing of Ohio State’s John Cooper, Sherrill is up to fourth on the list. Joe Paterno of Penn State and Bobby Bowden of Florida State, both in their 70s, are at the top, followed by 64-year-old Lou Holtz at South Carolina.

Sherrill says that Starkville is his last stop, but he won’t say how long he intends to coach.

Will he be on the sidelines even when he needs a walker?

Sherrill stands up, smiles and says, “I probably won’t stay that long.”