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Sherrill Brings a Sense of Intrigue to Mississippi State Football

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He has been called a habitual liar, a cheater and a winner, and around Starkville, Miss., these days, they’re calling him a savior.

Time will tell what Coach Jackie Sherrill brings to the Mississippi State football program. Some predict he’ll bring respectability, perhaps even greatness, to one of the Southeastern Conference’s perennial doormats. Others fear he’ll bring busloads of NCAA investigators to Starkville.

But this much is definite: Sherrill, the former Texas A&M; coach and athletic director whose Aggie program was put on probation by the NCAA in 1988, brings a certain amount of intrigue to a program that for years has been as drab as the town of Starkville itself.

And he likes that.

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“I would say I’m a mystery,” said Sherrill, whose .697 winning percentage (105-45-2) ranks sixth among active coaches. “There have been so many positive stories written about me that would rate 10s on a 1-to-10 scale. There have also been a lot of ones, and plenty in between.

“People who know you write one thing, and people who don’t know you write something else, but that’s good. It’s like watching John Wayne movies. People are always trying to find out who you are.”

People will get their first look at Sherrill in his new role when Mississippi State opens the season at home against Cal State Fullerton today.

The Bulldogs, who have averaged one SEC victory a season for the past nine years, aren’t expected to challenge for the conference championship this year and probably won’t be competing with the likes of Florida, Tennessee and Auburn any time soon.

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But Sherrill, who coached seven years at Texas A&M; (52-28-1), five at Pittsburgh (50-9-1) and one at Washington State (3-8), has already incorporated several strategies in Starkville that fostered success at his other schools.

He has spent much of the past eight months courting Bulldog boosters and alumni, drumming up support for the program. He has also gotten Mississippi State students more involved in football than they’ve ever been.

Sherrill allowed students to vote on the Bulldogs’ uniform style, and as a result, Mississippi State’s pants and jerseys won’t have stripes this season. The Bulldogs’ kickoff team will consist of a kicker and 10 walk-ons from the student body. Students voted to call this unit the Mad Dog Team.

Sherrill’s Texas A & M kickoff teams consisted of walk-ons, and they were among Sherrill’s most successful special teams. Sherrill will also have a chalk talk with students every Monday during the season.

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“You’re not going to win unless students get involved,” Sherrill said. “They can affect the game. You go to any great football school--Notre Dame, Penn State--and before the games there will be trailers and motor homes as far as you can see, and people are having fun. But when it’s time to play, they make a big difference in crowd noise.”

Sherrill would love to create an atmosphere in Starkville in which football games are events, much the way they are at Auburn and Louisiana State, where fans spend two or three days tailgating in the parking lot on game weekends. He envisions a strong team supported by proud fans who regularly fill 41,200-seat Scott Stadium.

“You have all the ingredients to win here,” Sherrill said. “We have great facilities, it’s a good academic school, there’s a good campus atmosphere and not a lot of the distractions you have in other areas. And there’s a good base to recruit from in this area.”

Sherrill already senses a change in the attitude of students and boosters, who gave him a wild ovation when he was introduced during halftime of a Mississippi State basketball game last December.

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“Instead of people hoping to win, wanting to win, they expect to win,” Sherrill said. “There’s a lot of power in that, but it also puts a lot of pressure on the team. Sometimes that can be tough, but teams that are always good are teams that expected to win.”

But to what lengths will Sherrill go to win? That’s what critics of his hiring wonder.

Sherrill built a weak Texas A & M program into a Southwest Conference power that played in three consecutive Cotton Bowl games. But in September, 1988, the NCAA Committee on Infractions found the school guilty of 25 rules violations, nine of which it termed “significant.”

The Aggies were hit with a two-year probation that included a bowl ban for the 1988 season and a reduction in scholarships. The NCAA found no “direct” violations by Sherrill, but the inference was there. He ran a dirty program and resigned--some said in disgrace--after the 1988 season.

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Sherrill’s reputation was so tarnished that he couldn’t get a coaching job for two years. He was selling cars at his dealership in Houston when Mississippi State took a gamble and hired him last December.

“We all make mistakes, and we all learn,” Sherrill said. “I think I deserve a second chance.”

Titan Notes

For the first time in Fullerton Coach Gene Murphy’s 12 seasons at the school, the Titans chartered a jet for an away game. The team made the 3 1/2-hour flight to Columbus, Miss., Friday and will return after the game tonight. Last season, delays caused by thunderstorms and canceled flights resulted in a 17-hour journey to Mississippi State. Still, the Titans played one of their best games of the season, taking a 13-6 halftime lead before falling, 27-13. . . . Fullerton offensive guard Shannon Illingworth, who is suffering from a spleen injury, did not make the trip, meaning tackle John Cotti will be the only Titan starter with previous Division I game experience on the offensive line. Wally Bonnett, who played on the defensive line last season, and freshman Seth Braithwaite will start at the guards, community college transfer Terrance LaCount will play the other tackle and Dave Porter, who was redshirted last season, will play center. . . . Fullerton quarterback Terry Payne played the final 2 1/2 quarters of the 1990 game at Mississippi State after starter Paul Schulte was injured. Payne completed 11 of 22 passes for 139 yards but couldn’t get the Titans in the end zone. . . . The Bulldogs’ best player is junior Tony James, the SEC’s top returning all-purpose runner who has been moved to wide receiver this season. James’ 51-yard punt return for a touchdown put Mississippi State ahead to stay in last season’s game against Fullerton. The Bulldogs also have an outstanding linebacker in 6-1, 240-pound junior Marc Woodard. . . . Mississippi State is expected to field one of the school’s biggest offensive lines in recent years with projected starters John James (6-3, 294), Lee Ford (6-0, 280), Byron Jordan (6-2, 270), Bill Sartin (6-2, 299) and Kenny Stewart (6-4, 293). And three Bulldog reserve offensive linemen each weigh more than 300 pounds.

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