Tears do not come easily for Jackie Sherrill. If anything, they are a last resort, a reluctant concession, a luxury Sherrill rarely allows himself.
But on Oct. 5, with about 2,000 mourners squeezed into Mississippi State University's aging Lee Hall auditorium, Sherrill's eyes betrayed him. He wept. Like a baby.
Two days earlier, Sherrill had walked into his office shortly before 7 a.m. and was met by a Mississippi State team trainer, who, his voice unsteady, told him Rodney Stowers, a 20-year-old junior defensive end, had died.
Stowers had entered nearby Golden Triangle Medical Center Sept. 29 to allow team physicians to insert a pin to help heal his right leg, broken the day before in a game against Florida. But four days later, Stowers suffered a hemorrhaging of the lungs, a side effect, doctors said, sometimes associated with such an injury.
Sherrill couldn't believe it. This was the same Stowers he had wrapped his arm around minutes before a recent game and told that he needed his best effort. Stowers had happily delivered.
Now he was gone.
Sherrill and the trainer drove to the hospital, where Athletic Director Larry Templeton and Stowers' mother were waiting. At 1 p.m. a team meeting was held and later, Sherrill conducted a news conference so charged with emotion that the Mississippi State football coach had to pause several times to compose himself.
The next day, on a chilly, gray October afternoon in Starkville, where a tiny college town grieved for one of its adopted own, Sherrill stood in front of the memorial service congregation and searched for the proper words. The man who, critics say, cornered the market on arrogance and raised insolence to an art form, appeared very human and vulnerable. For a change, Sherrill wasn't in total control. His heart ached, and for once, he allowed the pain to be seen by all.
This wasn't the same Sherrill who, in 13 seasons at such places as Washington State, Pittsburgh and troubled Texas A&M;, had a 105-45-2 record, and in the process, angered such traditionalists as Penn State's Joe Paterno, attracted the attention of the NCAA and generally treated everyone as his royal subjects.
Nor was this the same Sherrill who, by his own admission, once considered himself infallible and perhaps even invincible. It wasn't the man who, several years earlier, met an opposing coach at midfield before a game, and brazenly predicted he could swap teams and still win. Success can do that--make a person think he is something that he is not. But as the words escaped him that day at Lee Hall and his deep voice wavered, Sherrill finally might have felt true humility.
"He tried to hold in his emotions," said quarterback Sleepy Robinson, "but he shed a tear."
Said Sherrill, now two weeks removed from the ordeal: "I've never been through anything like that. I'm telling you, it was the toughest week."
And, in a way, the most revealing.
Sherrill grew closer to his new team that weekend. He arranged for local ministers, psychologists and psychiatrists to speak with his staff and players about the tragedy. And when Robinson, who spoke briefly at the memorial service, was overcome with emotion, Sherrill sat next to him, hugged him and kept whispering, "Just take deep breaths."
"It was kind of touching," Robinson said. "You see, I was about to pass out, I believe."
This isn't the Sherrill people were accustomed to seeing. And in a way, it is Sherrill's own fault. For so long he had hidden behind a persona--half-folklore, half-truth--that no one knew exactly what made him tick.
"There's a mystique out there," Sherrill said. "It's: 'Who is this guy?' "
Sherrill could win football games, this much everyone knew. He has won four in seven tries this season, including an upset of then-ranked Texas. He could recruit. He could assemble a staff. He could organize. He could, when in the mood, even charm. But could he survive the wreckage of a career gone somewhat awry at Texas A&M;, where he led the once-downtrodden Aggies to three Cotton Bowl appearances, 52 victories in seven seasons and, as things turned out, an NCAA investigation that resulted in 25 rules violations, nine of which were deemed "significant" in nature?
Never directly linked to any of the violations, Sherrill resigned, nonetheless, after the 1988 season. At the height of the controversy, helicopters would land near his house and out would jump television reporters in search of the real story. Sherrill stared a hole through them.
He will divulge the full details, he said, "whenever it's time."
And when will that be?
"Whenever I decide," said Sherrill, who has been toying with the idea of an autobiography.
For two years, Sherrill was without football. In 1989, he did little more than explore investment possibilities. After all, he had earned an annual base salary of $260,000 at Texas A&M;, thanks mainly to the efforts of wealthy Aggie alumnus H.R. (Bum) Bright, who once served as the chairman of the A&M; Board of Regents, and later, as owner of the Dallas Cowboys.
Sherrill bought a car dealership in Houston, and there he sat until late 1990, wondering when he might return to coaching. The World Football League was a possibility, maybe even something in the NFL. As for the colleges, Sherrill wasn't sure.
That doesn't mean Sherrill wasn't interested in the developments in certain college programs, especially those at Mississippi State. Although born and raised in Duncan, Okla., Sherrill moved to his brother's chicken farm in Biloxi, Miss., and was a star on the town's high school team. He understood the South, and he also was aware of Mississippi State's inferiority complex. The joke, told by other Southeastern Conference members, is that Starkville "is Indian for 'trailer park.' "
And then there is the football team. The Bulldogs last won an SEC championship in 1941. They hadn't been to a New Year's Day bowl in a half century, been ranked in the final Associated Press poll since 1980 or had more than two winning SEC seasons in 18 years. Many more failures and the Bulldogs could kiss the state away to Ole Miss, their SEC neighbors.
Not long after the 1990 season, coach Rockey Felker, a former Bulldog player, resigned after compiling a five-year record of 21-34. Thirty minutes after Felker's resignation reached Templeton's desk, the Mississippi State athletic director was on the phone with Sherrill.
"First guy I called, first guy I went to see," said Templeton, who was born and raised in Starkville, went to Mississippi State and worked his way up from sports information department go-fer to the head of the athletic program.
Templeton was weary of mediocrity and inexperienced coaches. By his own count, Mississippi State had always hired men who were first- or second-time football coaches. The results were often dismal.
"We needed to go after a proven winner," he said.
So he did, but not before he visited the good folks at the NCAA headquarters in Overland Park, Kan., where he discussed the Texas A&M; case. Later, he also spoke with David Berst, NCAA assistant executive director for enforcement.
Sherrill will tell you that Berst spoke on his behalf, which, according to Berst, isn't exactly true. Instead, Berst simply told Templeton, among other things, that the NCAA violations, including the most serious at A&M;, "did not involve (Sherrill)." That isn't the same thing as being exonerated, Berst said.
Next, Templeton traveled to College Station to read the complete Texas A&M; files on the investigation. That done, he returned to Starkville "feeling very comfortable" about recruiting Sherrill for the job.
A meeting was arranged at a Houston hotel. For the first two hours of the interview, Templeton and Sherrill were polite as could be. But as the day grew longer, politeness gave way to some not-so-subtle negotiating. The turning point came, oddly enough, when a room service tray of sandwiches was delivered. As they huddled over a small table, Sherrill suddenly turned to Templeton and said, "Is Mississippi State ready to win?"
"Jackie," said Templeton, "I could jump out a 12th-floor window, we're so ready. That's the only reason I'm here."
Thus began the bargaining session. Sherrill had to convince Templeton that he had learned his lesson at Texas A&M;, that he wouldn't use Mississippi State as a one-year stepping stone to another job, that money wasn't a motivating factor (Templeton could offer $75,000 in base salary) and that everything would be done by the rules.
Templeton had to persuade Sherrill that Mississippi State was committed to building a program capable of doing what the school's men's basketball and baseball teams had done: win an SEC championship.
About three weeks from initial contact, a deal was struck. Sherrill signed a four-year contract and, said Templeton, "if Mississippi State will do the things to support the football program, Jackie Sherrill will end his career here."
In return, Sherrill so far has given Mississippi State four victories and something the program has rarely had: legitimacy. Say what you will about Sherrill--and Paterno once said: "No, I can't leave the college game to the Barry Switzers and Jackie Sherrills of the world." Paterno eventually apologized to Switzer, but not to Sherrill--but the man knows how to build programs and coach.
"I'm going to tell you very honestly, I never thought I wouldn't do well (at Mississippi State)," he said. "That never entered my mind."
The Bulldog marketing people are putting Sherrill's record to good use. His smiling face graces the covers of the Mississippi State season ticket applications and is featured prominently on the school's football poster and the Bulldog schedule cards.
Sherrill has done his part. During the summer, he crisscrossed the state, speaking to countless Bulldog booster groups. During one speech, he asked how many Mississippi State fans had left a Bulldog basketball or baseball game in the waning minutes or final inning, the score close? No one flinched.
Now then, said Sherrill, how many people had stood to leave when the football team trailed late in the fourth quarter? Slowly, reluctantly, the hands shot up.
"I'll tell you one thing," boomed Sherrill, "you won't leave again, because I'll be standing at the gate."
Months later, as the Bulldogs were struggling to beat Texas in a September rain at Scott Field, Templeton turned to visiting SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer and said, "We're getting ready to see if that speech worked."
Templeton looked into the rain-drenched stands as the clock ticked down. No one had left.
Borrowing from Texas A&M;, Sherrill has created a kickoff squad comprised entirely of non-scholarship players. Then he let the Mississippi State student body vote on the squad's nickname. They chose "Mad Dawgs." Sherrill also had the students pick the Bulldogs' new uniforms. For their troubles, he conducts a chalk-talk with students every Monday evening.
"This has got a lot of rewards," said Sherrill, fighting a cold. "You're not Notre Dame, Texas or A&M--of; course, A&M; wasn't either until (I) got there--but the rewards are greater."
As expected, not everyone was thrilled when Sherrill was hired by Mississippi State. The school's faculty was less than impressed by his troubles at A&M.; Then came a verbal attack from Mississippi Coach Billy Brewer, who called Sherrill a "habitual liar" and said the Bulldog coach specialized in negative recruiting--spreading rumors about other football programs. Brewer was reprimanded by the SEC office, but he never retracted the statement.
Sherrill didn't respond to the comments directly, but he did thank Brewer for bringing the Mississippi State fans together and selling more Bulldog tickets.
Brewer and Sherrill remain at odds, but when news of Rodney Stowers' death reached Oxford, the Ole Miss coach called his team together and requested a moment of silence in honor of the Mississippi State player. Flowers were sent and several Ole Miss representatives attended the funeral.
Brewer knew what it was like to lose a player. He had coached defensive back Chuckie Mullins, who was paralyzed in an Oct. 28, 1990, game and died this past May.
"We're a small state," said Langston Rogers, Ole Miss assistant athletic director. "This is family."
In their own strange ways, football and time are slowly easing the hurt the Bulldog players suffered when Stowers died. The same can be said for Sherrill, whose two-year absence from the game might have made him a better coach. More important, the lessons learned from his Texas A&M; days and the anguish caused by a young player's death might have made him a better person.
"I hope for him, for college football and for everybody concerned," said a prominent A&M; official, "that he's settled down a bit, and that he'll be a little more appreciative of the opportunity that he's got."
Sherrill understands, all right. After all, when it comes right down to it, no one has more to lose than him. Or gain.