We've got Texas A&M boys on the boards of just about any corporation you can mention, which is all right, except on Saturday afternoons," says Joe C. Richardson Jr., a member of the Board of Regents at Texas A&M University and a generous contributor to its athletic department.
"Jackie Sherrill is going to change that. He's going to recruit folks smart enough to win. Now before this, they've always had the ability, but they didn't always know what goal line to go to."
They've got a lot of pride at Texas A&M, too much to tolerate the fact that the Aggies have been to the Cotton Bowl only once in the last 40 years, and too much money not to want to do something about it. So last January, they bought themselves a million-dollar football coach. After all, said one alumnus, "It's our money and we can do what we want with it."
What they did was hire Jackie Sherrill. And if they wondered what made a football coach worth $1 million, they must have wondered all the harder after watching the Aggies lose the first game of the season to Boston College, 38-16, on Sept. 4.
Still, the men who made the decision to hire Sherrill are businessmen. They know about building strategies and long-term goals, and they are not easily swayed. Neither, for that matter, is Jackie Sherrill, the son of a Mississippi chicken farmer who hauled himself up the hard way and molded himself into a man as intense as any of those at the top of the corporate towers.
"It's like any business," he said softly at the party that was supposed to celebrate his victory after the BC game. "You learn from your mistakes. You have to learn how to lose, before you learn how to win."
It has been eight months since Jackie Sherrill left the University of Pittsburgh and a team contending for a national title this season to become the head coach and athletic director of Texas A&M University.
It has been eight months since he asked for and received a six-year, $1.6 million contract on the strength of a 53-17-1 won-lost record and promptly landed in the middle of a controversy with more fronts than a forest fire.
There were irate faculty members who thought the university's priorities had suddenly become the province of a bunch of victory-crazed alumni rich enough to try and buy themselves a Cotton Bowl championship.
There was the college president who threatened to resign after being exiled to the sidelines during the decision-making process. And there was a chorus of critics muttering on the sidelines about the effect a million-dollar football coach would have on what many already saw as the altogether-too-professional world of college athletics.
"The last eight months have been extremely tough," said Sherrill, sitting in his spacious new office with the helmet-shaped easy chair and the helmet-shaped telephone, overlooking a clean and prosperous campus that seems to gleam in the Texas sun a few days before the Boston College game.
"But I think it's made me a better football coach than I was." It has certainly made him a terrific politician: from the moment he left Pittsburgh, the city where he made his name, Sherrill planned his moves as carefully as if he were making them on a chessboard.
Sherrill made nearly 40 trips to alumni clubs throughout the state, and met with every Aggie-related organization he could find, from the Aggie Moms to the Accounting Club. He sent letters to the members of the academic community assuring them of his commitment to his players' education, and confronted the ferocious Aggie athletic boosters in their lair and let them know that, despite their contributions, he would be the one running the athletic program.
He remembers his meeting with one wealthy contributor: "He came up to me and said, 'Hello, I'm so and so, you're happy to meet me.' And I said, 'You know, you Aggies are like bullfrogs--most of you is belly and what isn't, is head and most of that is mouth.' And the next time I saw him, he was wearing a name tag that said bullfrog on it, and later, he sent us some frog legs."
Sherrill wears a gray pin-striped suit, a monogrammed shirt and an expression so intense it seems to have been carved into his features, making him look older than his 38 years. At first he seems an oddity on this bright and shining campus: football, after all, is the cauldron into which they pour a ferocious love and fierce loyalty at Texas A&M, where grown men cry when the fight song is played. And Jackie Sherrill is a cool machine of a man, dressed in his pin-striped suits, whirring along, his voice pitched soft and low, a monotone among the hoots and hollers.
He sits warily, as if he were trying to anticipate where things might next go wrong, where he might next have to do battle with the unpredictable. Organized is the word most people used to describe him first, the way he describes himself.
The decision to come here, he once told the student newspaper, "wasn't made from the heart. It was made strictly logically. You plan things out, where you're going to be in 5, 10, 15 years." Jackie Sherrill likes to leave little to chance, although in the end, there isn't much he can do about what chance leaves to him.
The other thing Jackie Sherrill has done for the last eight months is talk to the reporters stacked up outside his door and defend the amount of money he makes and explain why he's worth it.
Sherrill does not put it quite the same way as Harry (Frog) Green puts it. "You don't see 100,000 students cheering a chemistry lecture," says Green, executive director of the Aggie Club, whose 3,600 members take in more than $2 million a year on behalf of the athletic department. "You don't see an English class with its own section in the newspaper. That's the difference, right there."
"Are chief executive officers overpaid?" Sherrill says. "No, I'm not overpaid, given the number of hours I spend, the number of people I'm responsible for, the things I do, the amount of money I generate, not just in ticket sales, the national exposure -- you can't go buy that, it's an intangible."
Besides, he says, "Professors are allowed to make money, consulting or writing papers, and other kinds of outside work in highly paid, highly technical fields. There is a lot of legitimate concern, but an institution has to make a decision about how important football is. The people running (the University of) San Francisco (which recently dropped its big-time basketball program) made their decision and that's fine, but Pittsburgh had the same administration when they were 1-10 as when they were 11-1. The difference was that they accepted their role and made a decision about how important it was to them."
There has never been a whole lot of question of how important football is at Texas A&M. This, after all, is a school where most of the 35,000-member student body turns out for midnight yell practice the night before the game, where they stand during the entire game to symbolize their willingness to go out and help the team, and where football, God, patriotism and Texas are all pretty much equal in the eyes of the Aggies.
"Football, that's bread and butter," says J.C. Richardson, father of Joe Jr. The senior Richardson graduated in 1919, back when the team went three years without letting any opponent cross an A&M goal line. So far, Richardson is impressed with Sherrill. "I like his philosophy," he says, and in his voice is the echo of a chorus of thousands. "He knows what's what. It's a business with him, and I approve of that."
Sherrill takes his cue from the kind of men he met in Pittsburgh, the chief executive officers, the vice presidents, the corporate lions of Westinghouse and U.S. Steel and Equibank.
"I met them, I became close to them, I relaxed around them, played golf with them, and I saw that their responsibility, their pressure, was every bit as intense," he says. "They were making decisions that could influence the world. I was impressed that they could sit in an office and make those decisions. I learned a lot from those people: their appearance, their presence, how they dealt with pressure. They weren't on an ego trip. They worked themselves up from the ranks, and they know it's going to end someday. When they're no longer CEO (chief executive officer) all those perks would be gone, no Lear jet, no Saberliner, so they don't flaunt it. It's just part of the job."
Sherrill was born in Duncan, Okla., the last of eight children, the son of a chicken farmer and a nurse. His parents divorced when he was very young. He raised himself for the most part, scraped hard for a living, a poor boy who worked nights in a bowling alley when he was 6, and met the dawns cleaning out a chicken farm a few years later. He doesn't talk much about those days now, but the memory seems to linger in the tight control, the vigilance. "You make your own luck," he says now. "It doesn't just come. Once an opportunity's lost, it's never regained."
For a time he wanted to be a minister; he liked the attention and the respect they got and on Wednesday nights he would watch the preacher working on his sermon. He moved to Biloxi, Miss., to live with his brother while he became an all-America fullback and linebacker at Biloxi High School. Bear Bryant showed up there one day, and that's when Sherrill decided to attend the University of Alabama.
"There is only one great football coach, and that's Bear Bryant," Sherrill says. "He has endured and been consistent for many years without great players all the time. He's forgotten more than we'll ever know. And he was a real father figure to me."
Sherrill, of course, is aware of the speculation that he is the front-runner to succeed Bryant when the latter retires, but he quickly dismisses the idea. "Coach Bryant will probably be coaching longer than I am," he says. "It's certainly an honor to be even mentioned in the same breath with him. But I made that decision when I came here. I made a commitment to get the job done."
Sherrill played for Bryant for three years and worked for him as a graduate assistant for one year, before going on to work with Frank Broyles at Arkansas and Johnny Majors at Iowa State. He followed Majors to Pittsburgh, left after two years to become head coach at Washington State, and was back at Pitt in 1977 when Majors left to go to Tennessee.
"He was a very disciplined, very strict, but caring coach," says Redskin offensive guard Mark May, who played for Sherrill for four years at Pitt. While May remembers Sherrill kicking a hole through a blackboard when he thought the players weren't taking a game seriously enough, he also remembers the day he had an assistant coach dress up as a leprechaun in the dressing room when they played Notre Dame. "He'd have cookouts at his house for the team, and you could go over there just to play pinball or watch TV," says May. "He got real close to his players."
The Aggie players are still blinking in the light of all the publicity that has been focused on them since the arrival of their new head coach and they seem a little in awe of Sherrill.
The coach says he is still "learning them," trying to figure out the combinations that unlock the will, talent and tenacity in each of them. Every afternoon before practice, he talks to them, "mostly about life and stuff, how to act and what to look like," as one of the offensive tackles put it.
The Friday before the Boston College game, the sermon was more focused. "I've asked this football team to do more than I've asked any other football team," he told them. "Now it's up to you to do the right thing. You're not going to catch every pass, or make every tackle, and if you're mentally prepared for that, then we'll make more than our share."
Remember, he told them, "you're playing the game for yourself. You play because you want to play, you either have it or you don't have it. I don't believe you win one for the Gipper or for your coach, you win because you worked harder and you want it more than anybody else does."
"His players respect him a heck of a lot," says Sal Sunseri, a former Pitt linebacker who now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers. "He was a great confidence builder. He knew how to motivate you, to make you play your best."
"Some people have that ability, some people don't," shrugs Sherrill. "I've never had a young man lie to me. I discipline players harder than other people discipline them, but it's like raising a kid. Every kid does things wrong, it doesn't mean you abandon them. But if they did something wrong and felt they couldn't tell me, then I'd know I'd failed. If a player does not want to have the discipline, the respect and the compassion, then this is the wrong place for him. I don't want any one around me that isn't willing to pay the same price as I do."
It is a price he has always paid and that he continues to pay, driving himself endlessly, a relentless, tight-lipped march that allows little time for anything this side of monomania.
"If hard work and determination can make a success then he's got it," says Sherrill's wife Daryle. "But sometimes I worry about him."
Her husband took exactly 1 1/2 days off the first three years of their marriage, she says, and their wedding in fact was sandwiched between a Saturday afternoon Pitt game and the grading of game films the next day. Even when he plays golf, she says, "he looks like a caveman with a club, snarling at the ball."
"I'm not a guy who has idle time," Sherrill says. "I always hear you have to take time to smell the flowers, or look at the sky or lie in the grass. I'd rather listen to motivational tapes, hear other people's ideas on success.
"One of the things that upsets me," he says, "is the people who have made millions saying how to get rich quick, how to get to where you want to go. I don't think anyone knows where they're going, if they do, they die. It's the difference between being ripe and rotten, and green and growing. But what these people don't understand is you have to experience failure in order to understand success."
It was not the way it was supposed to be. This first game against Boston College was supposed to be almost a scrimmage. The Aggies, after all, were 17-point favorites, and the Aggie fans, who take their football about as frivolously as they take the memory of the Alamo, thought they knew exactly what to expect. "I thought we were going to see a butt-kicking," said one former student, as they call the alumni here. "I just didn't think we were going to be the ones to get kicked."
When the dust cleared from Boston College's 38-16 victory, the student body stayed as it always does after an Aggie defeat, and practiced yells for half an hour (and noted with approval that Sherrill made the team stay, too). And, once the crowd began to straggle out to their cars in as the lights dimmed over Kyle field, still, despite all the expectations, the alumni were in a generous mood. "It's that damned inflation," said Eddie Harden, Class of '79. "A million dollars just doesn't buy what it used to."
A little while later, the million-dollar football coach stood in the middle of his own backyard, looking out at the rows of empty tables covered in the school colors of burgundy and white while the Japanese lanterns swayed and blinked in the darkness and the hired waiters stood behind the bar and the tables filled with the fresh oysters and the roast beef while the handful of guests talked in low and somber tones.
Jackie Sherrill permitted himself a small smile.
"The place would have been full if we'd won," he said matter of factly, the way Jackie Sherrill says everything, blue eyes staring straight ahead, thin lips pressed down hard.