Sherrill has many memories of first Cotton Bowl
Posted: Sunday December 27, 1998 06:24 PM
DALLAS (AP) -- Returning to the Cotton Bowl after an 11-year absence has brought back many memories for Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill, who guided Texas A&M to the New Year's Day game in 1986, 1987 and 1988.
Maybe too many memories.
When asked Sunday for his favorite recollection, Sherrill quickly said, "The first one," then stopped. His eyes reddened and a sentimental lump shut his throat. He moved on to another question, then said, "I'll answer that question for you, but ... I mean ... I had a close friend that died, so ..."
Sherrill finished the formal part of his first news conference of the week by answering more questions about Xs and Os. Then he grabbed a bottle of water and stood before a smaller gathering of reporters to once again tackle the subject of Cotton Bowls past.
"His name was Bob Bernath," Sherrill began, "and he was a good friend of coach Bryant."
Paul 'Bear' Bryant became friends with Bernath, then owner of a car dealership, while coaching at Texas A&M from 1955-57. Bryant then coached at Alabama, where Sherrill was a star pupil from 1962-65 and was a graduate assistant in 1966.
Sherrill became head coach at Texas A&M in 1982. Despite the vast difference in their ages, Sherill and Bernath became fast friends.
"When I went to A&M, coach Bryant called him and said, 'Take care of Jackie,'" Sherrill said. "So we became very close. We'd spend Christmas Eve and other times at his house."
Sherrill's first three Texas A&M teams went a combined 16-16-1. Then, in 1985, everything clicked. The Aggies went 9-2 in the regular season, winning the Southwest Conference and earning a spot in the Cotton Bowl against an Auburn team led by Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson.
The night before Sherrill was to leave for Dallas was Christmas Eve. As usual, his family was spending the holiday at Bernath's home.
"We're over there having dinner and he was upstairs in his bed," Sherrill said. "We had to call an ambulance to take him to the hospital."
Sherrill visited his friend at the hospital before heading to Dallas and gave him a gift: a watch bearing the Cotton Bowl logo given to all participants. It would be the last time they saw each other.
"He said, 'I'm going to stay alive to watch the game.' So, just joking with him, I said 'What do you want the score to be?' He said I want you to beat them by 20 points," Sherrill said slowly, fondling the cap of the water bottle with his left hand while the still-full container shook in his right hand.
"So he watched the game and then he passed away. But we beat them by 20 points," Sherrill said, then walked away quickly.
The Aggies won 36-16 with the final seven points coming on a 1-yard touchdown run by Anthony Toney with three seconds left. A&M scored its last 15 points in the final 2:22.
Sherrill returned to the next two Cotton Bowls, losing 28-12 to Ohio State in 1987 then beating another Heisman Trophy winner in 1988 when the Aggies topped Tim Brown and Notre Dame 35-10.
This is Sherrill's eighth year at Mississippi State and his best yet. The Bulldogs went 9-3 to win the Southeastern Conference's Western Division, then lost to No. 1 Tennessee in the league's title game after holding a fourth-quarter lead.
A new four-year alliance between the SEC and the Cotton Bowl earned Mississippi State its first invitation to Dallas. For Sherrill, it means joining Bryant and Jess Neely as the only coaches to guide two schools into the game and a chance to beat another Heisman Trophy winner in Ricky Williams.
Sherrill boasts a 7-2 record against Texas, including a 2-0 mark with the Bulldogs. And don't think Longhorns fans have forgotten Sherrill's "motivational" castration of a bull before their last meeting in 1992.
"I'm sure that I'm not a good word to their fans," Sherrill said.
Texas coach Mack Brown said having Sherrill as part of the game makes up for Arkansas not being the SEC representative, as many Longhorns fans had been hoping.
"It's probably fun to have him part of the game," Brown said Sunday. "A lot of people were talking about the possibility of Arkansas because of the traditional games that Arkansas and Texas played, but Jackie pulls in some A&M [antagonism], which our fans like."
Sherrill said the SEC alliance should help the Cotton Bowl regain its status as an elite game.
"It's very evident this year when we had a sellout the first day it was announced," he said. "This is probably the hardest ticket the Cotton Bowl has ever had. I know I can't get any tickets."
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