The twin-engine Cessna lurched down the runway last Thursday night at College Station, Texas, took off and began bouncing and grinding toward its 4,000-foot cruising altitude en route to Houston. Texas A&M Football Coach Jackie Sherrill was off on his first recruiting trip for his new employer. "I like to recruit," said Sherrill, who only a few days before seemed entrenched at the University of Pittsburgh for another year, one which many observers felt would bring a national championship to the Panthers. "Recruiting is the one thing I can do for sure. But do you know what the best thing is about being here in Texas? It's so flat here that if you have plane trouble, you can land on any of those fields down there with no problem. It's not that way in Pennsylvania."
And that speaks volumes about Jackie Sherrill. For above all else, Sherrill is a realist. If you get yourself up in the air, you better have a way of getting down, right? Plan ahead. That's Sherrill. And, indeed, Texas isn't like Pennsylvania—geographically or fiscally.
Six days earlier, the 38-year-old Sherrill had stunned the college football world by signing a six-year contract with the Aggies for—hold on, folks—$267,000 a year, a total of $1,602,000. That makes him far and away the highest-paid college coach in the land.
There is, as always in matters of this kind, some dispute over the actual amount. A member of the beleaguered A&M Board of Regents says the contract specifies "about $200,000 for five years," a trifling $1 mil. Sherrill didn't want to talk about it ("I think Jackie Sherrill will earn his money," Jackie Sherrill said), but in a friendly guessing game with a writer, he acknowledged that $225,000 was "in the ball park." Frank E. Vandiver, the president of A&M, said all he knew was that Sherrill's base salary was $95,000—$5,000 more than his own—but equal to that of the dean of the medical school. How does it feel to be paid less than the coach? "When I got home after it happened and told my family, they were delighted," said Vandiver. "They felt I had finally gotten the comeuppance that I had long deserved."
In truth, Vandiver was taken aback by the sum (even though none of it comes from legislative appropriation or regular university funds) and by the Board of Regents' heavy-handed approach. So much so that he nearly resigned. "But in fairness," he said last Friday in his office, "I think about resigning about once every day. But my resigning wasn't going to solve anything." Further, he resented being bypassed early on in the discussions. ("Not so," says one regent. "Vandiver was part and parcel to the process the whole time.") Now Vandiver laughs and says he thinks he'll have a look at the book Who's in Charge Here?
Conversations with people who are extremely close to the situation, confirmed the accuracy of the breathtaking $1.6 million package the wily Sherrill has won for himself. It's a roll-over arrangement: The school will always owe him for five more years after the current year. Therefore, to give Sherrill the gate would cost the Aggies about $1.5 million. In Fayetteville, Ark., Razorback Coach Lou Holtz said, "This is overemphasis on football at its height, but so what? I just hope that our fans, as broadminded as they are, don't expect a poor old $40,000-a-year coach like me to be able to beat a $2 million coach like Sherrill." Typically, Holtz grossly understated his income, but in fact he's not in Sherrill's new financial class.
At Penn State, Joe Paterno said, "Heck, you know how naive I am. But I would be shocked if there is any other coach even making $200,000."
But Joe, Jackie says you're in the same money bracket.
"Jackie is all wet," said Paterno. "Give him a message for me. Tell him I'm proud of him and that if he could send a couple thousand a month up here to help a poor Italian boy, I'd be grateful."
Still, despite the levity among the boys, there is concern that the Aggies may have gone financially berserk. Asked if he is concerned, Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham said, "I think so. I'm afraid this will start an escalation in the bidding I don't like to see. Suddenly money doesn't mean anything. It becomes plastic. Everything is all out of whack."