This is a dangerous practice, letting donors and boosters make personnel decisions, but it happens a lot more often than college administrators like to admit. After receiving Felker's resignation, Zacharias continued listening to the boosters while turning a deaf ear to his faculty council. In mid-November, the council, which rarely concerns itself with matters relating to athletics, had voted in favor of a resolution calling on the university to eliminate any candidates for the job who had "any history of NCAA rules violations directly attributed to them or in programs under their leadership."
Well, so much for faculty clout at Mississippi State. Of the four finalists for the coaching job, two had decidedly tarnished NCAA records. A lot of Mississippi State alumni wanted ex-Bulldog player Bobby Collins, so he became one of the finalists, even though he was the man in charge at SMU from 1982-86 when that school committed violations which earned it the only death penalty the NCAA has ever meted out. Now in private business, Collins has not coached since. Then there was Sherrill, who had been selling cars at his dealership in Houston since departing from A&M.
Sherrill apparently wanted Mississippi State as badly as Zacharias and Templeton, the two-man search committee, came to want him. The car business had not been good to Sherrill. Said one Southwest Conference official, "Jackie lost his ass in the auto agency—lost in a big way. He needed a job."
Sherrill denies that the dealership was doing badly and says that it was simply not big enough for both him and his partner to recoup their investments. In October, Sherrill sold his 51% interest.' In addition, he says, he is on the board of a company that rebuilds engines, and had also had offers from NFL teams. "I didn't have to come back to college," he says. "The only reason I took this job was to reestablish myself and to reconfirm that I am not a bad guy. It has nothing to do with anything else."
So Sherrill, who would have laughed at Mississippi State as recently as a couple of years ago, told Zacharias and Templeton what a "great opportunity" he saw in Starkville. They liked that, because they had probably never heard it before. They also believed Sherrill when he told them he had been a victim of circumstances at A&M. They even bought his argument that the NCAA had given him a "clean bill of health," even though what the NCAA really had said was that it had no record of direct violations by Sherrill in its files.
In an interview with the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, Mark Jones, an NCAA enforcement director, called State's characterization of Sherrill's status "misleading." Said Jones, "We keep a file, A to Z, on any coach who has been found to be directly involved in the infractions. If a coach—either a head coach or an assistant—has been involved, his name will be in there. If he hasn't been, then we simply say that we have no record of his involvement."
In truth, the case against Texas A&M during Sherrill's tour of duty was a serious one. On Sept. 9, 1988, the NCAA Committee on Infractions found A&M guilty of 25 rules violations, nine of which it termed "significant," and slapped the Aggies with a two-year probation that included a bowl ban for the 1988 season and a reduction in scholarships, and barred two assistants from recruiting off campus.
Nevertheless, Sherrill might have ridden out the storm at A&M had it not been for subsequent allegations from a former Aggie fullback named George Smith, who claimed that Sherrill had paid him "hush money" to keep silent about other infractions. Sherrill denied Smith's charges, and Smith kept changing his story—even recanting it entirely at one point—until the NCAA finally gave up on the case, citing an inability to determine the truth.
While Sherrill claims he left A&M because of his love for the school—"Nobody told me to go," he says, a hard glint in his eyes—he apparently was forced out by Dr. William H. Mobley, the A&M president. When the Smith situation arose two months after Mobley had promised the NCAA that he would personally guarantee Sherrill's compliance with the organization's rules, Mobley reportedly was so angry that he told A&M's board of regents either to let him handle Sherrill as he saw fit or the board would have to look for a new president. Understandably concerned about how it would look if Mobley left and Sherrill stayed, the regents let Mobley have his way. Says one A&M official, "It got to be a question of who was bigger—A&M or Jackie."
Either Zacharias and Templeton learned none of this when they checked out Sherrill with sources at A&M, or they were not bothered by it. Or perhaps they were convinced that as Sherrill told them, being out of football for two years had given him a "different perspective, a different light." Zacharias and Templeton also were undeterred by the fact that Sherrill had left Pitt after a nasty power struggle with the administration. After five seasons at Pitt, Sherrill had made a list of demands designed to increase his power—including his being made associate athletic director—and had told the administration that it had to give him an answer before the kickoff of the 1982 Sugar Bowl, in which Pitt was playing Georgia. When Pitt refused to knuckle under to this ultimatum, Sherrill bolted for A&M, which made him athletic director and offered him a five-year rollover contract worth nearly $270,000 a year, an astounding outlay at the time.