The rest of college football may be shaking its head over Mississippi State's decision to hire Jackie Sherrill as its football coach, but the mood last week in Starkville, site of the university, was downright euphoric. The message on the marquee at the Holiday Inn—WELCOME TO BULLDOG COUNTRY COACH JACKIE SHERRILL—expressed the prevailing view, and the fans at Humphrey Coliseum gave Sherrill a wild, emotional ovation when he was introduced at halftime of State's basketball game against Eastern Kentucky on Dec. 11. One Bulldog booster even grabbed athletic director Larry Templeton and yelled, "This is the best deal since the Louisiana Purchase!"
That, of course, will depend on how well the 47-year-old Sherrill keeps his contractual pledge to avoid the kind of trouble that in 1988 caused him to leave Texas A&M in disgrace. After his seven-year hitch there as both coach and athletic director, during which A&M was slapped with an NCAA probation, Sherrill was regarded as such damaged goods in the eyes of many potential employers that not even his gaudy record (50-9-1 and three consecutive 11-1 seasons at Pitt, 52-28-1 and three straight Cotton Bowl trips at A&M) could overcome his liabilities. But in college football, the occasional reform movement notwithstanding, there will always be universities desperate enough for success to gamble on a winner, even a tarnished one, and that's exactly what has happened at Mississippi State.
Whatever else he may be, Sherrill is shrewd enough to understand the inferiority complex that exists in a place like Starkville. So his first item of business after taking the job at Mississippi State was to begin making Bulldog fans feel good about themselves by making them feel good about him. In press conferences, speeches and interviews, he reminded them of his upbringing in Biloxi, Miss., and his days at Alabama, where he played on a couple of Bear Bryant's national championship teams. He flashed the huge Cotton Bowl ring he wears on his left hand.
"The one thing I want," he said while sitting amid the clutter of his new office, "is to have all these Mississippi State people, who have bled all these years but still have bought their tickets arid sat in the stands, be able to have a gleam in their eye someday and throw their chest out and be proud of their school."
You can't imagine what that sort of talk means to Bulldog fans until you understand how much frustration they have endured over the years, and how much ridicule they have absorbed. Starkville (pop. 18,000) may be the most aptly named college town in America. It lies in flat, drab farmland in northeast Mississippi, far removed from an interstate highway and 18 miles from the nearest commercial airport. It has always been the Southeastern Conference's most forlorn outpost, everybody's least-favorite road trip, even though, as a result of a conference rule passed a few years ago, State fans can no longer ring their beloved cowbells at visiting teams.
This remoteness is the principal reason why Mississippi State has never been able to attract a big-name coach. Oh, sure, Darrell Royal and Murray Warmath did time there years ago, before they moved on to glory at Texas and Minnesota, respectively, but they quickly realized that a coach could not recruit well enough at State to be consistently competitive in the tough SEC. So Bulldog football has been mostly an exercise in mediocrity—the school has averaged one SEC victory per season over the past nine years—which is one reason why the university's 41,200-seat Scott Field is the second smallest stadium in the conference.
Sherrill's immediate predecessor, Rockey Felker, was only 32 when he got the State job in 1986. He was a popular choice because, in the early '70s, he had been the star quarterback on Bulldog teams that had enjoyed a modicum of success, including a trip to the Sun Bowl after the 1974 season, where they defeated North Carolina 26-24. But after a 6-5 record in his first season as coach, Felker went 4-7, 1-10 and, this fall, 5-6. The 1990 record wasn't bad by Bulldog standards, but it came in a year when Mississippi and Southern Mississippi, the state's other major programs, were earning bowl bids with records of 9-2 and 8-3, respectively.
"That had a lot to do with it," Felker said of his resignation two days after the season ended. "You can imagine the pressure that exists in the small towns of Mississippi. While Southern and Ole Miss fans have been holding their heads high, we haven't given State fans enough to be proud of, and that certainly created a problem."
It wasn't that Felker was unpopular, understand. To the contrary, everyone, including those who forced his resignation, talked about his honesty, his integrity, his hard work. But some of Mississippi State's most influential boosters simply lost confidence in him after a tough 17-15 defeat at Kentucky and a 17-16 homecoming loss against Auburn. These Bulldog fans made their feelings known to Dr. Donald Zacharias, who has been State's president since 1985.
"You have to understand that Coach Felker resigned because supporters promised that significant amounts of money would be withheld from the university if he didn't," says Roger Easley, a professor of veterinary medicine who heads the university's faculty council. "They just want to win more, I guess."