And what about his wife? Does she know him?
"No," he says again, giving his head a shake.
And what about Sherrill himself? Does he even have a clue?
"Yeah, well, I know me," he says, his voice barely a whisper.
Sherrill may find himself hard to figure, but many people have definite opinions about him. And they have stories to back them up. Some of these stories paint a picture of a man who survived a lonely, impoverished childhood to become a loving husband and father and one of the best coaches the college game has ever known. Others describe a man of staggering hubris and hard-headedness who would use any means to win a point or have his way. Taken together, these stories create what even Sherrill has been heard to call "the Sherrill mystique."
If you listen to some people, this mystique was never more confounding than in 1977, at the end of Sherrill's first year as the coach at Pittsburgh. He was only 34 at the time, and he and his staff were meeting to discuss Clemson, their upcoming Gator Bowl opponent. Sherrill was unhappy with his team's 15-13 loss to Penn State a few days before. And practice that afternoon had been a bust. According to witnesses, Sherrill turned to one of his assistant coaches and said, "You lost the game for us."
Bob Leahy, the offensive coordinator, came to the assistant's defense and called Sherrill a "son of a bitch." Leahy and Sherrill exchanged insults, and then Sherrill jumped to his feet and lunged at Leahy, his face aflame, hands raised to strike. Although blows were thrown, not one landed as other members of the staff pulled the two men apart.
"After it happened," Leahy says, "a lot of the other coaches were patting me on the back and saying I did the right thing by sticking up for my assistant. But let me tell you, I was dead wrong. I questioned Jackie's authority, I backed him up against the wall, and you don't do that to your head coach."
Asked about the incident, Sherrill says, "It happened. But I never said anything about him losing the game for us. I was upset over practice. And you need to remember, I was a young coach then. When somebody challenged me like that, well, I wasn't secure enough to know how to respond. I didn't know better than to strike out at him."
A couple of years later Sherrill proved that he wasn't afraid to confront a rival coach either. Paterno's quote about not wanting to leave college football to "the Barry Switzers and Jackie Sherrills of the world" was less than a day old when Sherrill got wind of it and, as he recalls, decided to take up the issue with Paterno. Before Pitt's game with Penn State that weekend, Sherrill encountered Paterno at midfield. They briefly chatted, and then, as Paterno walked away, Sherrill said, "Hey, Joe, I'm sorry you're not going to leave football to the Switzers and the Sherrills."