While in Kansas City, Templeton also checked up on another candidate for the Mississippi State job, Bobby Collins, the former Southern Methodist coach whose program had been, in 1987, the first ever given the NCAA's death penalty. Like Sherrill, Collins was the kind of "proven winner" Templeton says he was determined to bring to his school. And how did Collins rate? "Like Jackie," Templeton says. "The NCAA had no problem with Bobby Collins either."
Not so long before, Sherrill had coached Dan Marino, Hugh Green and Rickey Jackson at Pitt while en route to a 50-9-1 record and three straight 11-1 seasons. At A&M he'd seemed on the verge of building a dynasty, producing teams that trounced once-mighty Texas five years straight. And here he was now, eager to sign on at long-suffering Mississippi State, a school whose last big lick of success had been an 8-4 record in 1981.
"We're offering you the job," Templeton told Sherrill one night on the phone. "The only thing I can guarantee you right now is $75,000 a year on the State contract." Eventually there would be more to the package—TV and radio deals, contributions from the booster club, a housing allowance—that would push the total to about $300,000 a year. But Sherrill, anxious to get back to what he did best and determined to prove that he wasn't a bad guy, didn't much care about the money. "I'll be there," he told Templeton.
Jackie and Peggy were married in Houston on Aug. 2, 1991, and the next day he reported to Starkville for the start of two-a-days. The Sherrills ended up settling in a big lakeside rambler in the Colonial area—a truly grand house that they gutted and refurbished. You would be surprised how many different ways there are to apply paint to a wall, but Peggy seems to know them all, and she employed them in decorating the place. Teal was a predominant color, and when Peggy suggested to Jackie that he use it to dress up Mississippi State's unremarkable maroon-and-white, he did just that.
Teal found its way into Sherrill's office. The pads on weight-lifting benches were covered in teal. The locker room walls were striped with teal, and so was the furniture. Teal tiles were glued to the shower and bathroom walls. About the only thing teal was not added to was the Bulldog uniform. "Just makes everything more livable," Sherrill said when queried about the color.
That first year in Starkville, 1991, he went 7-5 and took State to the Liberty Bowl. It was the Bulldogs' best record in a decade, though the season was marred by the death of Rodney Stowers, the big defensive lineman whose lungs hemorrhaged after surgery to repair a broken leg suffered in a game against Florida. In three years Sherrill had lost a wife, a job and now a player. Where he got the strength to continue was anybody's guess, but he managed nonetheless, winning the respect of his new friends in Starkville. The town paper named him its man of the year, an honor Sherrill had cinched even before he and his boys whipped Ole Miss in their last regular-season game.
After that win he and Peggy threw a party at their house, and nearly 1,000 people showed up, many of them strangers. Sherrill mingled with the crowd. His presence intimidated some guests, as even in celebration he remained reticent and somewhat distant. He was like Jay Gatsby at his fashionable West Egg mansion, forever the host of the party but never the life of it.
What was there about this man that never let him take his guard down? That made him seem so detached?
It was a mystery to some, however much they meant to like him.
Jackie was three months old when his parents split up. Either three months old or still in the womb: His age depends on whom you talk to. This was during World War II, and there was work in the California shipyards, and Jackie's mother, Dovie, couldn't keep her husband, Bill, from hopping a train out of Duncan, Okla., and heading west. Bill had held a score of different jobs over the years, including one with the WPA that had taken the family to 10 different stops in a single year.