They didn't know him. That was the problem. They would've understood, otherwise. They wouldn't have sent all those letters and made all those calls. His poor wife, Peggy, had to pick up the phone in the middle of the night and hear that stuff. Why, one of the calls came from England. The voice was scratchy and far away, but clearly it said, "How could he do it? How could your husband do such a thing?"
Peggy knew right away what the woman was talking about. It was the same thing everybody else on the planet seemed to be talking about in September 1992: Wild Willie, the 400-pound bull her husband had castrated in front of his players.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs were getting ready to take on the Texas Longhorns, and Jackie Sherrill, in his capacity as the Bulldogs' football coach, had figured this would be a good way to motivate his troops. Before practice one day he asked the players if any of them knew what a steer was, and, no, no one seemed to. So Sherrill arranged to have an animal fixed, right there before their very eyes.
"Educational," he later described the operation.
Some years before, when he lived in Texas, Sherrill had seen dried bull scrota, dressed up as art pieces, hanging on people's living room walls. In those days he was the coach at Texas A&M, and when his team played the Longhorns, he didn't go so far as to castrate a bull, but he did round up a scrotum and show it to everybody. So operating on Willie didn't seem like such a big deal—not to a man of Sherrill's experience, anyway. It was how the world worked. Cats were fixed, mutts were neutered, bulls were turned into steers.
In no time, though, word of the castration got around, and the phone became one big crybaby, crying round the clock. Mail poured in. "What a——redneck!" wrote one guy across the bottom of a newspaper editorial that said the coach had shown no class. Sherrill read the unsigned letter and then had his secretary file it away with all the others.
Sherrill was by now used to being demonized. Just the year before, Ole Miss coach Billy Brewer had accused him of being a snob and a liar, among other things. Sherrill cheats, Brewer said, in the fashion of "all those [Bear] Bryant boys like Charley Pell and Danny Ford." Brewer added, "I saw him at a function in Jackson in December, and he came into the room and didn't acknowledge a damned soul. He's high-hattin' everybody. When he takes off his coat, he hands it to an assistant coach to hold. That's just the way he is."
Penn State coach Joe Paterno seemed to have found Sherrill equally abhorrent. Speaking to reporters one night in 1979, Paterno despaired at the thought of retiring and leaving the game "to the Barry Switzers and Jackie Sherrills of the world," men who could build great football teams but whose methods and personalities earned them as many enemies as friends.
Adding to Sherrill's reputation was his untimely departure from A&M in December 1988, three months after the NCAA hit the Aggies with a two-year probation for more than 20 rules violations committed while Sherrill was both football coach and athletic director.
Now Sherrill's detractors had Wild Willie, the former bull, to toss on the heap. "The last I heard," an irate columnist wrote in The New York Times, "Sherrill was still employed by Mississippi State, which tells me something about the people who run that place."