Hard-edged coach set to retire

Many Tide fans may disagree, but Saturday's game will be a tad bittersweet. Jackie Sherrill, Mississippi State's successful but controversial head coach, has announced that he'll retire at the end of the season. <br><br>From a career standpoint, Sherrill arguably has been the most successful of all Paul Bryant's former protege's.

Howard Schnellenberger was essentially the founding father of Miami's current college dynasty, but he never duplicated that success elsewhere. Charlie Pell showed great promise at Florida, before taking the fall for what was almost certainly a wider NCAA problem. Danny Ford won an improbable national title for Clemson, but failed to duplicate that success later. Bill Battle was very good at Tennessee, but not good enough to defeat Bryant. A talented coach, Jerry Claiborne never really had an even chance at Kentucky. And of course Gene Stallings had a (too-brief) glorious run at Alabama, including the Tide's most recent national title.

But none of them put together the total career record from beginning to end built by Jackie Sherrill.

Tide Head Coach Mike Shula spoke of his respect for Sherrill. "For me, coaching against Coach Sherrill--I got to know him a little bit last summer. I think a lot of him and what he's meant to college football and what he's meant to SEC football. Coaching against a guy like that is an experience that means a lot to me."

After one year at Washington State, Sherrill's head coaching career included three principal stops at Pittsburgh, Texas A&M and Mississippi State. In the history of college football, only seven coaches (including Bryant) have coached three or more teams to a spot in the AP's final Top 20 rankings. Sherrill's highest mark at each school was No. 2 (Pittsburgh, 1980), No. 6 (Texas A&M, 1985) and No. 13 (MSU, 1999). His current career record stands at 180-116-4.

Under Jackie Sherrill Mississippi State achieved a level of success unheard of before his arrival. (Getty Images)

Current Tide Running Backs Coach Sparky Woods worked with Sherrill for four years before joining the Tide staff. Woods talked about what made Sherrill a success.

"He's a fierce competitor--a fierce competitor," Woods said. "He wants to win, and he's obviously got a lot of experience. He evaluates talent well. He's won every place he's been. He's a hard worker, a competitor and he gets good players--that's been key to Jackie's success."

A three-year letterman for the Crimson Tide, Sherrill played five different positions for Coach Bryant from 1962-1965. He spent one year on the Bama staff as a graduate assistant, before stops at Arkansas and Iowa State. Besides Bryant, Johnny Majors was Sherrill's primary coaching mentor. Sherrill took over a then-prominent Pittsburgh team when Majors returned to Tennessee.

From 1979-1981 Sherrill's Panthers lost just three games. In 1982 when Texas A&M gave him what was then an exorbitant salary to come to College Station, Sherrill was considered by many to be the best young coach in the nation. At that point more than a few Tide fans were counting the days until what they believed would be Sherrill's inevitable return to Tuscaloosa.

Like Bryant, Sherrill has been a consistent winner throughout his career. Generally hated by his rivals, there's no question that Sherrill takes a "spit in your eye" attitude toward opponents. Fans will always remember his now-infamous stunt before an upcoming game, in which an unlucky steer was castrated to motivate the MSU players.

But former State athletes relate that while most of the wild-eyed stories are true regarding Sherrill's hatred for other Bulldog opponents, he always took a different, respectful attitude when preparing for Alabama.

"He's competitive," Woods said. "He obviously knows football players and can evaluate talent. He's organized. He's just a good football coach. I learned a lot working for him, watching how he prepares his team. He's an excellent motivator. He gets the players to play very hard. He goes at it 100 percent. He's a tireless worker. He has all the characteristics of success."

During his tenure at Texas A&M, Sherrill enjoyed considerable success, holding his own against arch-rival Texas. But typical of college football in the Lonestar State, that success also attracted the NCAA to College Station. And though Sherrill technically was cleared of wrongdoing in the final report, an NCAA cloud hung over his head.

There is no doubt that returning to coach at Alabama was always a goal for Sherrill, but it was not to be.

Like many Mississippi athletes of the time, Sherrill played for Coach Paul Bryant and the Crimson Tide. Here he helps carry Bryant off the field following a win over Auburn in 1964.

Sherrill left A&M concurrent with the NCAA problems and spent the next two years out of coaching. Then in 1991 Mississippi State, a perennial weak sister in the SEC with essentially nothing to lose, took a chance on Sherrill--warts and all.

The turnaround was immediate. In his first season in Starkville Sherrill coached State to a 7-5 record, including a berth in the Liberty Bowl.

"If you look at his record since he's been at Mississippi State, he's done a remarkable job," said Bama Defensive Coordinator Joe Kines. "Building that program up and getting it into the winning column. I have nothing but respect for Jackie Sherrill."

Accustomed to being a doormat team in the SEC, State fans were treated to success they only dreamed of before Sherrill arrived. During his first ten years at Mississippi State, Sherrill achieved a remarkable (for State) seven winning seasons, including six bowl games. The Bulldogs went 10-2 in 1999, finishing the year ranked 13th nationally. And the previous season MSU actually represented the SEC West in the conference championship game in Atlanta.

Dizzying heights for Bulldog fans.

"He's done an outstanding job at Mississippi State," Woods said. "To win as many games as he has, including his solid (4-6) record against Alabama. He's had a rough road lately, but you can't argue with how many games he's won while being at Mississippi State. He's done a nice job."

Woods also pointed out that part of Mississippi State's success in the late 90s was due to fortunate timing in regard to the rest of the SEC West.

"He had a good setup," Woods said. "At the time the SEC West was probably a little scattered. Alabama had changed coaches. Auburn had changed coaches and hired Ole Miss' coach, which changed them. LSU had changed coaches and Arkansas had. That was good timing for him to have good players. Plus, their out-of-division opponents when I first went there were Vanderbilt and South Carolina. They went from that to Florida and Tennessee.

"Timing is important. I think Sherrill has done a good job there, but a lot of success depends on how everybody else is doing, too. If everybody else has their act together, then it's harder to win (in Starkville)."

Back in 1991 when many pundits questioned State's sanity in hiring the then-tainted Sherrill, no one would have guessed it. But Sherrill currently holds the title of dean of SEC coaches. In his 26th season as a head coach, Sherrill will have coached 13 years at Mississippi State, the longest tenure for any Bulldog coach.

"The longevity comes from winning," Woods said. "He's been able to win enough games to maintain the confidence of where they're going through the years. He's had a really good run. When I first went there (in 1999) he had a really fine football team. We played in two bowl games. The year before I arrived they played in the conference championship game in Atlanta. He had a really good run of players there."

"He's had a great career and done some really good things in the business," Kines added. "Coach Sherrill has contributed to the profession. He's one of those guys that you thought would be around forever. Jackie was a mainstay. He goes out there every day to win, which is what you're supposed to do."

The Bulldogs have fallen on tough times recently. But given the unprecedented success Sherrill brought to Mississippi Sate in the 90s he probably deserves to have their stadium named after him. (Getty Images)

Given what he's accomplished during his long career, it would be nice if Sherrill could go out on top. But in the middle of what will certainly be his second-straight losing season, he announced his retirement at the end of this year.

"You would like for him to be able to go out on top, but that's the way of the world," Kines said.

Sherrill currently ranks 28th on the NCAA all-time win list. His 75 conference victories rank him No. 18 among all-time SEC coaches.

"I don't think you can take what's happened in the last two years and miss out on what Jackie has accomplished," Woods said. "I'm sure Mississippi State is in a lot better shape now than when he arrived, in terms of facilities and players and the respect of people in college football."

Given that Mike Shula is the son of the winningest coach in NFL history, it's hardly surprising that he appreciates what Sherrill has accomplished.

Shula commented, "Just to look at what Coach Sherrill has done in the last ten years against some good coaches in the SEC... I know I have a lot of respect for Coach Sherrill."

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