For more years than they care to remember, the Aggies of Texas A&M have been the Lone Star State's country cousins, the butt of countless jokes ridiculing their yokelhood. (Question: "Why does it take three Aggies to eat an armadillo?" Answer: "One to eat it, while the other two watch for cars.") That sort of thing can be vexing, especially to the 100,000 alumni and 36,000 students of one of the country's wealthiest and fastest-growing universities. So last January the Aggie regents looked at ticket sales and decided to go out and buy their team a little respect. They found it in the illustrious person of Jackie Sherrill, 38, the highly successful head coach at the University of Pittsburgh.
The decision, alas, did not immediately bathe the Aggies in glory. University President Frank Vandiver threatened to quit when the news that Sherrill was coming got out before the coach's predecessor was told he was going. Some of the faculty were aghast at reports the new coach would be receiving up to $400,000 a year. And critics all over the country thundered that A&M, in its anxiety to escape football's doldrums, was allowing its priorities to be turned upside down.
Lately, for various reasons, the uproar has died to a murmur. For one thing, only the most innocent could be shocked by the news that college football is a business as well as a sport. Moreover, Sherrill believes that even with a contract worth an estimated $250,000 a year, including $95,000 in salary and several high-priced perks, he is outranked financially by at least 10 other coaches. To placate faculty members, Sherrill wrote each of them a letter of assurance that during his term as Aggie coach and athletic director, education would never rank second to sports. "When he was hired, the academic community was somewhat dubious," concedes Van-diver. "Now we are 100 percent thrilled. He wants athletes to go to class and to graduate."
That in itself might seem a modest ambition, but in the high-pressure world of big-time athletics, it is an imperative that is often ignored. Some of his professional peers are shocked that, at Sherrill's behest, A&M has established faculty committees on admissions and eligibility that may reject any player Sherrill recruits. "Coaches say to me, 'You're crazy!' " says Sherrill. " 'You're turning athletics over to the academic people? How are you going to survive?' Well, so what? Is the school a school because of athletics, or are we here to teach?" To prove that he means what he says, Sherrill keeps charts that tell him not only how his players are performing athletically but also their grades and classroom attendance. If a computer printout shows too many skipped classes, a coach calls the athlete in for a visit. Should the cuts continue, the player is given to understand he'll be leaving.
Because he is a careful and demanding recruiter, Sherrill doesn't expect to have such problems too often. "I like to recruit," he says. "I like to be around the kids' parents. I can tell more by seeing a kid with his mother for five minutes than I could by watching him play football for 30 hours." Once, when a promising player told his mother to "shut up," Sherrill ended the interview abruptly, though he'd driven 200 miles for the visit.
Such concern for the fundamentals of character is appreciated at A&M, an unapologetically straight-arrow school where the entire student body sometimes stands through whole football games as a sign of support for the team. Yet Sherrill wasn't hired to teach ethics; his mission is to coach winning football. By every indication, he's the man for the job. The youngest of eight children, he was born in Duncan, Okla. His parents separated when he was a child, and he was raised first by his mother, a nurse, then by a brother, a chicken farmer in Biloxi, Miss. At 6'1" and 205 pounds, Jack played several positions under Bear Bryant at Alabama, performed on two national championship teams, and began coaching part-time, for $100 a month, at the University of Arkansas in 1967. After assistant coaching jobs at Iowa State and the University of Pittsburgh, he was named head coach at Washington State in 1976. He returned to Pitt as head coach the following year and in five years lost only nine games. Then came his invitation to Aggieland.
Married and divorced in his 20s, Sherrill is a stern disciplinarian whose most extravagant demands are made on himself. He says he has taken only four days off—weekends included—since his arrival in College Station, Texas eight months ago. He expects to spend 200 nights a year on the road, and only rarely gets home early to his second wife, Daryle, and their year-old adopted son, Justin. "Whenever he is home," says Daryle, who is overseeing construction of the family's lavish new Tudor-style house, "it's like going out on a date. I still get that little thrill."
Aggie fans are still a little thrilled too, despite A&M's 38-16 opening-game loss to Boston College. The football seasons of Sherrill's life have been winning ones, and the Aggies are looking forward to sharing a few. But could there be any truth to those rumors that he might be tapped to succeed Alabama's legendary Bear, who once coached in College Station himself? No, says Sherrill, he has what he wants. Yet coaching is an uncertain business, and the men who do it well guard their options. Years ago, when Sherrill was offered a job with another university, a wealthy alumnus promised him a $75,000 annual stipend. No thanks, said Sherrill, he'd rather have $75,000 worth of stock in the man's company. How come? the alumnus wanted to know. "Because," the coach said with a smile, "I'd rather win a piece of you than have you own a piece of me."
'I can tell more by seeing a kid with his mother than watching him play'