Jackie Sherrill is the winningest coach in Misissippi State football history. He took the Bulldogs to the SEC Championship game one year, and his teams were collectively the ‘Best in the West’ for three more. He produced All-SEC and All-American players on an annual basis, sending player-after-player to the NFL. He set records, only to break them again and again on his own. His numbers and his accomplishments are why Sherrill is being inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame this weekend.
But what he means to those who cheered for him in Starkville throughout the ‘90s, who he is to MSU fans, is more than just being ‘Coach’ or ‘Hall of Famer.’ To Bulldogs of the time, Jackie Sherrill is The Kang. He’s Jackie Wayne. Sherrill is swagger, he’s confidence, he’s the interlocking MSU – unique and unmistakable.
Before he arrived, it was hard for many not to think, “We’re just Mississippi State.” Sherrill took the scene and changed that to, “We ARE Mississippi State.” It’s a cliché to say, perhaps, but Sherrill changed the culture, and did so as only he could do.
“He had a way of understanding, as a head coach, how to build confidence in his team,” former MSU quarterback Matt Wyatt said. “That was important, I think, at State, because there hadn’t been a lot of history.”
Much of that, Wyatt remembered from his time under center for Sherrill’s teams, was in the way their head coach carried himself. On the sideline, in the homes of recruits and anywhere on campus, Sherrill had a larger-than-life persona and appearance wherever he went, and the confidence he possessed so naturally found its way into those around him.
“He was always dressed to a T,” Wyatt recalled. “Big rings, $1,000 shoes, fancy watches, drove a Jaguar around campus. So, he’s got all these kids from small town Mississippi and Alabama on his team, but he always had his teams believing, ‘You know what, we don’t take a backseat to anybody.’ He did a great job of instilling that confidence.”
Sherrill was a strong offensive mind, certainly, and at the peak of his tenure, that offense paired with the nation-leading attack of defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn to make the Bulldogs a force in the SEC. But just as important as Xs and Os was that demeanor he showed and that the team around him took on.
Part of that personality, Wyatt remembers, involved making sure the team had the best of everything. The facilities, for their time, were among the best. Players were always being given new gear when equipment shipments came in. They were fed the best food, stayed at the best hotels and trained to feel like they were rock stars.
And it worked.
“We got off that bus, man, we were treated like kings,” Wyatt said. “He instilled that so that when we not only competed with the big-name programs but beat them, the only people surprised were everybody else. Not us. He did a great job of instilling that attitude and that outlook.”
Because of that personality, and through experience gained in previous successful stops at Pittsburgh and Texas A&M, Sherrill was also able to recruit in a way that MSU had never seen before. Big names with bigger personalities came from all over the country to play for The Kang.
“Some of the players that he recruited,” Wyatt said, “that others might not have been able to recruit to Mississippi State, we’re still celebrating those guys. Fred Smoot. Wayne Madkin, who’s going into the Mississippi State Hall of Fame. Eric Moulds, who we still talk about. Those guys maybe don’t come to State if Coach Sherrill’s not coaching there.
“In some ways, he opened the door to the idea that there’s no ceiling,” Wyatt continued. “You give us a few years, we’ll put a team together and we’ll beat everybody. That was the attitude, and you believed it.”
And it happened, too. Texas, Alabama, Florida, and his personal favorite, ahem, Mississippi – all fell to Sherrill. Some more than a few times. His plan worked, his style took hold and Mississippi State placed itself squarely in the middle of the national college football landscape under Sherrill’s leadership, setting a foundation for the program still being built upon today.
However, while Sherrill had that demeanor in public, there was another, very different side to the man who made the maroon sweater vest famous.
“He was more of a deep person than people realized,” Wyatt said. “I think he was more of a deep thinker, on a personal level dealing with you 1-on-1, than some people knew or would understand.”
In addition to asking his players to study playbooks and go to workouts and meetings, Sherrill also had every individual on the team keep a personal growth workbook. In it, Sherrill had them answer questions, share their innermost thoughts and offer anecdotes on their daily lives and personal views. He would have them define what success meant to them. He wanted to know what guided their interactions in life, with teammates and otherwise.
Every summer, he would meet with each player 1-on-1 to talk about what they wrote in their workbook. Sherrill would have the players turn it in ahead of their meeting so that he could read every word. He would study what they said and take notes on his reaction to their thoughts, so that when they met he knew exactly what he wanted to discuss.
Wyatt still remembers Sherrill pressing him on social issues, on his own definition of success.
“There were a couple times where he met with me because he thought he needed to coach me on some of the things I believed and thought,” Wyatt said, “which is totally fine, because it meant he cared enough to spend his time with me. I think that would surprise people.
“He was constantly trying to help you improve as a person, grow up in a way that wasn’t just football stuff.”
Moments like those, just as much as any seen on the field, are part of why, this weekend, he goes from ‘Coach Sherrill’ to ‘Hall of Fame Coach Jackie Sherrill.’
Although, to many, he’ll always be The Kang.