Starkville is perhaps the most aptly named college town in America.
A farming community of approximately 18,000 tucked away on a far-away plain in northeastern Mississippi, Starkville -- the Southeastern Conference's most forlorn outpost -- has found it difficult to attract a big-time coach for its local team, Mississippi State.
Worse, the Bulldogs have personified the town, registering only two winning SEC seasons since 1963 and getting no closer than a television to a bowl game the last 10 years.
That said, it's easy to understand the euphoria that swept the town last December when Jackie Sherrill arrived as MSU's football coach. "This is the best deal since the Louisiana Purchase!" one booster reportedly yelled after Sherrill's introduction at a Bulldogs' basketball game.
A good deal for Mississippi State? Yes, considering Sherrill boasts a gaudy record of 108-46-2 and seven nationally ranked teams, including three 11-1 seasons at Pittsburgh and two 10-victory teams at Texas A&M.;
A wise move? That's debatable. After all, Sherrill may be the Pied Piper of college football -- wherever he goes, the NCAA's watchful eye is sure to follow.
That stigma stems from 25 recruiting violations the NCAA uncovered at Texas A&M;, a school Sherrill left mired in two years' probation in 1988 after seven years as its coach and athletic director.
Sherrill's outlaw reputation, gained during his days at A&M;, didn't bother the Bulldogs. After watching Ole Miss and Southern Mississippi build winning programs while they wallowed under coach Rockey Felker (21-34 in five seasons), they were ready to win.
And Sherrill is eager to deliver.
"The one thing I want," Sherrill, 47, said soon after being hired, "is to have all these Mississippi State people, who have bled all these years but still have bought their tickets and sat in the
stands, be able to have a gleam in their eye someday and throw their chest out and be proud of their school."
Sherrill built that pride at A&M;, only to depart in disgrace. The Aggies, who rose under Sherrill to make three consecutive trips to the Cotton Bowl, were placed on probation in September 1988. Two months later, George Smith, a fullback for the Aggies in 1982 and '83, said Sherrill had paid him "hush money" to keep quiet about rules violations during that period.
The day after Smith's story appeared in newspapers, he recanted the allegations, explained that the money was nothing more than a loan to help him get on his feet. The NCAA finally gave up the case, citing an inability to determine the truth.
Sherrill left anyway, apparently forced out by A&M; President William H. Mobley after the Smith situation. Two months earlier, Mobley had promised the NCAA he would personally guarantee Sherrill's compliance with NCAA rules. Mobley reportedly was so angry he told A&M;'s Board of Regents either Sherrill left or they could find a new president. Out Sherrill went.
"What happened at A&M; is something he is going to have to deal with forever, whether he knows it or not," Steve Sloan, a roommate of Sherrill's during their playing days at Alabama and the athletic director at North Texas, told The Sporting News. "It isn't just going to go away."
You can say what you will about Sherrill, but one point can't be denied: He's a winner.
Nine months after his arrival at MSU, appropriately enough, the Bulldogs have something to talk about in football-crazy Starkville. Mississippi State won its first three games -- including a 13-6 upset of then 12th-ranked Texas -- before losing at Tennessee, 26-24, last Saturday.
And when is the last time you heard of a team losing and moving up in the polls? That's what the Bulldogs did this week, improving from No. 23 to No. 21 before this week's game against Florida at the Florida Citrus Bowl.
"I've never seen the togetherness or the spirit as high," said Bob Hartley, who has publicized MSU athletics for 46 years. "I've never seen anyone that's come in and done such a fantastic job of getting students behind him."
Sherrill has done it in the true Southern tradition, using his down-home charm to make believers out of those who never had believed. He has traveled all over the state for speaking engagements, given countless interviews, reminded people of his upbringing in Biloxi, Miss., and his days at Alabama in the 1960s, when he played on two of Bear Bryant's national championship teams.
"I did that [met with people across the state] for a couple reasons," said Sherrill, ever the politician. "One, you go out and people get to meet you and see you eyeball to eyeball, and also you have a chance to let people know what you're about.
"I've been pleasantly surprised. We broke our record for ticket sales [some 25,000 season tickets, twice as many as Ole Miss]. There's a lot of things going on."
A big, smiling mug shot of Sherrill appears on billboards across Mississippi declaring "The Sherrill Era Begins," although a few have been defaced, vandals having crossed through "Era" and written "Error."
MSU Athletic Director Larry Templeton says he conducted a thorough investigation of Sherrill before the two discussed the job. Templeton and MSU President Donald Zacharias even bought Sherrill's argument that the NCAA had given him a "clean bill of health," though what the NCAA really had told MSU was that it had no record of direct violations by Sherrill in its files.
The two-man search committee also ignored MSU's faculty council, which had voted in favor of a resolution calling on the school to eliminate any candidates who had "any history of NCAA rules violations directly attributed to them or in programs under their leadership."
So much for that. Of the four finalists, two had less-than-desirable NCAA track records. Many boosters wanted former Bulldogs player Bobby Collins, the head coach at Southern Methodist University from 1982-86 when the school committed violations that earned it the only death penalty the NCAA has given.
Then there was Sherrill, who had been selling cars at his dealership in Houston since leaving A&M.; In Sherrill, Zacharias and Templeton found the man they wanted, not just a guy who could win football games, but a guy who had won at Pittsburgh and A&M;, schools with a history of woes much like MSU.
Sherrill seemed to want MSU just as bad, accepting a $75,000-per-year contract that pales in comparison to the $267,000 base he earned at A&M.;
"I didn't have to come back to college," Sherrill, who also had offers from NFL teams, said in an interview with Sports Illustrated shortly after his hiring. "The only reason I took this job was to re-establish myself and to reconfirm that I am not a bad guy. It has nothing to do with anything else."
That's why Sherrill finds no need to justify himself to detractors. "What people think of me, on a scale of one to 10, take your pick," Sherrill said. "But let me put it back in perspective, also. Some people are old enough to remember back when Coach Bryant went through his problem with college (game) fixing. Some of you weren't even around. If that had happened today, there's not a room anywhere to fit the media people."
Sherrill seldom raises his voice, naturally conversing in what some have dubbed "Bearspeak," only slightly louder than a whisper and barely audible on a telephone. Like other coaches who served under Bryant, Sherrill has learned the importance of speaking softly.
But Mississippi State fans don't have to hear Sherrill to believe in him. Truth be known, if Sherrill can succeed where so many others have failed, that would be enough for Bulldogs fans, who have suffered long and hard.
"If you can do it, if you can win at Mississippi State," Sherrill said, "well, all that other stuff will go away."