Mississippi State head coach Jackie Sherrill has long had a reputation as one of college football's worst rogues.
Now he's got more than the NCAA on his back.
Sherrill's former divorce attorney, Edward G. Murr, is suing him for an alleged stiff-arm on $17,432.58 in legal fees. The Houston lawyer helped represent Sherrill in his divorce from his second wife, final in the summer of 1991, when Sherrill was head coach at Texas A&M.
A trial on the fees dispute, which Murr's attorney says should take just one day, was supposed to take place last week. But Sherrill, in a sworn affidavit, insisted to the presiding judge that he is too busy to show up in court until after the end of the football season--and that facing the claim now would set a "poor example" for his players.
In the affidavit, Sherrill even says that appearing in Houston for trial would cost him his job.
"At this time of the year," declares Jackie Wayne Sherrill, in the August 3 affidavit, "I cannot devote any time or energy to anything except football due to the demands of my job and my profession. Sixteen- to eighteen-hour days are the norm at this time of year. My livelihood depends upon my job and I will not be able to participate in any trial until the conclusion of the fall football season in, hopefully, early January of 1996. Participation in a trial at this time would cost me my job and set a poor example for the young men who have entrusted their futures to my hands."
An interesting set of claims.
Let's examine them--without Sherrill's aid, since the coach refused to return several phone calls to his office.
Start with the claim that a court appearance would cost the high-profile coach his job. Sherrill's boss at Mississippi State, athletic director Larry Templeton, told the Observer last week he didn't even know about Jackie's court date--much less advise him showing up would put him out on the street.
"This is the first I've heard of this," Templeton said. "I don't know anything about any of that." Asked if Sherrill, under university policy, could be permitted to leave for a brief trial sometime before the season ended, Templeton responded, "I've never had anything like this come up."
The athletic director, however, indicated he intends to discuss the matter with his famous football coach. "There will be some follow-up," he said.
Would Sherrill lose his job if he showed up for a court appearance? "I don't talk about 'ifs,'" Templeton said.
As for the matter of possibly setting a bad example for the young men he coaches, well, Jackie Sherrill certainly knows a thing or two about that.
Given the date on the affidavit, Sherrill was likely crafting those words just about the time word was leaking out of Mississippi State that the NCAA was again on the tail of a Sherrill-directed football program.
The NCAA has already given the university official notice that an inquiry is taking place. According to the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, Sherrill is named in three "passive" violations under investigation--rule violations he could have prevented if he'd taken appropriate action. The NCAA letter does not disclose the exact nature of the alleged violations, and the Jackson paper is suing for the names of the players involved, said Mike Knobler, the reporter on the story. But the letter did say the Mississippi State program "lacked institutional control."
During his head coaching tenure at Texas A&M--1982 to 1988--the Aggies were nailed for 25 NCAA violations, of which nine were deemed "significant."
After Sherrill went to A&M from Pitt, legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno was quoted as saying, "The best way to clean up college football is to get rid of Jackie Sherrill."
Sherrill sold cars briefly after resigning his post at A&M in 1988, when the university was banned from participating in a bowl game. Mississippi State hired him in 1991. That prompted Ole Miss coach Billy Brewer to call Sherrill a "cheat and a liar." When told of the comment, Sherrill thanked Brewer in the papers for the "publicity."
Which brings us back to the example Sherrill wants to set for his players.
"I owe a duty to the young men who have decided to play football for me and the university and I cannot let them down," he declares in his affidavit. "Not only are their future careers at stake with regard to football, but also the guidance and training that the university has agreed to attempt to instill in these young men. As a professional who is asking these young men to become professionals, with all that word entails, it would be a poor example to ask these young men to sacrifice all for the good of the university and their chosen profession, if I did not set the correct example and refuse to allow personal problems to interfere with my entrusted duties and obligations."
The comment about asking his college players to become "professionals" seems unintentionally revealing.
But the affidavit, of course, also ignores Sherrill's other obligations--and opportunities to set a good example. One is paying a debt--or, at the very least, showing up in court to respond to a formal claim.
Sherrill's trial was scheduled to begin on Tuesday, August 29. The presiding judge granted a three-day continuance to Friday, September 1, after Sherrill's attorney said that would be more convenient for the coach because Saturday was an off day in the football schedule, according to Keith Gilbert, the attorney representing Murr.
But when Thursday came, Sherrill's College Station attorney, Sam Roland, reportedly called Gilbert to say Sherrill needed to delay the trial again because a football player's brother had died, and Sherrill needed to attend services, along with other community leaders. (A player's brother had, in fact, died, and burial was set for Friday.)
The judge accepted Sherrill's explanation, and has yet to re-schedule a trial date. Murr and his attorney hope and expect it will take place soon, perhaps within a week.
According to the affidavit, Sherrill wants it delayed until after football season, putting off resolution of the dispute (over a relatively small amount for a man reported to make more than $200,000 a year) indefinitely. This, of course, increases the prospect that Murr will simply drop the matter.
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An intriguing note in the affidavit: Sherrill puts the season's end at January 1996--bowl-game time. That's a bit presumptuous, since Sherrill's team is expected to finish about the middle of the pack in the Southeastern Conference.
Roland, defending Sherrill on the non-payment claim, declined comment on the matter. His secretary, wife Betsy, told the Observer "we've represented Mr. Sherrill for years," but added, "we don't discuss our clients with anyone."
Which returns us to Jackie Sherrill and his history of setting examples.
This is the man who set an example by having a bull castrated at practice before Mississippi State's game against Texas in 1992. The SPCA protested loudly, along with members of the football community, including parents. Sherrill responded by saying it was just a learning experience in agriculture for the boys.
And by Sherrill's standards, it certainly was.