Jackie Sherrill reflects on regrets about leaving Pitt, patching up Paterno relationship

(Greensburg) Tribune-Review (TNS)
Jackie Sherrill

It’s been 39 years since Jackie Sherrill’s last game as head coach of the Pitt Panthers.

After three straight 11-1 seasons, four bowl victories and a career record of 50-9-1, he now sounds like someone who wishes he had never left.

“There’s a lot of mistakes I’ve made in my life. Leaving Pitt was one of them,” Sherrill told me Wednesday.

Sherrill made the comments while discussing his induction to the University of Pittsburgh Athletics Hall of Fame. That news was released Tuesday. The ceremony will take place Oct. 16 at Heinz Field.

He’ll join the likes of fellow Panther football legends Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, Curtis Martin, Bob Peck and Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner. Basketball standout Brandin Knight and former baseball star Ken Macha are also among the inductees.

Texas A&M offer: Sherrill’s relatively brief but successful tenure ended after the 1981 season, when he accepted a $1.6 million deal at Texas A&M.

That’s $1.6 million over five years, by the way. A number that was shockingly high in 1982. At the time, that was a record contract for a college football coach.

Sherrill’s estimated total compensation package when he left Pitt was $175,000. He was also said to be dubious of some looming changes within the structure of the athletic department.

As a result, Sherrill zipped down to College Station, where he won the Southwest Conference three times and had a 52-28-1 record over six years with the Aggies. After a 7-5 season in 1988 and a two-year probation levied by the NCAA, Sherrill resigned. Two years later, he went to Mississippi State and won a school-record 75 games. But he enjoyed just two bowl wins in 13 seasons while slogging through the challenging SEC and finished with a record of 75-75-2 there.

Regrets leaving: So, despite 127 coaching victories in two major conferences after leaving Pitt, Sherrill still regrets his decision to leave Western Pennsylvania. Especially when the Panthers were as good as they were. After all, quarterback Dan Marino was about to enter his senior season.

“If (Sherrill and his family) had stayed, I have no doubt, with the team we had, we would’ve won it all in ‘82. Certainly, with Danny being the leader that he was,” Sherrill said.

Maybe. Marino’s senior season wasn’t as good as his previous years with the Panthers. Perhaps that would’ve been different if Sherrill stayed.

There were rumblings in the early ’90s that Sherrill may come back to Pitt. I asked Sherrill whether the temptation ever flashed through his mind.

“It certainly did,” Sherrill said. “But it didn’t materialize. It kind of passed real quickly.”

Sherrill wasn’t done there, giving a few more notable nuggets.

On-campus stadium: On his desire that Pitt still played football on campus: “I wished that they had never moved the stadium away from Pitt,” Sherrill said. “I always felt they could’ve built the colosseum up (on the top of the hill) and be able to have a walkway built. Have luxury boxes built in the stadium. Remodel it. And have people walk back and forth.

Sherrill bemoaned the empty seats at Heinz Field, particularly on days when he thinks the team may be drawing enough fans to look like a satisfactory turn out.

“Heinz Field is very difficult,” Sherrill continued. “You have over 60,000. And even if it’s not full, you could still have a good crowd.”

Optimism of seeing college football in the fall of 2020: “You have a lot of people in a lot of universities saying ‘yes,’ they are going to be open. When you get quite a few saying they will be open, a lot of people will follow suit.”

What if a college football playoff existed during his years coaching the Panthers: “We would’ve been there three, four, maybe five years if there had been a playoff.”

Patching up Paterno relationship: On eventually patching up his relationship with Joe Paterno: The former Penn State coach was known to take a shot or two at Sherrill, particularly in the wake of an alleged 1978 recruiting feud.

“It was a fierce competition,” Sherrill said.

“Years later, I was invited to Penn State for a game. I spent time with coach Paterno at his house and at a recruiting dinner he had. He had me speak to the team. I said, ‘Coach, I’m only here because you invited my wife, and I’m a tagalong,’ ” Sherrill recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, maybe that’s true.’

“A couple years later, they played A&M in the Alamo Bowl and I went up to him and wished him good luck. He put his arms around my shoulders, looked me square in the eye, and said, ‘Jackie, you don’t mean that.’ ”

Sherrill paused.

“And I laughed and said, ‘Well, maybe that’s true.’ ”