Jackie Sherrill had great success at Pittsburgh before Texas A&M and Mississippi State, but there's no question where his heart is.
"Probably the best way to put it is that my blood is maroon," Sherrill said. "Take it any way you want."
Sherrill's coaching career skyrocketed at Pitt where he led the Panthers to a 50-9-1 record in five seasons, winning four bowl games including the Fiesta and Sugar bowls. But he's most remembered for his time at A&M and Mississippi State, programs which will meet for the first time in Southeastern Conference play Saturday in Starkville, Miss.
To commemorate the game, Mississippi State will honor its 2000 team that beat the Aggies 43-41 in overtime in the Independence Bowl. Sherrill is happy for his former players to be recognized, but he's also proud he'll have friends on both sides of the field.
"I'm in a no-lose situation because you have two programs that you had a lot to do with and two programs that you have a stamp on," Sherrill said. "Naturally, they are going to put me in the middle by honoring the Snow Bowl team. And I think everybody understands that and accepts that."
Sherrill's A&M teams went 52-28-1 over seven seasons. The only coaches with more victories at A&M are R.C. Slocum (123), Homer Norton (82) and D.X. Bible (72). Sherrill won three straight Southwest Conference championships and a pair of Cotton Bowls from 1985-87. Sherrill spent 13 seasons in Starkville, going 75-75-2 to become the winningest coach in school history. He took MSU to six bowls.
Sherrill wasn't the first former A&M coach the Bulldogs hired. Emory Bellard coached at MSU from 1979-85, going 37-42. That was after Bellard went 48-27 with the Aggies from 1972-78.
Sherrill said the two schools have much more in common than a couple of coaches.
"You go back in history, A&M and Mississippi State were two state schools, land-grant agriculture schools. They both fought that war [to be known for more than just agriculture]. Academically, both are very good, and there's a lot of ties.
"A lot of students from A&M have gone to Mississippi State to graduate school or to get their master's or Ph.D. or vice-versa. And you have a lot of administrators that ended up going to both places in both the vet school and engineering school. The ties of Mississippi State and Texas A&M have been long in the academic arena."
Saturday, the ties become strong on the football field as the 16th-ranked Aggies (6-2, 3-2) and No. 17 Bulldogs (7-1, 3-1) play a game that will help determine how high they finish in the Western Division and bowl pecking order.
"A year ago if we had said or anybody had said that A&M would finish in the top three in the West, you'd have said you're crazy," Sherrill said.
Slocum, who followed Sherrill at A&M, was a special advisor to the president following his coaching days. He took many calls last year from concerned fans after A&M joined the league.
"Some people were negative about us being able to go in and compete," Slocum said. "I never felt that way. I thought we'd be a good viable member of the conference. It's probably happening faster than what some would have imagined. I'm very pleased with how our team has competed in the SEC. It's been rewarding for me."
Slocum was supportive of the move even back in the 1990s, when former SEC commissioner Ray Kramer envisioned a 16-team conference.
"I was totally unequivocally supportive, and it was a bold move for A&M and one that over time that I knew would prove to be a very good, strategical move for our athletic programs," Slocum said.
Heading into this season most expected Arkansas or Auburn to be the ones challenging Alabama and LSU for West supremacy, not the Aggies and Mississippi State. But the maroon tint pleases Sherrill.
"I grew up in Biloxi," Sherrill said. "Mississippi State and LSU recruited me, but I went to Alabama. But they deserve to win. I've said they can win and they will win.
"It was the same thing when I went to A&M. A&M wasn't struggling because they didn't have facilities or players."
Sherrill said the key to winning was having everyone on the same page, something he felt he was able to accomplish at both schools, and something that's being repeated today.
"I'm really excited about A&M," he said. "A&M is in position to get here quicker than anyone imagined. Kevin [Sumlin] has done a great job of communicating with everyone."
MSU has been experiencing the same transformation under fourth-year head coach Dan Mullen.
"They have a president and AD who are really changing the climate. They are changing the culture," Sherrill said. "They've all been real supportive. When you go there this weekend, go to the new football facility. You'll be shocked. When it opens in January, it will be one of the best in the country. It won't be the best in five years, but it's one of the best now. They have all the facilities. What they don't have is all the trophies that Alabama or Oklahoma has."
Sherrill helped fill up the trophy cases at both schools, showing them what it would take to win.
Sherrill's trio of SWC championships were part of two decades where the Aggies never had a losing season. A&M had a dozen losing seasons in the two decades before he arrived.
"The biggest thing at A&M is you were able to change the mindset that was that you didn't belong," said Sherrill, recalling a conversion he had with Aggie donor Earl Vondergoltz while driving around Houston after taking the job.
Sherrill told Vondergoltz any of the best bowls would love to have A&M, including the new one in Hawaii.
"When I said that, he slammed on the brakes," Sherrill said. "He told me there's only one bowl we want to go, Jackie, and that's the Cotton Bowl. You get to the Cotton Bowl and we'll ship in the sand, palm trees and water. You just get us to the Cotton Bowl."
Sherrill did that in his fourth season with the Aggies, and beat Auburn and Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson.
"That's when I realized how important the Cotton Bowl was," Sherrill said. "That's because it was the standard of excellence in the Southwest. And really, since 1967 [A&M's last SWC title] they'd been under Texas. This allowed the former students to stick their chests out."
Sherrill also reached out to the students during his tenure, working on the Bonfire and creating the 12th Man Kickoff Team.
He wrote a book about the squad, No Experience Needed, and since retiring he's founded the 12th Man Kickoff Foundation, which has raised thousands annually, including $20,000 of scholarships last month to benefit the Rise School in memory of Johnny Stallings, son of former A&M head coach Gene Stallings, and the Emory Bellard ALS Clinic in Round Rock.
Sherrill's reign at A&M, though, had a rocky ending. He resigned in 1988 after A&M was placed on two years probation by the NCAA for violations that included improper payment, extra benefits and a lack of institutional control. Sherrill, though, was not personally found guilty of any infractions. And when Mississippi State called the NCAA and asked if there was any reason it shouldn't hire Sherrill, the organization said there wasn't.
"That's all you need to know," Sherrill said.
He immediately had success in Starkville. He beat Auburn his first season, ending a nine-game losing streak against the Tigers, helping MSU go 7-5 and play in the Liberty Bowl. He beat eighth-ranked Alabama in 1996, the program's first victory in the series since 1980, when it was done by Bellard.
Sherrill won three straight against Alabama from 1996-98, and also beat his alma mater in 2000, giving him four of only 14 victories the program has had in 97 meetings. He also held a 7-6 edge over rival Ole Miss.
Sherrill, who said he was proud of what he was able to accomplish with the Bulldogs, retired after the 2003 season. That came after the NCAA hit MSU with a four-year probation for recruiting violations, though the Bulldogs were not found guilty of any major violations and Sherrill again wasn't found personally guilty of any rules violations.
Sherrill brushes off the effect the NCAA allegations had on his legacy. He said many great coaches had teams on probation, including his college coach, legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant.
"People who aren't aware are the ones who choose not to be aware," Sherrill said. "A lot of it is was how the press portrayed it. Back then, I wasn't a media darling. I've always said things because they were the right things to say rather than the politically correct thing to say.
"And the thing that separated me from everyone else is I was going to protect my players."
Saturday, he'll celebrate with those on his 2000 team.