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Up Close with Jackie Sherrill

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Jackie Sherrill was Pitt's head coach from 1977-1981, compiling a 50-9-1 record – including a 33-3 mark during his final three seasons.

Sherrill later coached at Texas A&M and Mississippi State en route to a 180-120-4 career record. Sherrill, who played for the legendary Bear Bryant at Alabama, spoke with PSR editor Tony DeFazio about the future of the Pitt football program.

Tony: What do you know about Pat Narduzzi?
Jackie: I've followed his career and there's no question that he's paid his dues to get where he is. He was an outstanding coordinator for Michigan State and that's why they were able to rebuild Michigan State.

His dad was a coach and he understands western Pennsylvania. He's from northern Ohio. If you're going to be successful in Pittsburgh, you have to understand the culture, the environment and the atmosphere in Pittsburgh. I've always said that you can recruit a lot of kids, but do they fit in Pittsburgh? If they want grass under their feet, you might as well not recruit them. You have to recruit kids that understand the climate, the atmosphere and the environment of Pittsburgh.

Tony: In the 35 years since you left, Pitt has had one 10-win season. Does that surprise you?
Jackie: There's no reason Pitt can't compete and win 10 or 12... they should be in 10-win group, certainly in the conference they are in they should be as good as everybody else.

Tony: Why the struggles? Has there been a disconnect between some of the coaches and the administration?
Jackie: Yes. The most important is administration. If you don't have the support of the administration, I don't care who you are, it's very difficult. Even Coach Bryant, it's very difficult to win.

Tony: How do they keep moving in the right direction?
Jackie: It's an every day thing. If you look at programs around the country and look at their facilities and see the amount of money they put into the facilities year to year. That's why Texas A&M just spent $585 million on re-doing their stadium, their locker room and everything that's there. There's not a stadium, pro or college, in the country that's as nice as the stadium in College Station. And the players' locker rooms, the players’ lounge, the indoor facility, you can go on and on. So it's important in recruiting.

But it's even more important that you have the ability to hire the coaches and have enough people around them. You look at Nick Saban and if you were to count all the people that he has working in the football office, you'd be astonished. It's like three or four times what anybody else has working around the country. They had 150 recruits at the Alabama-Mississippi game. Think about how many people it takes to organize and handle 150 recruits for a football game.

So when I say "administration," the administration has to give you the help to do those things.

Tony: Does the lack of an on-campus facility hurt the football program?
Jackie: Personally, in Pittsburgh, I don't think it does. They have to sell what they have. You can't sell grass under your feet in Pittsburgh. You have to sell the other things.

When I was there, you were selling the Pirates and the Steelers as the atmosphere of Pittsburgh. The environment – people enjoyed sports and they still do. And their facility is connected to the Steelers. Those players go out on the practice field and they have to walk through two Steelers practice fields in order to practice. So there are a lot of positives and you've got to sell the positives over the negatives.

Tony: So that's something Pitt can and should embrace?
Jackie: Absolutely. Every kid wants to be a pro player. And the Steelers are not bad to be associated with. That's kind of like if you're in New York being associated with the New York Yankees. I mean, that's not a bad association!

It doesn't matter where you are. If you're at Clemson, they have other things to sell but they can't sell what Pittsburgh can sell.

The coaches that are successful, that understand the environment and atmosphere they're in, they can sell the positives. And there are a lot of positives at Pittsburgh. All the people that bring up the negatives, like an off-campus facility, really don't know what they're saying.

Tony: Is the potential there to get things back to where they were?
Jackie: Sure. Listen, you can say let's get an on campus facility, but first of all, where are you going to build it? Second of all, instead of $585 million, which Texas A&M just spent to remodel, you're looking at a billion to build a stadium like that in Pittsburgh. That's not a reality, so quit trying. You know, who are you? Sell who you are. Sell what you have.
Dan Marino and Jackie Sherrill
Recruit kids that want to come there. Quit recruiting kids that want other things.

The kids we recruited, they understood. I told them, "If you want grass under your feet, go to Penn State."

The administration's job is to provide a coach and a team with all the support that they need to play the game on a level playing field. Once you step over those white lines, the administration's job ends and the coaches and players are on the hook.

You know, when you look back at those Pitt teams and see that we went 11-1 three straight years and you start reeling off the players on that team, you start to wonder who the hell was the (expletive) who coached those guys and didn't win a championship (laughs). Well, that was me.

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