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It's a Real-Life Dallas Soap Opera : Texas A&M Probe Somewhat Overshadows Cotton Bowl

December 30, 1985|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — Texas A&M gets into the Cotton Bowl, first time in 18 years, and immediately grows to regret it. What is the Cotton Bowl, after all, but an extra month of controversy. Used to be, the scurrilous and poorly-dressed reporters just went home, come December. But now, questions, questions, questions.

Can't win for winning and if this isn't the ultimate Aggie joke, then what is?

Poor Aggies. After years of mediocrity, during which they appeared to be throwing money down a dry hole (but that's another joke), they finally beat Texas, win the Southwest Conference championship and make the Cotton Bowl.

But can they enjoy it? Noooooo. The investigative reporters just bore deeper, looking into alleged payoffs to players by alumni. And poor Coach Jackie Sherrill (well, not really so poor), can he enjoy any vindication after three seasons of well-paid but nevertheless undistinguished .500 football. He can not. "It hasn't been easy for Jackie Sherrill," is how he ends a press conference.

The Aggies in general, and Sherrill in particular, have responded to the honor of representing their conference in the Cotton Bowl with a spectacular misery, causing one to wonder if it wasn't more fun to go 5-5-1 and avoid bowls altogether. Who inquired of players' vehicle registrations then? Who inquired of next year's prospects, should the NCAA issue probations?

The good old days were when the biggest scandal in the state was Sherrill's $267,000-a-year contract. But now that the Dallas Times Herald and Dallas TV station WFAA, Channel 8, have charged that Sherrill isn't the only Aggie on an extravagant retainer, why, even winning isn't the fun it's supposed to be.

Who knows what the A&M players and coaches are doing in their darkened screening rooms, but in the light of public this past week they have presented an unhappy face--Aggie Aggravation--and have been far more preoccupied with their troubles with the press than with Auburn, which, incidentally, is the team they play New Year's Day.

Here's what happened last week, at the first Cotton Bowl press conference: Sherrill told the somewhat astonished media (who he once belabored for dressing so slovenly), for nearly 90 minutes, that the investigation into alleged improprieties was nothing less than a violation of his family. "What the Times Herald did and what Channel 8 did is kind of like going in your house through your back door, taking your wife and kids, and doing something to your wife and kids."

This is quite a stretch, but it gives you an idea of how A&M is circling the wagons. The Aggies have seen the enemy and it is not Auburn. It is the Times Herald and Channel 8 and anybody else who asks a hard question.

Actually, what Channel 8 did was charge, back in September, that quarterback Kevin Murray, the key to the Aggies' 9-2 record, accepted $300 checks from a booster and was driving a Datsun 300-ZX that belonged to the same booster. What the Times Herald did was charge that the Aggies have committed scores of NCAA violations since 1979, including regular payoffs from "sugar daddies."

Sherrill has said he's welcomed the scrutiny, that he wants a clean program. "The Dallas Times Herald has done us a favor. They've allowed us to spend an awful lot of time getting into areas you sometimes don't get into. We've audited the program from top to bottom."

Nevertheless, complaining of reporters' tactics rather than their findings, Sherrill has issued a ban on one-on-one interviews between his players and anyone from Channel 8 or the Times Herald. And, according to the Times Herald, Sherrill had his players sign secrecy oaths and issued a directive to deny the newspaper access to information on his players, such as what cars they drive and who they are registered to.

And this week the paranoia has escalated so that Murray is always attended by Tom Turbiville, Texas A&M's sports information director, at press conferences. And don't let some poor, pussy-footing sportswriter ask how a player is handling the "distractions." When a reporter did so Sunday, an assistant coach grabbed for the microphone.

Meanwhile, Sherrill, talking with a reporter Sunday while his team worked out on the floor of the Cotton Bowl, says he's only doing what any good coach should, and that's to stand between adversity and his players and blunt as much of it as he can. "My concerns are my players," he says. "I don't mind the criticism. That's what they pay me for."

Sherrill acknowledges that he's not well liked in Texas, never was, and says it's at least partly because he's paid so well.

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