DALLAS — Today's 50th Cotton Bowl has a Heisman Trophy winner on the one hand and a team embroiled in controversy on the other, which is a good thing. Without the splendid running of Bo Jackson and the equally splendid ranting of Jackie Sherrill, this would almost certainly be the Cotton Bore.
Consider that Sherrill's Texas A&M team, although it won the Southwest Conference title with a surprising 9-2 record, is rated no higher than No. 11 in the wire service polls. Auburn, at 8-3 overall, was actually a sixth-place team in the Southeastern Conference and was happy to be included among the top 16 teams in the rankings.
What will these young athletes proclaim when it's all over today? We're No. 10?
This is one bowl game nobody is waiting for to help determine a national champion. Cotton Bowl officials, not to mention network officials, would be mortally disappointed in this situation except for the aforementioned gents--Jackson and Sherrill, two unusual but fascinating attractions.
There is little more to be said of Jackson, Auburn's Heisman winner, that hasn't already been said. Jackson averaged more than six yards a carry this season and had four 200-plus yard games and a season total of 1,786 yards and just generally amazed with his unique combination of abilities.
At 6 feet 1 inch and 221 pounds, Jackson has the ability to pound into the line, gaining those six yards at a time, until the defensive tackles run up a white flag. But there is also his speed. An overlooked track star--he advanced to the semifinals in the 60-yard dash both times he ran in the NCAA indoor meet--Jackson can quickly turn a six-yard gain into a 76-yarder.
Said Sherrill of that speed: "If a young man can go five yards in two strides then you know he's fast, awful fast. Bo goes five and a half yards in two strides. Bo turns north and south, we don't have anyone who can catch him. I don't know anybody in the country that has caught him."
The only thing wrong with Jackson, to judge from his press clippings, is that he doesn't always play hurt. He took himself out of two important games this season with bruises, which didn't earn him too much glory. But this may be slander, since some sportswriters like to see the bone actually showing if a superstar is to be allowed time on the sideline.
Anyway, Jackson is nonplussed. "Some people may have called me a coward, but I can look at that now and say after my career at Auburn those people who criticized me won't be the ones signing my paycheck at the end of the month."
The other thing Jackson brings to this game is a bit of speculation. It turns out that he's a gifted baseball player as well and, to the likely torment of the NFL general manager who will try to sign him, says he just might go that route.
"It's nice to be in the position that I'm in," Jackson said, exhibiting more guile than he's given credit for. "I'm in the same boat that John Elway was in." Which is to say, on a course to wealth and fame.
But Bo Jackson does not a game make. Does not even a season make, or else the Tigers, with their one-dimensional offense, would have finished at better than 3-3 in the Southeastern Conference. No, this game is made by the strange behavior of Sherrill, whom A&M has made a million-dollar coach.
Sherrill's program was hit hard this season by allegations from two Dallas news organizations, charging that sophomore quarterback Kevin Murray had accepted checks and cars, and that various former players, most under previous coaches, had received regular payouts from boosters.
It has been a lively issue in these parts, although it seems to have ratcheted Sherrill's equilibrium far more than the players'.
Said Anthony Toney, the Aggies' leading rusher with 845 yards in the team's two-fullback system: "It's like how much of a distraction is it that the Soviets have nuclear arms? You think about it every once in a while but it doesn't really bother you."
Sherrill, on the other hand, seems inclined to fan the fires of controversy, rather than douse them.
In what is regarded by some as the most amazing press conference since Richard Nixon's Checkers speech, Sherrill last week lit into the press, demanding that it get behind the conference and stop uncovering every little peccadillo.
"We are at a crossroads, a time when the media can be a positive force in changing college athletics and not just criticizing it," he said. "I'm not trying to circumvent the First Amendment, but you writers and broadcasters make your living off the success of the Southwest Conference like I do. There is a definite need for you to make a decision--which side do you want to be on."
The transcript of his monologue, which has made for delightful reading all week, and several other reactions to the scrutiny of the media have suggested a man unhinged. But he has not been really emotional about the subject, and his natural charm and accessibility on the subject have taken a lot of sting out of his comments.