As Dan Mullen forges ahead to build the MIssissippi State program in his own way, there is an image that hangs over him. Indeed it will hang over anyone who takes that job until someone surpasses it.
It is an image of controversy, and yet, of glory in Starkville. The folks there clearly still love it too:
It is the image of Jackie Sherrill.
When most people think of Sherrill, they think of the walking NCAA violation. Even now, he still is able to pick up a secondary violation without even trying.
And yet at both Texas A&M and Mississippi State, the two programs he left under NCAA investigation, he was not personally implicated in any of the wrongdoings. Even as he's been accused of "looking for a way to dissect the rules instead of abide by them," and called "the worst... terrible," by fellow coaches, he's also a good friend of Joe Paterno's.
Not many coaches have gotten out of Starkville with a winning record, and Sherrill was not one of them. His 75-75-2 record still does include the most wins of any coach in school history. He also led the team to five of its 13 bowl bids and only its second 10 win season ever (the first one was in 1940).
He also did the somewhat unthinkable in guiding the Bulldogs to its only SEC Championship Game bid in 1998. Though they lost to the eventual national champion Tennessee Vols, they had still beat the hated Rebels to the honor of SEC West champs. Getting to Atlanta is still a feat neither Ole Miss nor Kentucky, South Carolina, or Vanderbilt in the East have accomplished.
Mullen has tried to embrace the past at Mississippi State just as his former boss did at Florida. That includes bringing back the guy who was capable of both castrating a bull to inspire his players to beat Texas and fooling his players by painting his face as a clown and doing a mime act. Sherrill may be a lot of things, but boring is not one of them.
In any event, one has to wonder if Sherrill being around is a good thing (the recent secondary violation aside). His reputation in Starkville may be sterling, but outside he's almost universally seen as a dirty rotten cheat. He left two programs in smoldering craters of probation, with the Bulldogs still trying to dig their way out today. He's a huge target for negative recruiting, and Mississippi State has enough disadvantages as it is.
Eventually, Starkville is going to need a new hero. Whether Mullen is that hero or not no one yet knows. Until then, for better or worse, Jackie Sherrill is still the image of Mississippi State football.