Monday, September 24, 2012
Looking back, Croom was perfect choice
By Chris Low
Sure, Sylvester Croom would have liked to have been able to finish what he started.
He would have liked to have won more games, too. That goes for any coach.
But when Croom looks back on his time at Mississippi State, he does so with pride. He did it his way. He never took shortcuts. He built enduring relationships with assistant coaches and players, and he opened doors.
Lots of them.
Croom’s journey to becoming the SEC’s first black head football coach will be chronicled in the ESPN Films documentary “Croom.” It’s the latest installment in the SEC “Storied” series and will premiere Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU.
“All I ever wanted was a chance to be a head coach,” said Croom, now the running backs coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars. “The minority aspect of it, even though I knew it was important, I’m still just now grasping how significant it was.
“I’ve had so many coaches in the business come up to me and say thanks and tell me how significant it was, especially considering that it was at a Mississippi school. So it was far more significant than I realized at the time.”
SEC commissioner Mike Slive says he doesn’t think there will be a more pivotal event that will occur in his tenure “no matter how long I stay here.”
That's coming from a commissioner who has overseen six straight football national championships by his league and somebody who has been at the center of the move to a national playoff in 2014 to determine college football’s champion.
“I guess it still hasn’t hit home,” Croom said.
Having played and coached under Bear Bryant at Alabama, Croom inherited an NCAA probation-ridden Mississippi State program in 2004 that had suffered through three straight losing seasons. His first order of business was disinfecting the program, and the process was a grueling one.
The Bulldogs broke through in 2007 and won eight games, including the Liberty Bowl. But after they fell back to four wins in 2008, Croom was forced out after five years on the job. His overall record was 21-38, although he did beat Alabama in back-to-back seasons and was named the SEC Coach of the Year in 2007.
“In the coaching profession, rarely do you get to go out on your own terms. It’s rare that you get to do that,” said Croom, who turns 58 on Tuesday. “Plus, one of the most valuable commodities that you have is time, and I’m sure not going to waste it dwelling on any negatives.
“We had a lot of good times there. Yes, it was a struggle, but we tried to create an environment for our staff and our players so they could enjoy the process.”
Croom has remained extremely close to the coaches on that staff, and he said he still hears from a lot of the players, too.
“Those are the relationships that are most important to me,” Croom said. “A lot of people there touched my life.”
Croom, who a year earlier had been up for the Alabama head-coaching job and lost out to Mike Shula, almost didn’t take the Mississippi State job when then-Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton came calling.
But Templeton wouldn’t take no for an answer, and Croom had close friends telling him that he couldn’t turn down the job, that he for whatever reason had been chosen to be the SEC’s first black head football coach ... nearly 40 years after the first black player played in this league.
“I look around and am more appreciative of it now than I was when I got it,” Croom said. “I guess that’s the reason I don’t have any resentment at all. There are a lot of people more qualified than me as assistant coaches who haven’t gotten that opportunity and probably never will get that opportunity to be a head coach.
“I had a chance to be a head coach in the Southeastern Conference, which is the only place I ever wanted to be a head coach, and I had some good times doing it.”
Croom also helped lay the groundwork for the success Mississippi State is having now.
The Bulldogs are ranked No. 21 this week and off to a 4-0 start. Croom signed or recruited 15 of their current starters. His successor, Dan Mullen, is well on his way to guiding Mississippi State to its third straight winning season, which hasn’t happened since the Bulldogs had four winning seasons in a row from 1997-2000.
“I still watch them when I get a chance,” Croom said. “We still have a lot of the players we recruited there. One of the things I wanted to make sure of, whenever I left, was that the program be better than what I found it, and I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
In the end, Croom’s crowning accomplishment was the way he tackled the most daunting of jobs in this league with a blend of integrity and resolve that was unwavering.
It’s no coincidence that the SEC now has three black head coaches -- Joker Phillips at Kentucky, James Franklin at Vanderbilt and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M.
“We still have a long way to go, but I’m proud of the fact that we have three minority coaches in the SEC,” Croom said. “I’m proud of what we did at Mississippi State, and I’m proud of the way we did it.
“Most of all, I’m excited that we had a positive impact on the lives of a lot of young people who played for us.”