NCF Nation: Sylvester Croom

Croom's legacy continuing to open doors

January, 20, 2014
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When Derek Mason was officially announced as Vanderbilt’s head football coach last Friday, my thoughts immediately drifted to Sylvester Croom.

It was just a little more than 10 years ago that Croom became the SEC’s first black head football coach when he was hired at Mississippi State on Dec. 1, 2003.

[+] EnlargeSylvester Croom
AP Photo/Bill HaberA decade ago, Sylvester Croom became the SEC's first black head coach when he was hired at Mississippi State.
He was the perfect choice in so many different ways to break that long overdue racial barrier in the SEC, and the way he went about his business with class, integrity and unwavering resolve opened doors for minorities in the league that are getting wider all the time.

They’re still not wide enough, but they’re a hell of a lot wider than they were a decade ago.

In that span, Mason is now the fifth black man to lead his own football program in the SEC, and the fact that he is black really is nothing more than a footnote.

That’s refreshing. That’s progress. And because of the trail Croom blazed in his time at Mississippi State and the way he set that program up for success, let’s hope we see even more progress over the next 10 years.

With this being Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I caught up with Croom to get his thoughts on Mason’s hiring and the direction the SEC is taking in giving minorities more opportunities.

He’s optimistic, but he also warns there’s still a ways to go.

“The thing I’m most pleased about for Derek is that he’s just the next head coach at Vanderbilt,” said Croom, who’s now the running backs coach for the Tennessee Titans. “The uniqueness of his being African-American isn’t the story. He can just coach football, and that, to me, is the most exciting thing.

“It’s more about who he is now and not what he is. I’m glad we’ve gotten to that point in the SEC.”

Croom, the 2007 SEC Coach of the Year, does have a challenge for those in power in the league. It’s not so much the presidents and athletic directors, either, as it is the head coaches.

He wants to see more black coaches get opportunities as offensive and defensive coordinators. In the SEC, there is currently only one: South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward.

“People are always critical of athletic directors,” Croom said. “Well, athletic directors aren’t the ones who hire coordinators. Head coaches do that. What has to happen is that head coaches have to start putting African-Americans who are qualified in those positions because you’re not going to have a chance to be a head coach unless you’ve been a coordinator first.

“Again, we’re talking about guys who are qualified. Nobody’s asking for something that’s not deserved.”

While head coaches are the ones doing the hiring on their staffs, Croom does think athletic directors have a responsibility to step forward and recommend minorities who are qualified.

“And if they don’t know any, I will help them find them,” Croom said. “There are plenty of them out there.”

Paying SEC coaches to go away

January, 28, 2013
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Former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley didn’t stay unemployed for long.

He’s taken a job with the Dallas Cowboys as their receivers coach. Obviously, Dooley won’t make the kind of money he did as the Vols’ head coach ($2 million per year), but he’s also not hurting for dough. He walked away from Tennessee with a $5 million buyout.

The money that SEC schools have paid out to coaches just to go away over the past six years is staggering.

Ole Miss just recently settled with former coach Houston Nutt and paid Nutt a lump sum of $4.35 million to complete its remaining financial obligation to Nutt, who had a $6 million buyout payable over five years when he was fired toward the end of the 2011 season.

Ole Miss saved $500,000 by negotiating the $4.35 million lump sum with Nutt.

If you go back to the end of the 2007 season when Nutt received a $3.5 million settlement after he and Arkansas parted ways, SEC schools have doled out a staggering $38.65 million in buyouts.

That’s right, nearly $40 million for coaches not to coach.

And that’s just the head coaches.

Granted, just about all of these settlements were payable in installments that were spread out over several years.

Still …

Here’s a rundown:
  • Houston Nutt, Arkansas (2007) -- $3.5 million
  • Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State (2008) -- $3.5 million
  • Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee (2008) -- $6 million
  • Tommy Tuberville, Auburn (2008) -- $5.1 million
  • Houston Nutt, Ole Miss (2011) -- $5.5 million
  • Gene Chizik, Auburn (2012) -- $7.5 million
  • Derek Dooley, Tennessee (2012) -- $5 million
  • Joker Phillips, Kentucky (2012) -- $2.55 million
Dan Mullen knew that if he was going to succeed at Mississippi State, he had to be more than just aggressive.

In the SEC, if you aren’t waking up to winning and chasing it down with something fried at night, you’re toast. But to build a real winner at Mississippi State, patience was key.

When Mullen left Florida following the 2008 national championship season, he did so with a simple plan to make the Bulldogs truly competitive in the harsh SEC Western Division. It wasn’t quite a Five-Point Plan, but it consisted of scouring the state of Mississippi for talent, creating an enormously exciting game-day atmosphere, building top-notch facilities and selling out home games.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
Mark Zerof/US PresswireDan Mullen says the Bulldogs have a chip on their shoulder about the way their season ended last year.
Three and a half years later, Mullen has stayed on course and is sitting with an undefeated team that is 11th in the BCS standings and is gearing up for a colossal bout with No. 1 Alabama on Saturday.

“We haven’t been in that position before and that’s something we wanted to build on,” Mullen said. “We wanted the opportunity to compete for SEC West championships and here we are in our fourth year.”

This program certainly wasn’t as successful or as exciting before Mullen arrived. Sylvester Croom’s four years brought just 17 wins and one bowl berth, while the 1990s under Jackie Sherrill involved flirting with success but never really finding much consistency.

There was the SEC championship game appearance in 1998, but during Sherrill’s 13 seasons as head coach, Mississippi State endured seven losing seasons and won more than seven games just four times.

Mullen certainly benefited from some of the players Croom left behind, but his current 28-17 record has had a lot to do with how he has changed the culture in Starkville.

Mullen’s fiery/confident attitude excited fans, and he immediately challenged them to fill Davis-Wade Stadium. He promised wins -- with or without them -- but said the team would win a lot faster if they showed up. They did, and still do, as the Bulldogs have sold out 21 straight home games.

Mississippi State set all of its attendance records in Mullen’s first year (5-7) and his team gave back with a nine-win 2010 season that saw victories over Florida and Georgia and that 52-14 shellacking of Michigan in the Gator Bowl.

“You got the sense that he could put a program in place where competition was at the center of everything that took place,” said athletic director Scott Stricklin, who helped former AD Greg Byrne hire Mullen in 2008.

Mullen knew developing in-state talent was the key to Mississippi State’s success. Before he took the job he scrupulously researched the state’s talent pool and figured that in order to be a contender, he had to keep the best at home.

“Over the last four years, they’ve done that, they’ve believed in that, they’ve wanted to come for their state university and represent the people of Mississippi on the field,” Mullen said.

More importantly, this team expects to win and win titles. That transformation has made Mississippi State a contender in the West and nationally relevant. Stricklin, who went through the Sherrill years as both a student and a member of the athletic department, saw the potential for this when he first met Mullen.

Mississippi State’s search committee wanted someone with charisma, a winning attitude and patience to build the program. Stricklin found all of that and more in Mullen.

“There’s an optimism that’s real unique, and Dan’s done a great job of casting a vision of a program that can compete for championships and win consistently.”

In order to do that, Stricklin knows Mullen needs more time and more administrative help.

He watched as Virginia Tech and Kansas State succeeded under similar models, and he believes Mississippi State is headed in that direction. Stricklin helped push the process along with a new $25 million football complex (Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex) that players and coaches will move into after the bowl season.

It’s an exciting time at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are headed to their third straight bowl for the third time in school history and have the talent to knock off college football’s king.

A win Saturday would create even more excitement and garner even more respect for Mississippi State, but that’s not the end goal. Stricklin expects much more for the program and much more from Mullen. Stricklin sees bigger days ahead in Starkville.

“You can see it all coming together, and it’s building this momentum that has a chance to put us in a place that we’ve never been before,” Stricklin said.

Looking back, Croom was perfect choice

September, 24, 2012
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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.”

Franklin, Phillips to make history

November, 10, 2011
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The winner Saturday between Kentucky and Vanderbilt will keep alive its bowl hopes.

But over and above football, the game will also constitute a first.

It will be the first time in SEC history that two black head coaches will go up against each other in football.

James Franklin is in his first season at Vanderbilt, while Joker Phillips is in his second season as the Kentucky head coach.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Saturday's matchup is that very little has been made about this being the first matchup of two black head football coaches in the SEC. Certainly, it warrants being mentioned and will always be a slice of this conference's history.

But the fact that it's not a huge story is a good sign that we continue to make progress in these parts (and in the SEC) when it comes to race, although there's still a ways to go.

Remember, it was only seven years ago that the SEC hired its first black head football coach. Sylvester Croom coached at Mississippi State from 2004-08. Phillips followed Rich Brooks at Kentucky in 2010, becoming the SEC"s second black head football coach. Franklin was the third when he was hired at Vanderbilt prior to this season.

First-time head coaches in the SEC

December, 13, 2010
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How much of a gamble did Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley take in hiring a guy with no previous head coaching experience?

It might be that Will Muschamp isn’t a gamble at all, but here’s a look at how those head coaches in the SEC have fared the past decade after coming into the league as a first-time head coach in the college game:

Robbie Caldwell, Vanderbilt: 2-10 (Agreed to step aside following this season at Vanderbilt. Was promoted to head coach after Bobby Johnson retired in July).

Joker Phillips, Kentucky: 6-6 (Just completed his first regular season at Kentucky. Has the Wildcats in their fifth straight bowl game).

Lane Kiffin, Tennessee:7-6 (Replaced Phillip Fulmer and coached for one season at Tennessee in 2009 before taking the Southern California head coaching job).

Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: 13-11 (Has the Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl in his second season at Mississippi State, which won eight regular-season games this year for the first time since 1999).

Ed Orgeron, Ole Miss: 10-25 (Coached three seasons at Ole Miss from 2005-07, never winning more than four games in a season. Was 3-21 in SEC play).

Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State: 31-38 (Led the Bulldogs to a Liberty Bowl victory in 2007, but was forced out following that next season, his fifth at Mississippi State, when the Bulldogs finished 4-8).

Mike Shula, Alabama: 26-24 (Was fired after four seasons. His best season was his next to last in 2005 when the Crimson Tide finished 10-2. Lost all four years to Auburn).

Ron Zook, Florida: 23-14 (Was fired during the middle of his third season in 2004 following a loss to Mississippi State. Coached the remainder of the regular season and then stepped away. Lost both bowl games he coached in and never took the Gators to the SEC championship game. Now the head coach at Illinois.

Guy Morriss, Kentucky:9-14 (Took over for Hal Mumme at Kentucky after a recruiting scandal forced Mumme to resign. Coached two seasons at Kentucky and left to take the Baylor head coaching job following the 2002 season. The Wildcats were 7-5 that year. Morriss was fired at Baylor following the 2007 season.

Mark Richt, Georgia: 96-33 (Dean of SEC head coaches at the same school. Just completed his 10thregular season at Georgia. Has won two SEC championships, the last one in 2005, and has taken the Bulldogs to bowl games every season he’s been the coach. Richt is 14-11 in his past two seasons.

Mullen has Bulldogs on a fast track

October, 18, 2010
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When former Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne went looking for a head football coach two years ago, it didn’t take him long to settle on Dan Mullen.

Byrne, now the athletic director at Arizona, liked Mullen’s energy, liked his plan and liked his pedigree.

There were a few eyebrows raised around the league when the hire was announced. After all, Mullen was only 36 at the time and had been an offensive coordinator for just four years. He was a quarterbacks coach previously.

[+] EnlargeDan Mullen
AP Photo/Nick de la TorreDan Mullen has Mississippi State ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in nearly a decade.
Sure, Florida had record-setting offenses while he was in Gainesville, but the Gators also had a couple of guys named Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin on the roster for three of the years Mullen was calling plays.

So perhaps Byrne was going out on a limb a little bit, trying to cash in on Florida’s success and bring somebody over from that staff even if he wasn’t quite ready.

At least, that was the overriding sentiment among those in SEC coaching circles, especially those guys whose résumés were far beefier than Mullen’s.

As I watched Mississippi State put the finishing touches on its 10-7 victory over Florida last Saturday -- the first time the Bulldogs had won at the Swamp in 45 years -- I couldn’t help but think back to that process nearly two years ago.

Dan Mullen? Really, Dan Mullen?

Yeah, Dan Mullen.

And in only his second season in Starkville, where they don’t print money like they do at a lot of places in this league and they don’t have their pick of the players they want nationally, he has one of the hottest football teams in the SEC.

The Bulldogs (5-2, 2-2) have won four straight games and will be heavily favored to make it five in a row this Saturday against UAB. The only two games they lost were to Auburn and LSU, both Top 10 teams.

Against Auburn, Mississippi State had its chances time and time again in the second half, but simply couldn’t sustain any drives.

Finishing games had been a problem a year ago. But the Bulldogs dominated the second half against Georgia two weeks later in a 24-12 win and then held off the Gators in the fourth quarter last Saturday in the biggest win to date for Mullen.

It’s not every day that you beat your mentor.

And whether anybody at Florida wants to admit it, the Gators haven’t been the same on offense since he left.

He’s done it at Mississippi State by using the personnel available to him, while continuing to recruit to his spread offense. The Bulldogs were an excellent running team a year ago. They’re equally good again this year, even without Anthony Dixon.

He’s also done it with solid hires. First-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was a big-time get from Middle Tennessee State, and Mullen was also able to lure Chris Wilson away from Oklahoma this past offseason as the Bulldogs’ co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach.

Of course, the first thing Mullen did when he got the job two years ago was go out and find the best strength coach he could find -- following Meyer's advice -- and Mullen didn’t waste any time bringing Matt Balis to Starkville from Virginia. Balis had been the Gators’ assistant strength and conditioning coach when Mullen was there.

Even though the program was down in terms of wins and losses when Mullen took over, his predecessor, Sylvester Croom, deserves his share of props.

In a lot of ways, Croom came in and disinfected the program and left Mullen with some quality kids and some quality players. Mullen has taken the base he inherited and added to it. He's still adding. He’s also made it known that the state of Mississippi will be where the Bulldogs make their living on the recruiting trail.

He hasn’t been shy, either, about stirring it up with Mississippi State’s arch-rival, refusing to call Ole Miss by name and instead referring to the Rebels as the “school up north.”

Last season, not only did Mississippi State beat Ole Miss on the field, 41-27, but Mullen took it a step further by proclaiming that it was obvious one school in the state was heading in the right direction.

Well, here the Bulldogs are, ranked in the Top 25 polls for the first time in nine years.

The only concern for the Mississippi State fans is that maybe Mullen is having too much success too soon.

When the next big school with deep pockets goes looking for a coach, and invariably there will be a few in the market at the end of this season, you can bet that Mullen will be on their radar.

SEC programs of the decade

January, 21, 2010
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How’s this for balance?

Alabama recently won the SEC’s fifth national championship of the last decade, but the Crimson Tide weren’t able to crack the top 4 programs of the decade.

That’s because Alabama did most of its damage at the end of the decade.

Florida edged out LSU as the program of the decade, mostly because the Tigers fell off the last two years.

There were some tough calls after that.

Here’s what we came up with as far as ranking the SEC programs 1-12 over the last decade:

1. Florida: The Gators won three SEC titles, including one at the beginning of the decade under Steve Spurrier and two more toward the end of the decade under Urban Meyer. The two national titles were the same number as LSU, but the Gators finished in the Top 25 all 10 seasons and had more SEC wins (64) and more wins against Top 25 opponents (36) than anybody else in the league.

2. LSU: Nick Saban won a national title at LSU in 2003, and Les Miles won one in 2007. It was truly a memorable decade on the Bayou, and the Tigers could have made a strong case as the team of the decade had they not gone 17-9 over the last two seasons. They won three SEC titles and had five top-10 finishes. Miles had also won four straight bowl games until the loss to Penn State last month in the Capital One Bowl.

3. Georgia: Even though Alabama had such a strong close to the decade, Georgia was a pretty easy choice for the No. 3 spot. The Bulldogs won SEC titles in 2002 and 2005 and recorded six top-10 finishes, which was more than any other team in the league. They also finished the decade with a 30-22 record against nationally ranked foes.

4. Auburn: The Tigers were unlucky in 2004 in that they never got a chance to play for the national title despite finishing 13-0. They were also a game over .500 (22-21) against nationally ranked teams for the decade and had six more SEC wins than Alabama. Equally important, Auburn was 7-3 against Alabama head-to-head, which is the reason the Tigers beat out the Crimson Tide for the No. 4 spot.

5. Alabama: The Crimson Tide made the biggest move thanks to the last two years of the decade. They won the 2009 national title and have now gone two straight years where they haven’t lost an SEC regular-season game. Three top-10 finishes also helped push them past Tennessee and overcome four non-winning seasons during the decade.

6. Tennessee: The 1990s were so prosperous for Tennessee that this last decade really looks barren by comparison. The Vols failed to win an SEC title, although they got there three different times. Their record against nationally ranked foes really declined. They were just 18-29 and haven’t been to a BCS bowl since 1999. Losing seasons in 2005 and 2008 led to Phillip Fulmer’s ouster.

7. Arkansas: It really gets difficult to separate the teams in the bottom half of the league. The Hogs check in at No. 7 thanks to their two trips to the SEC championship game under Houston Nutt in 2002 and 2006. Winning the bowl game this season under Bobby Petrino also helps.

8. Ole Miss: The Rebels closed the decade by winning nine games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in nearly 50 years. They also won the Cotton Bowl each of the past two years. The other thing that pushed Ole Miss past South Carolina was the 2003 season when Eli Manning and Co. tied for the Western Division crown. Naturally, Ole Miss fans try to forget the Ed Orgeron years (3-21 in the SEC).

9. South Carolina: The reality is that South Carolina has been consistently average during its entire history, and that held true last decade. The Gamecocks were able to beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee under Steve Spurrier and had a couple of Outback Bowl wins under Lou Holtz. That’s about where it ends. In eight of the 10 seasons last decade, the Gamecocks finished with five or more losses.

10. Kentucky: After going back and forth between Kentucky and Mississippi State for the No. 10 spot, I went with the Wildcats based on their 6-4 head-to-head record against the Bulldogs. There wasn’t a lot of difference otherwise. Rich Brooks getting Kentucky to four straight bowls played a role, not to mention the fact that the Wildcats won three in a row in the postseason.

11. Mississippi State: It seems like forever ago that Jackie Sherrill was running the show in Starkville, but the Bulldogs did record a Top 25 finish on his watch in 2000. Sylvester Croom brought them a Liberty Bowl victory in 2007, and Dan Mullen spanked Ole Miss in the regular-season finale this past season. That was about the extent of the highlights, although Mississippi State fans are genuinely excited about the future under Mullen.

12. Vanderbilt: The program has certainly made strides under Bobby Johnson and his staff, but not enough strides to climb out of the No. 12 spot. This past season was a step back. It’s the first time the Commodores had gone winless in the league since Johnson’s first season as coach in 2002. The highlight of the decade was the seven-win season in 2008 and Music City Bowl victory over Boston College. The Commodores also beat Auburn, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee last decade.

Looking back at the decade in the SEC

January, 18, 2010
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The last decade in the SEC was wrought with sweeping change just about everywhere you looked and the kind of on-the-field dominance that made everybody else around the college football landscape envious.

Five times over the past 10 years, an SEC team hoisted the crystal BCS national championship trophy at season’s end.

LSU won in 2003 and 2007, Florida in 2006 and 2008 and Alabama in 2009.

And that’s not even counting Auburn in 2004. The Tigers went 13-0, but never got a chance to play for the national title.

Tebow
James Lang/US PresswireTim Tebow became the first sophomore in college football history to win the Heisman Trophy.
Coaches came and went at a dizzying pace, and even the leadership at the top of the conference changed hands. Roy Kramer, the father of the BCS, retired after leading the conference through expansion, and Mike Slive took over when he was appointed as the seventh SEC commissioner in 2002.

During the decade, every school had at least one coaching change. And if you include everybody, there were 31 different head coaches who held the reins at some point.

Alabama led the way with five.

The first one, Mike DuBose, was on the scene during the whole Albert Means scandal, which led to the Crimson Tide being placed on NCAA probation and handicapped the program for a large chunk of the decade.

But the most recent one, Nick Saban, led the Crimson Tide back to the promised land. They’re coming off their first national championship in 17 years, and in doing so, extended their streak of being the only school in the SEC to win a conference title in every decade since the league was formed in 1933.

The decade said goodbye to Steve Spurrier, who left Florida following the 2001 season to take his shot in the NFL. He only lasted two seasons with the Washington Redskins and was back in the SEC in 2005 -- but not with the Gators.

Spurrier wanted a new challenge and took on a big one, trying to elevate South Carolina into an SEC contender. After five seasons in Columbia, Spurrier is still looking to break through. He’s lost at least five games every season he’s been at South Carolina.

Saban is also on his second stop in the league this decade, although he’s found success much quicker than Spurrier the second time around. Saban won a national title at LSU in 2003 and was lured to the NFL in 2005 when he took on the Miami Dolphins’ head job.

Like Spurrier, Saban lasted two years and was back in the SEC. But much to the chagrin of the LSU faithful, he was at Alabama.

In his last two seasons, he’s 17-1 in SEC games and became the first coach in the AP poll era (since 1936) to win national titles at two different schools when Alabama defeated Texas in the Citi BCS National Championship Game.

The decade also saw the first black head football coach in SEC history when Sylvester Croom was hired at Mississippi State in 2004. Croom faced with a major rebuilding job and took over a program riddled by NCAA sanctions. The Bulldogs won eight games, including a bowl game, during his fourth season, but a 4-8 season the next year and a struggling offense were too much for him to overcome.

Not even Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer, who won a national title in 1998 and was the dean of the league, was immune from the league's cannibalistic ways. He was fired following the 2008 season, his second losing season in four years.

Urban Meyer hit the league in 2005, fresh off a BCS bowl appearance at Utah.

Everybody wondered if his spread-option offense would work in the SEC. The next year, a guy named Tim Tebow walked onto campus, and the Gators proceeded to win two of the next three national championships.

In the process, Tebow became the first sophomore in college football history to win the Heisman Trophy. He also earned the distinction that same season of being the first major college football player ever to run and pass for 20 touchdowns in the same season.

Before he was done, Tebow broke Herschel Walker’s SEC record for career rushing touchdowns, racking up 57. He also passed for 88 touchdowns, shattering Danny Wuerffel’s SEC record for career touchdown responsibility.

Two of the last three Heisman Trophy winners were bred in the SEC. Alabama running back Mark Ingram won it this past season, becoming the first player in Alabama’s storied history to win college football’s most prestigious individual award.

And lastly, the decade said goodbye to a broadcast legend when Larry Munson, 87, retired from the booth two games into the 2008 season. He called Georgia games for 42 years, keeping fans on the edge of their seats every step of the way.

There will never be another one quite like him.

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Taking a pulse on what's out there around the league:

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

 
 Mike Carlson/Icon SMI
 It didn't take Dan Mullen long to land with Mississippi State.

Forgive Dan Mullen if his head is still spinning. The last few days have been a blur.

Last Saturday night, he stood in the locker room at the Georgia Dome talking about a fourth quarter that would bring a smile to the face of any offensive coordinator.

Florida kept the ball for nearly 12 minutes, scored a pair of touchdowns on picture-perfect drives and rallied from a three-point deficit to beat Alabama 31-20 in the SEC championship and earn a spot in the BCS National Championship.

That's when the fun really started for the 36-year-old Mullen.

Florida coach Urban Meyer told him later that night that Mississippi State was interested. Mullen spoke with Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne by phone Monday night and was walking out of a high school the next morning when he got another phone call from Byrne wondering if he could be in Atlanta that night for an interview.

By the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Byrne knew he had his man. Later that morning, after a few hours of sleep, Mullen had agreed to become Mississippi State's next head football coach.

"It all happened really fast, but I had a good feel about Greg and his vision for Mississippi State athletics from the first time we talked," Mullen said.

By late Wednesday afternoon, Mullen was in Starkville, Miss. He was officially introduced at a Thursday press conference and spent the rest of the day on a plane touring the state of Mississippi and meeting with MSU fans.

"It's been a wild ride, but I'm ready to get this thing rolling," said Mullen, whose contract will pay him $1.2 million per year. "The energy here and the excitement for Mississippi State University football is amazing. I can still the hear the cowbells ringing in my ears."

Mullen said his plan is to remain with Florida through the BCS National Championship as long as he can get his staff in place and make sure the Bulldogs' recruiting efforts are organized. He has the blessing of Byrne to remain with the Gators through the Jan. 8 game in Miami.

"I made a commitment to Tim Tebow, and I want to carry through with a goal both of us set a year ago, and that's to be a champion," Mullen said. "That was my commitment to those guys, and I'm going to try my best to work it out."

Mullen said Mississippi State fans can expect to see the same style of spread offense in Starkville that the Gators have run the last four years. But there are a couple of caveats.

Florida has tweaked its offense a good bit the last four years to fit its personnel, and Mississippi State will do the same.

In other words, Tim Tebows don't come along every day.

"Our offensive philosophy starts with our quarterback," Mullen said. "There are skill sets we're looking for, but one of the things we've always done is adapt the offense to the personnel we have. The past four years, we've changed a lot at Florida. We probably changed more when we came from Utah and even more than that when we came from Bowling Green."

That said, it's going to be crucial over the next couple of years that the Bulldogs recruit to the spread offense, and Mullen said there's no better place to start than the state of Mississippi.

"We have the athletes to do it right here in the state of Mississippi," Mullen said. "The key thing for us is that those athletes know what kind of offense we're going to run. We're going to get the ball in their hands and create matchups for them that they can win. It's critical that we get all the athletes in this state to come play for us and do it in a hurry."

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

 
 AP Photo/Rob Carr
 Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom, shown here in an earlier game this season, resigned Saturday after an embarrassing 45-0 loss to Ole Miss.

It's really immaterial whether Sylvester Croom resigned, whether he was fired or whether his exit as Mississippi State's football coach fell somewhere in between.

Croom had done it his way ever since taking over a Mississippi State program riddled with NCAA sanctions and in serious need of a thorough deep cleaning.

But no matter how much you admire Croom's impeccable character and appreciate his place in SEC history, his way had worn out its welcome.

That and a West Coast offense that never ranked higher than 103rd nationally in total offense during his five seasons in Starkville.

There are so many things to like about Croom, the first black head football coach in SEC history. He's as honest as the day is long, the kind of coach you'd want your son to play for and fiercely loyal.

He's also unbelievably stubborn.

The quickest way to get on Croom's bad side is to tell him what he needs to do with his football team. So the more everybody (fans, media, boosters) began telling him that he needed to make certain changes with his offense and his staff, the more Croom dug in.

Some call that being hard-headed. Croom calls it being principled.

Even Croom's most loyal supporters were concerned this might be coming as this season continued to sour. And that's despite the fact that the Bulldogs won eight games and the Liberty Bowl a year ago, and Croom walked away with SEC Coach of the Year honors and a new contract that paid him $1.7 million annually.

But the 45-0 drubbing by Ole Miss on Friday was the kind of embarrassing defeat Croom simply couldn't survive.

So he walks away and leaves what is easily one of the toughest jobs in the SEC to someone else.

Although Croom didn't win a lot of football games at Mississippi State (21-38 overall), he won a lot of respect for the way he carried himself, the way he restored a sense of pride and a code of doing things the right way. His legacy should serve the program well for years to come.

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

We make our rounds through the conference to see what else is shaking:

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

We're down to the final week of the regular season and then it's on to Alabama vs. Florida in the SEC Championship Game. These last few weeks have been anti-climatic with the title game being set so early, especially when you consider what's at stake when the Gators and Crimson Tide clash on Dec. 6 in Atlanta. Still, there were more than a few eye-opening developments around the league in Week 13. Here's a look at what we learned:

1. Ole Miss is for real: Here's a teaser for Ole Miss fans: You're going to like the newest edition of the SEC power rankings when they come out on Monday. The Rebels (7-4, 4-3 SEC) left little doubt that they should be included among the SEC's elite teams this season with their 31-13 pummeling of No. 18-ranked LSU in Tiger Stadium. Houston Nutt showed once again why he's such a solid big-game coach. The Rebels were aggressive on defense, ran a fake punt, ran reverses and never quit attacking. Their defensive line has few peers in the league right now. Peria Jerry and Co. held the Tigers to one of their worst rushing days this decade -- 37 yards on 29 carries. If the Rebels can take care of business at home Friday against Mississippi State, they're headed to the Cotton Bowl with the kind of momentum Ole Miss hasn't seen in football since Eli Manning was flinging passes.

2. Something's amiss at LSU: This team is far too talented to be getting trampled at home. The defending national champion Tigers (7-4, 3-4 SEC) have lost three games at home this season after losing three games total at Tiger Stadium from 2003-07. The 31-13 loss Saturday to Ole Miss was another reminder of everything that's gone wrong. Sure, the quarterback issues have been tough to deal with, but most disappointing in the Tigers' collapse has been a defense (and a defense with several future pros) that has repeatedly taken it on the chin. The Tigers gave up 409 total yards to the Rebels. That's three SEC games that LSU has been shredded for 400 or more yards this season. Florida had 475 and Georgia 443. At this point, you can't help but wonder if LSU coach Les Miles will re-consider his two-defensive coordinator system of Doug Mallory and Bradley Dale Peveto at the end of the season.

3. Simply the best: Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis doesn't make it a habit to compare players. But when he says sophomore safety Eric Berry is, in his opinion, the best defensive player in the country, you can bet that Chavis means it. Outgoing Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer goes one step further when he says Berry is already one of the greatest players to play at Tennessee and could be one of the best to ever play in the SEC. Berry intercepted his seventh pass of the season Saturday in Tennessee's 20-10 victory over Vanderbilt and returned it for a 45-yard touchdown. Berry now has 12 career interceptions in 25 career games and has returned three of those picks for touchdowns. He has 487 return yards for his career, which is 14 yards shy of the all-time FBS record held by Florida State's Terrell Buckley from 1989-91.

4. Bulldogs still swinging: Talk about a tormented season. It's been that and more for Mississippi State, which was eliminated from bowl contention two weeks ago in a loss to Alabama. The questions about Sylvester Croom's job security have intensified, not to mention the calls for him to purge his staff. In short, it's been one big mess of a season for the Bulldogs, but they proved Saturday in a 31-28 win over Arkansas that they haven't shut it down. They easily could have after falling behind 14-0 midway through the first quarter to the Hogs, but they battled back behind their best and most complete offensive performance of the season. Mississippi State finished with a season-high 445 yards, and junior running back Anthony Dixon had a career-high 179 yards rushing and also caught five passes for 32 yards, two that went for touchdowns.

5. Quarterback horror show: Parental guidance was suggested for the quarterback play in the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game. Simply, it was rotten. Four different quarterbacks threw passes, and all four threw interceptions to go along with no touchdowns. Of course, that doesn't count the touchdowns they threw to the other team. Vanderbilt's Chris Nickson threw a second-quarter pass that was returned 45 yards for a touchdown, and Tennessee's B.J. Coleman threw a third-quarter pass that was returned 42 yards for a touchdown. The Vols managed to win despite finishing with just 21 passing yards. It's the worst they've been at quarterback in at least 30 years and maybe going all the way back to the single-wing days. The Commodores wound up with 188 passing yards, but 66 of those came in the final 1:21 when the game was already over and the Vols were giving Mackenzi Adams the underneath throws. You'd have to watch a lot of football to find a game with poorer play at the quarterback position.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 13

November, 21, 2008
11/21/08
10:13
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

It's a quiet week in the SEC, as only seven teams are playing. The LSU-Ole Miss contest (aka the Magnolia Bowl) is the marquee matchup. The winner will move to the top of the list for a Cotton Bowl bid. If Vanderbilt can beat Tennessee, the Commodores will solidify only their second winning season in SEC play in the last 48 years. Alabama is off and has Auburn at home on Nov. 29. Think there's any chance Nick Saban might take a peek at some Florida tape this weekend? The Gators might as well be off. They face The Citadel at home. Here's a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 13:

1. Peria Jerry: When the season began, the defensive tackles around the league getting most of the ink were LSU's Ricky Jean-Francois and Auburn's Sen'Derrick Marks. Turn on the tape from the last several games, though, and find a better tackle in the SEC right now than Ole Miss' Peria Jerry. You can't. He's been dominant, and it's obvious that he's healthy after undergoing surgery in the preseason to repair meniscus damage in his knee. The 6-foot-2, 290-pound Jerry is second among all SEC defensive tackles with 10.5 tackles for loss and will be a huge key if Ole Miss is going to end its six-game losing streak Saturday against LSU.

2. LSU's O-line vs. Ole Miss' D-line: This has to be one of the best matchups of the season. LSU has had its problems this season, but they haven't been on the offensive line. The Tigers have at least two future pros in tackle Ciron Black and guard Herman Johnson. One of the keys, though, will be senior center Brett Helms, who's not 100 percent and trying to gut it out. The Rebels also have two or three future pros in their defensive line and are finally healthy. Even enigmatic defensive endGreg Hardy looked like his old self last week. Ole Miss won't hold anything back, which is why the Rebels have an SEC-leading 80 tackles for loss this season.

3. Showcase for Snead: His numbers suggest he's one of the best young quarterbacks in the league, maybe the best. But to really make this a season to remember, Ole Miss sophomore quarterback Jevan Snead needs to lead his team to a big win on the road. Here's his chance against storied rival LSU. Ole Miss offensive coordinator Kent Austin has done a nice job of bringing Snead along at just the right pace. But like all first-year quarterbacks in this league, Snead has blown hot and cold at times. He seems to be hitting his stride now and will no doubt take his shots against an LSU secondary that has given up its share of big plays this season.

4. Hold on tightly: The surest way for Ole Miss to go into Tiger Stadium on Saturday and lose the football game is to turn it over a bunch of times. The Rebels know that drill well. They turned it over 15 times in their four losses this season, but have lost just one turnover during their three-game winning streak. Forcing turnovers hasn't been LSU's forte, either. The Tigers have forced just 14 turnovers this season, which is tied for next to last in the league along with Georgia. That's in direct contrast to LSU's ball-hawking defense from a year ago. The Tigers forced 36 turnovers on their way to the BCS national championship in 2007.

5. A brotherly thing: Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino won't make a final call on his starting quarterback for the Mississippi State game until later in the day on Friday. It sounds like he's leaning toward making a change and going with the younger of the Dick brothers, redshirt freshman Nathan. Casey, a senior, has started 28 consecutive games, but left the South Carolina game two weeks ago with a concussion after throwing three interceptions. Petrino said there's a chance that both of the brothers could play in the game and that they've been energized by the competition this week in practice. For Nathan, it's a chance to generate some momentum going into the offseason. He'll need to play well if he's going to beat out Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett for the job next season.

6. Malcolm who?: The offensive linemen who've gone against Arkansas defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard this season know who he is. Still, the 6-foot-3, 277-pound junior is one of the more underrated defenders in the league. He's tied for second in the SEC with 11.5 tackles for loss and leads all defensive tackles in that category. He also has 5.5 sacks, which is an SEC-high for defensive tackles. Sheppard, one of the Arkansas team captains, has helped to keep a defense together that went through a brutal three-game stretch in which it gave up 139 points to Alabama, Texas and Florida. The Hogs have played more respectably on defense ever since, and Sheppard has been a big reason why.

7. Croom's future: The fans at Mississippi State are growing increasingly more restless each week, and many of them are calling for Sylvester Croom to hit the road. Yep, the same Sylvester Croom that won SEC Coach of the Year honors last season and led the Bulldogs to eight wins and a Liberty Bowl victory. Mississippi State (3-7, 1-5 SEC) needs to show some improvement these last two weeks, especially on offense. Croom may shake it up some Saturday against Arkansas. He wants to get both redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Relf and redshirt freshman running back Wade Bonner on the field, while J.C. Brignone will return to center and Michael Gates will move to left guard.

8. Tennessee defensive pride: It's been a horrible season for the Vols. There's no way to sugarcoat it. But through the agony of it all, John Chavis' defense has continued to play with pride and deserves far better than how this thing is going to end up. Tennessee enters Saturday's game at Vanderbilt ranked No. 7 nationally in total defense, which is remarkable when you consider how little help the defense has received from an offense that has been held to single digits in its last three games. Chavis has had better defenses at Tennessee, but few have played with more resolve than this group.

9. Less orange in Vanderbilt Stadium: This may actually be an honest-to-goodness home game for Vanderbilt, which hasn't beaten Tennessee in Nashville since 1982. Traditionally, the orange in the Vanderbilt Stadium stands when these two teams meet is as prevalent as the black and gold. There have been years when it almost sounded like a home game for the Vols. But not this year. Tennessee is putting the wraps on one of the worst seasons in school history, while Vanderbilt is headed to a bowl game for the first time in 26 years. "I hope we have a huge black and gold advantage in our stadium," Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said.

10. 50, 60 and counting: How many points will Florida score on The Citadel, and how long will Urban Meyer play his starters? It's really one of those games that the Gators get very little out of, particularly this late in the season. In fact, you know Meyer and his staff will be holding their breath the entire time hoping somebody doesn't get rolled up and injured. It's no time to play scared, but you can bet that Meyer will be smart about how long he leaves guys like Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and Brandon Spikes in the game. Florida hasn't lost to a current non-FBS school since losing to Villanova in 1946.

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