SEC: Sylvester Croom

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.

SEC Week 5 primer

September, 29, 2012
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Here's a quick look at what's on tap today in the SEC:
  • Missouri (2-2) at Central Florida (2-1), noon ET, Fox Sports Net
  • Arkansas (1-3, 0-1 SEC) at Texas A&M (2-1, 0-1), 12:21 p.m. ET, SEC Network
  • Tennessee (3-1, 0-1) at No. 5 Georgia (4-0, 2-0), 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
  • No. 6 South Carolina (4-0, 2-0) at Kentucky (1-3, 0-1), 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
  • Towson (2-1) at No. 3 LSU (4-0), 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
  • Ole Miss (3-1, 0-0) at No. 1 Alabama (4-0, 1-0), 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN

In case you missed any of the coverage this week on the SEC blog, here's a recap:

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.

SEC lunch links

February, 1, 2011
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A snapshot of what's making headlines around the SEC on the eve of national signing day:

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.

Byrne will be missed at Mississippi State

March, 22, 2010
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The news that Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne is leaving for the same job at Arizona shouldn't be all that surprising, given his Pac-10 ties.

Still, I know it had to be a difficult decision for Byrne because of all he had invested in getting the Mississippi State football program up to speed. He made the gut-wrenching decision to pull the plug on Sylvester Croom at the end of the 2008 season.

It's not something Byrne wanted to do because of what Croom stood for and his efforts in cleaning up the program, but Byrne also felt like the program needed new leadership if it was going to take that next step.

He quickly settled on Dan Mullen, and thanks to Mullen's aggressive recruiting in the state and some tireless marketing and promotion by Byrne and his staff, the excitement and anticipation surrounding the program right now is as high as it's been in a long time.

Byrne will be missed at Mississippi State. He knew how to treat people. He understood that he was in a people business, but he also knew how to make tough decisions.

There's no easy way to fire a coach or force a coach out, especially one as classy as Croom, but Byrne navigated that whole process about as well as he could.

It's always going to be a challenge at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are never going to have the cash and resources to throw around the way they do at Alabama, Florida, LSU, Georgia and Tennessee.

But Byrne has the Mississippi State football program -- and the climate surrounding the program -- pointed in the right direction.

The groundwork has been laid for his successor.

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.

Lunchtime links: No trash talk for Chizik

February, 12, 2009
2/12/09
1:32
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

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

Sylvester Croom reflects, Part II

January, 30, 2009
1/30/09
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Despite everything he did right and everything he cleaned up, Sylvester Croom was ousted at Mississippi State because he didn't win enough games.

He was just 21-38 in five seasons. But, really, his foundation started to crack ever so slightly when the guys who hired him (Charles Lee and Larry Templeton) gave way to a new president and a new athletic director.

Even after winning SEC Coach of the Year honors in 2007, Croom didn't help his cause with offenses that never finished higher than 100th nationally in total offense. Those struggles on offense remain his greatest frustration.

"We just never could put all the pieces together," Croom said. "We had a great back in Jerious Norwood at one point, but he was the only guy on that team with explosive speed. We never really had a go-to receiver. Omarr Conner was playing well before he got hurt, and Brandon McRae played extremely well this year.

"I would have loved to have had Norwood in the backfield with Conner and McRae at receiver and then our offensive line play in 2007. And then this year, we just didn't play well at the quarterback position. That's not to be critical of the kids. But we just didn't get the production at that position you need to win in our league."

When offensive tackle Mike Brown was dismissed before last season because of his arrest stemming from firing a handgun on campus, Croom knew the Bulldogs were in trouble. Quinton Wesley had been their best defensive lineman that spring, and he, too, was dismissed because of that same incident.

"I thought it was going to be a difficult season, and then we had injuries on top of those two dismissals and we just weren't to the point where we could overcome those," Croom said. "Still, if we kick the ball and do a few other things well, we probably would have had a chance to get to a bowl game."

Croom and his staff had already put together part of this recruiting class, which could be one of the highest-rated classes the Bulldogs have had in a long time.

"That's three really good recruiting classes back to back to back," Croom said. "I think they have a very good future here, and I'll be rooting for them."

What can't be measured in wins and losses is Croom's stamp of doing things the right way and not compromising his principles.

Even after he'd been on the job for a while, he still had boosters telling him that if he didn't cheat and didn't pay players that he had no chance of winning at Mississippi State.

"I'm proud of the way we did it, and I'm proud of the people there," he said. "We had great people, and our players conducted themselves with a lot of class. I'll miss them, but I'll still be around."

During his time at Mississippi State, the football team recorded four of the five highest GPAs in school history, and several of the facilities -- including the locker room and weight room -- underwent major face-lifts.

Croom said he will keep a home in Starkville for at least the next few years. He said he and new Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen talked briefly about a couple of coaches Mullen was looking to hire on his staff.

While making sure not to get in anybody's way or to hover, Croom said his door is always open.

"They know where to find me," he said.

Sylvester Croom reflects, Part I

January, 30, 2009
1/30/09
8:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Sylvester Croom has never been one to second-guess himself, and he's not about to start now.

 
  Icon SMI
  Sylvester Croom left the Mississippi State program in better shape than it was when he took over.

Hired Thursday to coach running backs for the St. Louis Rams, Croom said a part of him will always be nestled at Mississippi State. He poured his heart into that program over the last five years and fully intended to finish what he started.

But when the Bulldogs bottomed out last season at 4-8, capped by an embarrassing 45-0 loss to Ole Miss, new Mississippi State athletic director Greg Byrne made the decision he didn't want to make, but one he felt like was in the best long-term interest of the program.

He told Croom the Bulldogs were moving in another direction.

"That's where we are now in college football," Croom said. "It happens everywhere, not just at Mississippi State. There's not going to be a lot of patience if you're not winning at a high level and don't continue to win at a high level."

Croom's not bitter, though, not in the least bit.

Asked if he'd do it all over again, even knowing now how it would all end, he answered emphatically, "Oh yeah."

He admits that he debated heavily whether it was the right move when he took the job prior to the 2004 season. It was a huge undertaking, and Croom was well aware of how daunting a rebuilding task he faced. The Bulldogs were about to get hit with crippling NCAA sanctions, hadn't won more than three games for three straight years when Croom took over and had some of the worst facilities in the SEC.

"I took the job for a variety of reasons, and every one of them was a good reason," said Croom, the first black head football coach in SEC history. "Hey, I'm thankful to have had the chance. I'm thankful to Mississippi State, thankful to (former president) Charles Lee and thankful to (former athletic director) Larry Templeton. There are a lot of good coaches out there who never get a chance.

"I'm also thankful that they let me do it my way regardless if people agree with me or not. I did it the way I felt like things needed to be done and have no regrets about the way I did things. I wanted to leave it a better place than I found it, and I wanted my name to have the same integrity as when I went into it.

"I believe I was able to do both of those things."

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