By Alan Grant
Special to Page 2

"Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things."

That's what Andy Dufresne told his buddy Red in "The Shawshank Redemption." I think that wonderful sense of positive anticipation should be applied to Mississippi State's hiring of Sylvester Croom as its head football coach.

I'll try to accentuate the positive. Croom becomes the first black head football coach in SEC history, and also becomes the fifth black head coach in all of college football. It's a wonderful thing. But whenever someone becomes a "first black" anything, I struggle with staying focused on the positive.

Sylvester Croom
Sylvester Croom faces a big challenge as the new head coach at Mississippi State.

I struggle, because I know what is real and what is make-believe. That's why I hope. I hope people see this hire for what it really is and what it really is not. I hope people don't think that Croom's appointment means the end of racism as we know it. I hope they see it, instead, as a long-awaited first step in what is still a steep ascent to equality.

Fantasy tells us that at the very moment Croom stepped to that podium in Starkville, all past transgressions were forgiven and all was made right in the kingdom of Mississippi. Political correctness, the very doctrine of fantasy, tells us that if we don't notice differences in people -- and just eliminate the ugly names that sometimes accompany those differences -- then the social cancer that is racism will disappear.

Political correctness could be the worst thing to ever happen to race relations.

"Oh, I didn't notice you were a woman."

Or, "Oh, I didn't notice you were black."


Of course you noticed. And it's okay to notice that someone is different. That ain't the problem. The problem is when you personally or professionally mistreat someone because of that difference.

The real proof of change comes when we see how Croom is treated during hard times. And there will be hard times aplenty. Croom won't turn this thing around right away. Mississippi State has won eight games in three years. That's probably why MSU athletic director Larry Templeton hired an Alabama native. He didn't just hire a black man; he hired a black man from the South. He needed a man who will be familiar with the terrain when he is asked to walk through Hell.

You think Templeton will be surprised when his football coach opens his mail and finds racially-charged death threats delivered with his Sharper Image catalog?

I hope people realize that Croom's success or failure shouldn't affect opportunity for other black coaches. Should he fail to win enough games and he gets fired, what would it mean? Would it mean that black men really can't coach football or succeed in leadership positions? Will it mean that the chances will be fewer and even farther between for black coaches? I hope that isn't the message.

I hope the message is that black men, just like their white counterparts, deserve at the very least to have opportunities to be head coaches. Buzz Preston, the running backs coach at Notre Dame, says, "We aren't asking for special treatment. We just want the chance to fail."

The chance to fail. That's all. A chance like John Mackovic had at Arizona, like Mike Stoops is getting at Arizona. A chance like Rick Neuhesiel, college footballs' version of Pigpen, will surely get because some gullible A.D. will welcome him back to the game.

I hope this is the beginning of the end of racial barriers. But even though the SEC has finally joined the rest of the sports community in terms of progressive thinking, "it" still exists. "It" is that cold, southern cackle calling you "boy." Or the frosty stare that lets you know you aren't welcome.

Croom will hear plenty of cackles and see plenty of stares in Starkville.

But I still have hope. I am reminded that I have rarely experienced ignorance inside the world of sports. Of all the things I miss about my experience as a professional athlete, that's the one I miss most of all. People are right when they think the athletic world is superior to the so-called real world on matters of race. White guys and black guys are teammates. They may not all love one another or even like one another, but no one fears anyone else. Proximity takes away fear, and all that's left is the playing of the game.

I hope that's what happens in Starkville next season. I hope a place that hates change can learn not to resist it.

I hope they just play the game.

Alan Grant is a former NFL defensive back and the author of "Return to Glory: Inside Tyrone Willingham's Amazing First Season at Notre Dame"