An impossible dream becomes reality

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- They handed out T-shirts, 50,000 of them, Saturday as the ticketholders passed through the gates of Scott Field. On the front, it says "Maroon Is All That Matters."

Maybe Sunday. Maybe every day after that in the Sylvester Croom era at Mississippi State, which began with a 28-7 victory over Tulane before 52,114 fans. But not on Saturday, the day that Croom became the first African-American to coach a Southeastern Conference football game.

Try telling that to a man like Jerry Devine, 65 and retired after coming to work on this campus in 1955. Devine, an African-American, worked as a chef in the football dorm for years.

"I'm very proud of him being here," Devine said of Croom. "I think it means a lot to the school. It means a whole lot to the whole country. I really do think that."

Try telling it to Robert Bell, who enrolled at Mississippi State in 1969 and became the first black football player a year later.

"Man, I wish I could be where you are," Bell said Saturday from Houston, where he works as a vibration analyst at an oil refinery. "Hey, man, my heart is going to be pounding right there with (Croom) and hoping he does well."

Try telling it to Woody McCorvey, Croom's African-American offensive coordinator.

"Before the game, I reflected on a lot of things," McCorvey said. "I was glad that I was here to be a part of it. It's something special. It's something that I will always take with me."

Try telling it to the four generations of Crooms who looked on Saturday, from matriarch Louise, to Croom's daughter Jennifer Bates and her 20-month-old daughter, Ryan. Louise Croom, 74, isn't speaking publicly, but the younger of her two sons, Kelvin, spoke for the family Friday.

"I've had people black and white crying because this is something they got to see in their lifetime," Kelvin says. "It's bigger than football."

After the game, Sly Croom didn't address the significance of the day until he was asked.

"Throughout the course of the day, and even on the bus, I thought, 'Twenty-eight years working toward this day, and now it's here,' " the 49-year-old Croom said. "A dream, that was an impossible dream at one time, was a reality."

Dec. 4, at the press conference where Mississippi State introduced him, Croom set the tone for his approach to his place in history.

"I am the first African-American coach in the SEC," Croom says, "but there ain't but one color that matters here, and that color is maroon."

That line not only spawned a T-shirt, but it also began a love affair between Croom and the Mississippi State fans that continued over the past nine months, as Croom spoke to 38 Bulldog Clubs throughout the state and region.

Robbie Coblentz, who is producing a documentary on Croom for Mississippi Public Broadcasting, videotaped the coach Monday night during Dawgstalk, his statewide radio call-in show.

"He could run for governor of Mississippi right now and win in a landslide," Coblentz says.

The ardor reached a cowbell crescendo Saturday, as the fans rang their renowned noisemakers with abandon. On a damp, muggy summer evening, no one wilted. But let's face it -- not even Hurricane Frances could have dampened the spirit in the stadium.

"Our ticket lady (assistant athletic director Pat Wallace) told me this week, 'I have never seen it like it has been the last two weeks. People that don't even know where the stadium is are all of a sudden going crazy,' " athletic director Larry Templeton said Friday night.

They all came, from Jerry Devine's wife Zela -- who "don't like football, but she's here today," he said -- to SEC commissioner Mike Slive and his top assistant, Mark Womack, the sophomore quarterback on the Tuscaloosa High team that Croom, a tight end and linebacker, captained in 1970.

"He was the team captain, the best player on the team," Womack says. "He worked harder than anybody else, he was on time -- all the things that he's trying to do here."

Templeton, 58, was born across the street from Scott Field. He hangs onto childhood memories of watching Bulldog games from inside the scoreboard with his dad, the campus electrical foreman. Templeton hasn't missed a Bulldog game since the 1963 Liberty Bowl.

He had graduated from the university before he saw a black player wear maroon and white.

"I still believe we hired the best available head coach that was out there," Templeton said. "The guy is going to be successful. Along the way, he just happened to be a minority."

That has been Templeton's story, and he has stuck to it through months of interviews. For a man who had the foresight to hire Croom, Templeton admitted to a lack of vision in how the story would play.

"We both thought it would die down," Templeton said, meaning himself and Croom. Later on, he added, "I think it's an even bigger deal for the state of Mississippi [than for the university]. The nation has had a different perception of our state for many years. In nine months, Sylvester Croom has changed that perception and what people thought of this state."

What people thought of Mississippi, on the other hand, is why Croom's story had legs long after the locals got tired of hearing that their coach was another color besides maroon. It is a reminder that the nation still views the Magnolia State with a jaundiced eye.

History has been a 21-point favorite over Mississippi for years now. The state is proud of its past, and defensive at the same time. A sign in front of the First Baptist Church of Starkville, across the street from city hall, says that the church was founded in 1839 "by 13 original members, one a slave."

Only recently has the state begun to market its stormy civil rights past to the nation through tours and historical brochures. Green is all that matters, too.

Bell, the Bulldogs' first black player, says he has more good memories than bad of his college years. He played defensive tackle for the Bulldogs from 1970-72, and graduated in 1973 with a degree in business administration.

"I had some conflicts with some of the coaches," Bell said. "... There were some trying times. I've kept things to myself. I haven't really talked about the bad times. I kind of buried them and let them lay."

Bell believes he must have lined up against Croom, who played center at Alabama from 1972-74. The Bulldog fans love Croom, Alabama roots and all. Croom choked up at the Starkville Quarterback Club this week as he read a poem, entitled "This Is a Coach," that Paul "Bear" Bryant had given him.

Croom's relationship with the legendary coach was one of many reasons he seemed like an obvious successor to Mike Price at Alabama last year. The university hired Mike Shula instead.

"You've got a young man who grew up in Tuscaloosa, went to high school behind the university, played there, made All-America, got his master's there, coached with Coach Bryant, goes to the pros. What more could you want?" asked his brother Kelvin. "Then you have to understand he didn't fit the bill of whoever made the decision. It's over. He's where he's wanted."

Kelvin spoke Friday afternoon sitting in his office as vice-principal at Paul W. Bryant High, a 2-year-old high school in Tuscaloosa. In the front lobby, and in the office, there are large portraits of Bryant.

Kelvin, like his brother, played for the Bear. Kelvin's office is filled with books and photos of Bryant. An Alabama bobblehead and two elephants sit on his desk (the high school's nickname is the Stampede). On the credenza behind his chair is a Mississippi State cowbell.

"Some things we'll never know," Kelvin said. "Race is the perception, but it was probably more political than that. All I've heard is a lot of support for Sylvester: 'How could we let one of our own get away?' The Alabama people have been very supportive. I think there were some politics involved."

In retrospect, Sly Croom's candidacy at his alma mater brought him front and center to the attention of Mississippi State. You can make the case that Alabama's courtship of Croom advanced the cause. Slive, who made the hiring of minority coaches a priority when he became commissioner on July 1, 2002, adroitly dismissed the notion.

"I knew that the challenge was still ahead of us," Slive says.

Templeton says he slaps himself as a reminder that Croom has never been a head coach. McCorvey marvels at how organized and tireless Croom is. The Bulldogs, 2-10 last season, committed no turnovers and only three penalties. Those are the signs of a well-coached team.

"I've said all along, it's not about me," Croom said after the game. "I understand the historical significance of my hiring. The game is about the players. I didn't get into this to break any kind of barrier or make some kind of history."

He did that, probably in more ways than he realizes. Slive has a favorite one.

"The next time a minority coach is hired in the SEC," Slive says, "the best thing of all is it won't be a story."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.