|Miss. St.'s Croom speaks beyond wins and losses in building program|
|Written by Admin|
|Tuesday, 28 August 2007 10:37|
Sylvester Croom found this out at SEC media days when the first question he faced was not about his quarterback or his defense, but about the likelihood he'll last another season at Mississippi State.
Welcome to the post-Mike Shula era in the SEC, where the clock starts ticking early in a coach's tenure. Shula lasted just three years and was ousted in part because of an embarrassing loss to Croom's Bulldogs.
The first black football coach in the SEC, Croom is 9-25 since arriving in 2004. Fans began to show impatience last season - the sixth straight year in Starkville with three wins or less.
After the Bulldogs lost to Tulane - allowing the Green Wave to snap an eight-game losing streak at Mississippi State - one prankster left a ``for sale'' sign in the coach's yard while he slept.
Croom gamely stays on topic when his progress is questioned, noting the improvement in talent and character at the school. He inherited a team on probation for multiple NCAA violations under former coach Jackie Sherrill and has had trouble luring top talent.
``This is the first time I've ever been comfortable since I've been here, because it has not been a comfortable or enjoyable experience,'' Croom said. ``I knew that when I came. I knew what I was getting into when I came here.''
Perhaps it says how far society has come that Croom can be reviled by fans as merely a football coach, and not as a black football coach.
Starkville sits in what arguably was the nation's most proudly segregated state during the civil rights era. Its history is dark, the flag still adorned with the Confederate emblem and racially motivated killers of decades past still being brought to trial.
Yet Croom, who grew up in violently segregated Birmingham, Ala., during the 1950s and '60s, said he has never received a single piece of hate mail that mentions his race. In fact, he rarely thinks of his career or success in the context of skin color.
``People know the situation we're in and where we started, and what we're trying to do, where we're trying to go and how we're going about trying to get there, and I've had nothing but positive support,'' Croom said. ``You've got criticism of course. That's gonna come with the territory. But not along racial lines.''
Athletic director Larry Templeton said twice in Croom's three seasons he's gotten hateful reactions to Croom's presence. Mike Nemeth, the school's associate athletic director for media relations, said he's only seen one negative reference to Croom's race.
``The people that complain are not complaining that he's a minority coach,'' Templeton said. ``They're complaining because he's only won three games a year. And they're very strong about that, and I accept their criticism.''
Croom said he has put little to no thought into his role as the first black coach in the SEC.
``Maybe when I get old and I'm on my death bed, it might be a big deal to me and I'll think about that,'' he said. ``But right now I'm excited to have a chance to coach in a place where I'm comfortable, where my philosophy is accepted, where I feel like I'm at home.''
That doesn't mean Croom can ignore the role that race plays in Mississippi. When he drives around the state on recruiting trips, he is often struck by the extreme poverty that infects the black community, especially in rural areas. He says that what he sees can be shocking, especially when compared to the big dollars the SEC earns for its members.
``People have no idea what some of our kids have to deal with,'' Croom said. ``We've got kids on our football team who, when they get their Pell Grant, when they get their scholarship money, that money's sent home. It's tough because as a head coach you sit there and watch and NCAA rules don't allow you (to help).''
While Croom can't help financially, he can offer stability and guidance. Titus Brown, an all-SEC defensive end from Tuscaloosa, Ala., said Croom is a father figure to many of the players. And many are personally invested in the coach's success.
Brown said Croom takes the blame for the team's failures, but he shouldn't be the focal point of fans' ire.
``Your coach is the person who draws up the Xs and Os, but your players have got to execute the plays,'' Brown said. ``I don't think any play is designed to fail. So if your players go out there and execute a play, you can't fail.''
Templeton admitted he would have liked to have seen more wins in Croom's first three years, but he's ``tickled to death'' with the way the coach has been building the program.
Croom believes the Bulldogs are at a point where they can compete in the SEC. And if that doesn't happen, Croom said he'll have no regrets.
``I've got great confidence in the people of this state and particularly Mississippi State people,'' he said. ``I identify with this group. (This is) the people's university where, if you want to have an opportunity, you get an opportunity.''