STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Sylvester Croom is a baaad man.
Bad in terms of 5 a.m. "detention" runs for Mississippi State players who miss class. Bad in terms of kicking off the team players who don't tow a very sudden and very strict line. Bad in terms of stopping the undisciplined, slap-ass sloppy Jackie Sherrill era dead in its tracks during the first team meeting.
"One of the kids' cell phones went off," said athletic director Larry Templeton. "Sly went over there and stood in front of him and said, 'Son, when I talk, I expect every eye in this room on my two eyes.'
"For the next 20 minutes you could hear a pin drop."
|Sylvester Croom only had eyes for Alabama until the Tide passed on him to hire Mike Shula.(AP)|
"When you found out he was the first SEC black coach, it gave you something to look forward to," he said. "Maybe you want to be the second SEC black coach."
That's why it's important to show the other side of this big bear of a man who is making history with a bit of an iron fist. Croom was sitting down for another interview about his place in the cosmos last month and got notice there was a comedian in the building.
The interview could wait. Scott Moore, who specializes in imitating SEC coaches, was speaking to a women's clinic downstairs. Moore put on a visor and became Steve Spurrier. He pulled a hat down low and mumbled like Sherrill. Pat Dye got a treatment. So did Lou Holtz and his lisp.
For the next 20 minutes, Croom belly-laughed like Burl Ives. If the world only knew this side of the man who is changing the world one Bulldog at a time. Discipline is his thing. We know that now.
The race thing has been pushed into the background. Croom confirmed this in his largest media appearance to date, blowing away reporters at the SEC media days with his candor, his resolve.
"If my color was the only reason they wanted me at Mississippi State, they need to look for another coach," Croom said. "I don't see everybody standing on Ty Willingham's doorstep at Notre Dame."
It's a small victory for equality now to say that Croom will be judged on wins and losses in Starkville. There's no room for racism after Sherrill left the program in shambles. Sherrill let both the program and discipline sink to a 2-10 basement in 2003, when the worst indictment of any coach burped forth.
It looked like his team gave up.
Mississippi State is in the mood, then, for this iron hoss. When a real, live bulldog escorted the new coach onto the floor at halftime of a basketball game this winter, only the girders kept the place standing.
When Croom tired from gripping and grinning for 4,000 alumni at a Jackson, Miss., event, Templeton tried to slip his coach in through the kitchen at Tico's for a steak in a quiet back room.
"Every cook stopped, came out and said, 'Coach, I want to shake your hand,'" Templeton said.
Still, you don't know whether to laugh or cry after asking the local reaction to Croom's hiring at one of the coach's favorite lunch spots, The Bulldog Cafe.
"I thought it was fine," Mississippi State freshman Mary Margaret said from behind the counter. "But I heard a lot of people (react) just because he's colored."
The public and press seldom see Croom's vulnerability. At times, there is that Thousand-Yard Stare of a man pulled in so many directions he doesn't know where to head next. All first-time head coaches have it.
Not many attack it this way: Croom goes home each day at 6 p.m., sleeps until 9 p.m., gets up and works until midnight, then sleeps until 3 a.m. Then it's back to the office.
The outsiders didn't see the nails-tough center, who Bear Bryant bred at 'Bama, sneak up to that new office by himself on the day he was introduced at Mississippi State.
"Now what do I do?" Croom asked himself.
They didn't see the coach show up unannounced at a health and nutrition summer class last week to make a point about class attendance. One Bulldog came in late, walked right in front of the teacher and plopped down in his seat.
About that time Croom, in the back of the class, raised his hand to ask a question.
"The player about fell out his chair," said the coach, after no doubt having claimed another detention-run candidate.
They do see him kick promising running back Nick Turner off the team because he didn't tow that line. They don't see him let Turner, who was already on probation for a previous offense, keep his scholarship through the spring because Croom believes education is everything -- especially in this state, which hasn't distinguished itself when it comes to educating its own.
"I told them, 'I want you to be selfish about your education,'" he said. "It hurts your kids, your grandkids. If you're not prepared to get a job someday, your kids are going to suffer. I think they're starting to see that now."
An impending NCAA probation has become a part of Croom's job security. His four-year contract won't start until after the probation is concluded. The NCAA Infractions Committee will announce its findings later this year. Mississippi State could get hammered in what has become a burdensome going-away "present" from Sherrill.
The spin at this point is that Alabama's mistake was Mississippi State's gain. Having playing for Bryant, Croom seemed a natural at 'Bama following the Mike Price fiasco.
Especially after Mike Shula went 4-9 in his first season. Shula then created and stumbled through the controversy when he ripped Croom's name from an Alabama spring practice award. The evidence keeps mounting. Croom has proved himself to be a better and more forceful speaker.
You're left wondering what Alabama was thinking when you hear Croom say:
"I had never intended to coach in college football anywhere but Alabama."
The two coaches meet on the field Nov. 6 in Tuscaloosa after what should be an old-fashioned, Southern-fried hype-fest that week.
"To say I haven't thought about it, that would be a lie," Croom said.
The burning question in his soul was whether Croom wanted to come back to college more than anything else. Initially, the answer was no. He had been an NFL assistant for 17 years. He loved the life. It was all football. No recruiting. No graduation rates.
He might have loved the Packers the most. The small-town atmosphere and team's philosophy appealed to him for the three years he was there as an assistant.
Croom believed that the reason teams like the Packers won was not so much talent but dedication, commitment and discipline. Same thing with 'Bama. Check the rosters of the great Crimson Tide teams, he said; not many of those players were drafted.
"I don't think you have winning habits on the field and losing habits off the field," he said. "I saw it coming into pro football. That's one reason I fell so much in love with the Green Bay Packers. That's the way it is in Green Bay. With other teams I was with, that was not the way it is."
When considering college, images of those practices at Alabama flooded back. Bear was in total control, a god in houndstooth. Linemen like Croom raced 10-20 yards downfield on every play to block a defensive back because that was the dedication required to run the wishbone.
Croom played three years for Bryant (1972-74) after having admired the great man from afar while growing up in Tuscaloosa. He came of age in a time when a black kid would have to walk miles to high school practice. One day a white teammate, Stan Bradford, motioned Croom and his friends over to his car.
That one small act of charity broke down barriers
Croom thrived on the football field while being taunted in class. Some cracker kid nailed him with a spit wad the first day of school at his almost all-white junior high school.
"You couldn't retaliate," said Croom, the son of a preacher. "There was no way. ... Regardless of what happened, you couldn't hit anybody. We knew, we were told by our parents, by teachers, 'You cannot react in a violent manner.'"
Croom, though, came along during a key time as well. 'Bama and the SEC were just beginning to be integrated. Bryant's realization of the greatness of the black athlete came after USC's Sam Cunningham ran all over his players in 1970.
Think of the elation when Croom was simply treated like any other player.
"In those days, you had to be special for Coach Bryant to come to your town --period," Croom said. "The first time I met Coach Bryant is the day I signed a scholarship. He walked up and introduced himself, 'Paul Bryant, glad to have you on our team.'"
In 1974, he was named 'Bama's captain by his teammates, most of whom were white.
Armed with that knowledge, Templeton and Mississippi State president J. Charles Lee eventually wore down their subject. When Alabama passed, they moved in with a vengeance. Templeton initially thought Croom was staying in Green Bay until he brought out the big artillery:
- Croom's mother is 65 miles away from Starkville in Tuscaloosa at any given moment waiting with a hot meal.
- His only child, Jennifer, is 4½ away in Mobile raising a brand new grandchild.
For years, the white man had said no. SEC ADs had said no. Alabama had said no. Croom couldn't say no. Not this time.
"The president and the athletic director felt I was the best coach available," Croom said. "That was important to me."
There have been a lot of firsts at Mississippi State since then. They gave Croom a microphone to address 16,000 fans before the spring game. First time that happened. Media have flooded to rural Mississippi to chronicle the hiring of a coach and what could be the reshaping of a culture, a state and a conference.
"Hopefully, this will change the image," Croom said, "to see how things are rather than how people remember back in the '60s. That image is burned into the minds of a lot of people in the country.
"That was then, this is now."