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Published: Saturday, 12/13/2003

Big gain for Mississippi State

BY ROSE RUSSELL

Sylvester Croom didn t want to make much of the fact that he s the first African-American to become a head football coach in the Southeastern Conference.

Some events, however, simply demand observation, including his appointment at Mississippi State University. Even Croom knows that, and as much as he didn t want to dwell on it, he had an interesting comment.

“I am the first African-American coach in the SEC, but there ain t but one color that matters here and that color is maroon,” he said about the university s color after he was named MSU s head coach.

This is a good thing. After all, MSU and other SEC schools have had black football players for some time now. It s high time a school in the Southeastern Conference hires a head coach who is African-American. Croom, as a matter of fact, was among the first black football players for his alma mater, the University of Alabama.

The native of the Deep South knows firsthand what his position means: that even in the southernmost sections of this nation, a region still plagued with racial issues, old habits and attitudes can give way to civility and fairness.

As a youngster, Croom imagined playing for Alabama when there were no black players on the team. But in time, that would change.

“Things do change. And that s what my dad always told me,” he said of his father, Sylvester Croom, Sr., a Huntsville preacher who played football for Alabama A&M. “If you try to do things the right way and put your faith in God they will change.”

And they have, finally. But how much they have changed will be determined by responses to him as a coach. My hunch, and hope, is that he ll be a great one.

Croom, 49, comes across as a humble man and not one who is self-absorbed, arrogant, or malevolent. He recognizes that his achievements are not solely his own.

“I am in a lot of ways the recipient of the sacrifices that other people made. I realize that it s not my doing. I m just the one that s reaping the benefits,” he said.

The former NFL assistant coach, most recently with the Green Bay Packers, graciously passed up taking a jab at Alabama, his alma mater, which hired another former Alabama player, Mike Shula, as head football coach earlier this year.

When Croom wasn t hired for the post at Alabama, the SEC s hiring practices were scrutinized.

Yet Alabama s loss is Mississippi State s gain.

“We went after the best football coach and we re confident we found that individual in Sylvester Croom,” Mississippi State s athletic director, Larry Templeton, said.

Mr. Templeton tapped the talented coach that the late and legendary Alabama coach Paul Bryant recognized a few decades ago when Croom played for Bryant.

Bryant was a significant factor in Croom s choice of a coaching career. Figuring that he would become a teacher, like his mother, Croom sought out Bryant for his advice about graduate school. As the young player was en route to make an appointment to see the famous coach, he passed by him.

“Croom,” Bryant stopped to say, “if things don t work out for you in the pros, I want you to come work for us.”

That didn t happen, but surely, the coach they called “Bear” would be pleased.



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