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Sylvester Croom Biography - Found Refuge from Racism in Football, Became Alabama Champion as Player and Coach

told team mississippi university

1954—

College football coach

Croom, Sylvester, photograph. AP/Wide World Photos. Reproduced by permission.

When Sylvester Croom Jr. became head football coach at Mississippi State University (MSU) late in 2003, the history books beckoned. Croom was the first African American tapped to lead a Southeastern Conference (SEC) school in its 71-year history. National media swooped down on the story and much was made about the progress of racial equality in the Deep South. Croom wanted none of it. In an oft-quoted statement made at his first MSU press conference, he said loudly, "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." Mississippi's school color would be Croom's focus, no matter what history had to say.

Found Refuge from Racism
in Football

Sylvester Croom was born on September 25, 1954, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the son of a schoolteacher and a preacher. Segregation and racism were the norm for he and his brother Kelvin. "When you were in your black neighborhood and your black churches, that wasn't a problem," Croom told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "When you needed to get some food, stop for gas, that's when it hit you in the face." Despite the injustices, the Croom boys kept their heads high, their anger at bay. It is what their parents Louise and Sylvester Sr. had taught them. "Our motto always was that color doesn't matter, it's the people who matter," Louise Croom told the New York Daily News. "There are bad black people, and there are bad white people." After becoming one of the first black students at Tuscaloosa Junior High, Croom joined the football team. Following a game with an all-white team, Croom was taunted and chased by an angry mob. Teachers and parents from Tuscaloosa, both black and white, surrounded Croom, ushering him to safety.

Football was always Croom's preferred refuge. He and his brother spent hours playing in the backyard and practicing slow motion plays in the living room. Louise recalled to the New York Daily News that she would tell Croom, "You don't need to play football; you might get killed." His standard reply was, "If I die playing football, I die happy." As Croom grew into a 6-foot, 230-pound offensive lineman, racial barriers around him were falling. The year he was born the Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education made segregation in public schools illegal. When he was ten, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on race in nearly all areas of public life. Yet in the South, old habits died hard, and even as Croom was integrating local Tuscaloosa schools, the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise. Once, while Croom hosted a meeting of the Tuscaloosa High Key Club at his home, a cross was set on fire not far from his front door.

Became Alabama Champion as
Player and Coach

Despite the racial turbulence, Croom stayed focused on football and dreamed of playing for Tuscaloosa's University of Alabama. The Crimson Tide was the top-ranked football program in the nation. It was also all white. The coach at the time was Paul "Bear" Bryant, and to the football-crazed masses of the Deep South, he was both a hero and a legend. After losing miserably to a California team led by a star running back who was black, Bryant decided to integrate his team in 1970. No fuss, no fight, he just did it. Croom joined the Crimson Tide when he became a freshman at Alabama in 1971.

Croom quickly distinguished himself on the gridiron. He played on three SEC championship teams and was a starting center on the 1973 national championship team. During his senior year he was named team captain and was selected a 1974 Kodak All-American player. His devotion to the game caused the Alabama athletic staff to create the Sylvester Croom Jr. Commitment to Excellence Award. It also earned him a spot with the NFL's New Orleans Saints. Just before leaving Alabama Coach Bryant stopped Croom in the hallway. Croom told The Sun Herald, "He says, 'Croom, if you don't make it in pro football, I want you to come back and coach for us.'"

Croom and his wife—high school sweetheart Jeri—moved to New Orleans with all they owned in the back of a van. They would barely have time to unpack. Croom was cut from the Saints after his first game. Back in Tuscaloosa he enrolled in the master's program for educational administration at Alabama and joined Bryant's coaching team. From 1977 to 1986 Croom coached Alabama's linebackers. During Croom's tenure the Crimson Tide won two national championships and went to ten bowl games.

Spurned by Alabama after
Stellar NFL Career

In 1987 Croom joined the NFL again, this time as running backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He held that position for three years before taking on the same role with the Indianapolis Colts. In 1992 he joined the San Diego Chargers, again as a running backs coach. He helped drive the Chargers to two conference championships and to the 1995 Super Bowl. In 1997 Croom joined the Detroit Lions as offensive coordinator. There he coached Barry Sanders as Sanders made NFL history rushing for 2,063 yards in a single season. Under Croom, the Lions were second in the league in offense. "[Croom] just got better and better," former Lions coach Bobby Ross told The Sporting News. "He conceptually had the big picture." In 2001 Croom joined the Green Bay Packers as running backs coach and by 2003 the Packers ranked number one in the NFL for rushing.

At a Glance …

Born on September 25, 1954, in Tuscaloosa, AL; married Jearline Croom; children: Jennifer. Education: University of Alabama, BS, history, 1975; University of Alabama, MA, educational administration, 1977.

Career: New Orleans Saints, center, 1975; University of Alabama, assistant coach, 1976-86; Tampa Bay Buccaneers, running backs coach, 1987-90; Indianapolis Colts, running backs coach, 1991; San Diego Chargers, running backs coach, 1992-96; Detroit Lions, offensive coordinator, 1997-2000; Green Bay Packers, running backs coach, 2001-03; Mississippi State University, head coach, 2004–.

Awards: Southeastern Conference, Jacobs Blocking Trophy, 1974; Kodak All-American, 1974.

Addresses: Office—Athletic Department, Mississippi State University, PO Box 5327, MSU, MS 39762.

In 2003, the head coaching spot at the University of Alabama became vacant. With Alabama history plus 17 years in the NFL, Croom seemed perfect for the job. It came down to him and Mike Shula, another former Alabama player. However, only Croom had collegiate coaching experience. He was also a Tuscaloosa native and a favorite for the position. When he was passed over for Shula, who was white, disappointment shrouded Alabama. "It angered more than just African-Americans," an assistant Alabama athletic director told The New York Times. "It went way, way beyond race. People had made some decisions about who would be the best person for the job." Croom gave up hopes of coaching college ball. "I was done," he told New York Daily News. "Because I thought if that was going to ever happen in this conference it would have to be a former player going back to his alma mater. That's what I thought. If you're not willing to hire a guy of color who played for you, coached for you, grew up in your hometown, then surely nobody else is going to give him a chance."

Hired as Head Coach at
Mississippi State

Another chance did come, however, when the head coach of Mississippi State University (MSU) resigned. MSU wanted Croom, but he was not so sure. Burned by the Alabama incident, he was also wary of being hired only as an enticement to black football recruits. "After our first interview, I made it very clear that if that's what the expectations were, then they needed to look for another coach," Croom told the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. He continued, "But, during that second interview, they made me feel I was the best coach available. That was important to me."

In December of 2003, Croom signed on as head coach of the MSU Bulldogs, a Division 1-A team. In doing so he became the first African-American coach in the SEC. Though his appointment brought national press to MSU, Croom dodged the spotlight. "I'm going to let everyone else focus on it," he told The Sun Herald. "I really don't have time." He continued, "I've been in that situation, where I'm 'the first,' or 'the only.' Maybe all of that was part of being preparation for this, I don't know. Right now I've got to think about a coaching staff, about these players, about the job at hand."

It was a big job. The Bulldogs had won just eight games in the previous three years. MSU was also awaiting NCAA sanctions in response to recruiting violations committed by Croom's predecessor. However Croom's most pressing problem was discipline—or lack of it. Croom wasted no time laying down ground rules. Athletic director Larry Templeton recalled Croom's first meeting with the team to the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. A few players showed up late, one let his cell phone ring, another was busy writing something down. "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." Before long Croom was checking up on his players' classroom attendance and enforcing early morning runs on players who broke rules. He dropped the team's top rusher from the roster when he refused to shape up. The players got the message real quick. "He was very blunt," a senior player told The Sporting News. "He told you what it is, and what it's going to be."

Began Slow Drive to Revive Bulldogs

Croom made his coaching debut in September of 2004 at a home game against Tulane. The Bulldogs won 28-7 in front of 50,000-plus ecstatic fans, many in t-shirts proclaiming "Maroon is all that matters." Fans left that game feeling that just maybe Croom was the salvation the beleaguered team needed. Reality set in, however, as the Bulldogs lost the next five games, including an embarrassing home loss to a lower division team. Yet, no one had expected a program as wrecked as Mississippi's to turn around in one season. "We're not looking for a quick fix," Croom told The Miami Herald. "We're building a foundation. We're trying to win games now, but how we do things now will establish things for a long time."

The following month Mississippi scored an upset victory over 20th-ranked University of Florida with a 38-31 win. "I've been in a lot of big games in my career, but this was the biggest win," Croom said in Sports Illustrated. The Bulldogs also won their next game, 22-7 over Kentucky. However, the game everyone was waiting for was Mississippi versus Alabama. "To me, it meant the culmination of a lifetime dream," Croom told The New York Times. "I stood on the same sidelines as Coach Bryant although it was the other side of the field. I'll take it any way I can get it." The players were not immune to the excitement. "Coming into the game, everybody was talking about how they wanted to win for Coach Croom," a player added. Though they rushed for a season high 225 yards, the Bulldogs lost 14-30. They also lost the last two games of the season, finishing with a 3-8 record.

Despite the losing season, MSU administration extended Croom's contract through 2008. Templeton said in an article on Mississippi's NBC 4 Web site that the contract recognized "the outstanding job that coach Croom has done in just one year." Perhaps more gratifying to Croom were the grade point averages earned by his players. In December of 2004, MSU football players posted their highest GPAs in three years. "I am pleased with the progress our players have made in the classroom," Croom told the Mississippi State University Athletics Web site. "It is obvious that they are taking pride in doing the right things on and off the field. There is a commitment on their part to becoming the complete person." That is just the sort of commitment Croom has long believed in. "My ultimate goal will involve how the players perform, in class, on the field. I know I'm going to be judged on wins and losses," he told The Sun Herald. "My yardstick, my true yardstick, is seeing these young men being successful. That's what it's all about for me."

Sources

Periodicals

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, August 3, 2004.

Miami Herald, October 23, 2004.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 22, 2004.

New York Daily News, December 8, 2003; September 5, 2004.

New York Times, July 18, 2004; November 7, 2004.

Sporting News, August 23, 2004.

Sports Illustrated, November 1, 2004.

Sun Herald (Biloxi, MS), December 2, 2003; December 30, 2003.

On-line

"Mississippi State Extends Croom," NBC 4, www.nbc4.tv/cfoot545/4003535/detail.html (December 28, 2004).

"MSU Football Team Posts Three-Year Grade-Point High," Mississippi State University Athletics, www.mstateathletics.com/0,5604,1_27_0_64826,00.html (December 28, 2004).

—Candace LaBalle

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