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April 26, 2004

Sylvester Croom: Right Man, Right Time, Right Place

FROM A FEATURE STORY IN SPORTS ILLUSTRATED comes an in-depth profile of Sylvester Croom--a man, a coach and--only peripherally--a black man.

Although history was certainly made with Croom’s appointment as the first-ever black coach in the SEC four months ago, the modest and self-effacing Croom would be the first to acknowledge that the real advances were made in Little Rock, Montgomery, and Selma.

The superbly written feature, by SI’s Rick Bragg, weaves a consistent theme throughout: that Mississippi State “hired a coach, not a color.”

That the 49 year old Croom has paid his dues, or that he is an exemplary leader, are not in dispute. His impressive NFL experience, his wisdom and his studied demeanor are there for all to see.

Like a latter day Jackie Robinson, Croom possesses great gobs of measured reserve, unflashy courage, malice toward none and the ability to speak volumes with not a lot of words.

And like Robinson before him, Croom’s credentials made him a candidate beyond question, a candidate too deserving to ignore.

Croom is an Alabama native, and it might have been fitting had he been selected for the recently vacated Crimson Tide post. Alas, it was not to be, and now Mississippi State’s gain is Alabama’s loss.

Croom played at Alabama in 1971 for the legendary Bear Bryant, only the second year that blacks were allowed on the team. In 1974, he was made team captain.

Croom’s father, the Reverend Sylvester Croom Sr., a larger-than-life player for all-black Alabama A&M; at 6-4, 290, had a profound effect on his young namesake. Among the Reverend’s gems: “You can’t keep a good man down, and you can’t keep a bad man up.”

So here now is Sylvester Croom, only the fifth black coach of the 117 Division I-A teams. And in the Deep South no less.

Progress? Undeniably.

But many observers point to a long road ahead, citing that blacks comprise 30%+ of college players but only a paltry 4.3% of Division I-A coaches.

Meanwhile, Coach Croom will succeed or fail because of who he is as a man and coach.

And that’s just the way it should be, black or white.

(this 366 word excerpt—with commentary—was drawn from a several thousand word feature article in the 4-19-04 issue of Sports Illustrated)