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July 18, 2004

The Jackie Robinson Of The SEC

FROM THE LONG AND ARDUOUS LINE STRETCHING FROM ABE LINCOLN TO MONTGOMERY TO LITTLE ROCK TO THE BROOKLYN DODGERS TO THUROGOOD MARSHALL comes the impending rookie season of a head football coach with all the eyes of the South upon him.

New Mississippi State Head Coach Sylvester Croom, 49, a preacher’s son, star player at Alabama under Bear Bryant, and the first-ever African-American to coach a Southeastern Conference football team, will soon start his first season as coach.

There has been some second guessing why his home state school had not already snagged Croom, a native Alabaman with deep roots to the state.

The Alabama program has not fared well since the departure of the legendary Bear Bryant. There have been seven coaches, and several have crashed and burned disgracefully: Mike DuBose earned NCAA probation, Dennis Franchione bolted for Texas, and Mike Price’s room service peccadillo made national headlines.

After Price’s ignominious exit, it seemed that the Alabama search committee could have made a football-sound—and hugely symbolic—decision. They could have selected Sylvester Croom as head coach.

Croom as Alabama coach would have made sense. He was one of the first African-Americans to play at Alabama (under the legendary Bear Bryant). After achieving All American honors as a player, Croom spent ten years as an assistant under Bryant.

From Alabama he moved on to NFL assistant coaching positions for almost two decades (Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, San Diego and Detroit) where his exemplary communications and leadership skills created a lasting impression on many. Not to mention his soft-spoken, never-frenzied demeanor.

By all accounts, this is a man possessing all the qualifications necessary to succeed at coaching Division I-A football.

However, he has endured—and will continue to endure—ongoing challenges that have nothing to do with his football skills. Like it or not, Coach Croom is living in an SEC version of the breakthrough Jackie Robinson-Branch Rickey episode.
Similar to his coaching abilities, Coach Croom is expected to acquit himself with dignity and aplomb no matter what comes his way.

No help is that Croom is taking over a surpassingly awful program at Mississippi State. The team has posted a pathetic 8-27 record over the past three seasons, including only three versus SEC opponents. Croom dismissed the best player—Nick Turner—after he demonstrated dismal academic and athletic work habits and pleaded guilty to passing counterfeit money.

Many onlookers will demand an immediate turnaround, but that is not likely to happen.

Mississippi has a turbulent civil rights history. Although the state has come a long way, there is still plenty of progress to be made. For example, only about 25 of the 800 Mississippi State professors are black. There has never been a black dean or vice president.

The passing over of Croom for the Alabama position has embittered many in neighboring Alabama. To Croom supporters, the selection of Mike Shula as the Crimson Tide coach--with no college coaching experience, and ranking 27th as Buccaneers offensive coordinator--was a poor decision.

“Mississippi State embarrassed Alabama,” said Charles Steele, a Mississippi state senator, “They did the right thing. That’s all we wanted Alabama to do was the right thing.”

John Mitchell, Croom’s Alabama teammate, and now a Pittsburgh Steelers assistant coach, said, “I think the leadership there (Alabama) has gone backward. If Coach Bryant were alive, an African-American would have had that job a long time ago.”

Mississippi State’s gain is Alabama’s loss.

(this 567 word excerpt—with attendant commentary—was distilled from a 2735 word article in the New York Times of 7-18-04)