DESTIN — His voice is a deep, rich baritone. He doesn’t have to yell or scream to get his point across. There is such power in Sylvester Croom’s words that even when he speaks in tones that are barely audible, you feel the strength. You listen to him and think to yourself that if you could hear the voice of God, this is what it would sound like.
There is character in that voice. Something in the way he articulates, speaking slowly and deliberately without wasting a single word, helps you to understand how he’s changed the football culture of Mississippi State University. The reputation in Starkville was that of a rogue program when Croom took over after Jackie Sherrill left the program in 2003 in disgrace and under NCAA sanctions. Even though no smoking gun was ever found that could directly link Sherrill to wrongdoing, there was this perception that Mississippi State or any program he had ever been associated with was living outside the law.
When Croom took over, the Mississippi State program was at the bottom of the barrel, in desperate need of a total makeover starting with the image. After four seasons of never-ending sweat and hard work, Croom, the Southeastern Conference’s first African-American head football coach, has done a complete reversal of image.
There are those that would say what he’s done is nothing short of a miracle. Sylvester Croom would disagree. He thinks what he has done is nothing more than having a plan in place and the people who are willing to execute it without cutting any corners.
“We have had a plan from day one and we don’t feel like there was any more luck involved than what you have to have to have a good program in place in this conference,” said Croom last week at the SEC Spring Meetings at the Sandestin Hilton.
Everybody has a plan. Not everybody has the character to stick with a plan even when things aren’t going so well, however. Through his first three years on the job, Croom was 9-25 and more than a few critics had him on the coaching hot seat. All that changed with an 8-5 record in 2007 that included a 10-3 Liberty Bowl win over Central Florida.
That win validated Croom and his character-first approach to Mississippi State football. It made all the sweat and sacrifice of those first three years worth it and it gave him and his staff the strength and motivation to continue on that same path.
“We’ve come a long way,” he said. “Our talent has improved. Our facilities have improved significantly. We’ve changed who we are. We’ve changed the culture of the program. We felt like we had to do that if we were going to attract the kind of players we want in our program.”
Knowing what he had to do and then having the guts to stick with it through the tough times says plenty about Croom, a former All-American center who played for Bear Bryant at Alabama in the 1970s. During his first three seasons when Mississippi State was losing a lot of football games, he avoided the temptation to go the juco route for the quick fix.
Perhaps he could have won a few more games if he had signed jucos instead of going through the growing pains with underclassman-dominated teams but in the long haul, it wouldn’t have given his program the strong and solid foundation he knew it has to have if it is to compete year in and year out in the SEC.
He also believed that when you recruit high school kids, you have a much better chance of shaping them athletically, academically and socially.
“My philosophy is that you have to establish an identity of who you want to be and not deviate from that and we’ve done that,” he said. “We want to be a program that is built around the intangible qualities of discipline, hard work, a commitment to excellence on and off the field but especially in the classroom.
“It’s part of who we want to be. It’s the expectation level of what we want to do. There is a certain way that we want to do things and we have established that our culture has changed and players know that before they come. What we expect as far as how they conduct themselves on the field, off the field and in the classroom, that’s a part of wearing the jersey now. They know beforehand that if they come to Mississippi State this is the expectation level and if it’s otherwise you probably should look elsewhere.
When Jackie Sherrill was coaching Mississippi State, the team GPA was rock bottom and graduation rates were among the lowest in the Southeastern Conference. There were far too many juco transfers and too many of them had been problem kids whether academically or socially in their high school days. Now, nearly every coach in the country recruits jucos, but that’s usually one or two a year to fill a specific need. When you go with the wholesale juco approach, there are plenty of risks involved, not to mention it creates voids in the program, particularly in the area of leadership.
Croom still recruits jucos, but only if a juco is the best player available. The bulk of his recruiting classes are high school kids that are going to be in his program for four or five years.
“We’re attracting a different kind of athlete,” he said. “Six of the semesters we’ve been there our GPA has improved until finally this spring it was the highest we’ve ever had. We had 32 kids over a 3.0 for the spring. I think it’s over 20 for the entire year that have better than a 3.0 GPA.”
Croom believes there is a correlation between winning and better effort in the classroom and improved off-the-field conduct. Where the impact is felt almost instantly is in recruiting where he suddenly can attract the attention of better and more talented athletes.
“That’s the direction we want to move in,” he said. “We have to elevate our talent level. We’ve got to get faster. We’ve got to get stronger. In every area we want to improve. We want to improve our GPA and our conduct on and off the field and the overall quality of our program. I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”
Croom’s philosophies and personal character were shaped by two men, one a rough and tumble football coach that never gets enough credit for turning boys into men and the other his dad, a football player turned Baptist preacher.
The coach was Paul “Bear” Bryant, an Alabama legend even before he heard “mama calling” and left Texas A&M to return to Tuscaloosa as the head coach in 1959. Bryant’s teams were lily-white until the early 1970s when Sylvester Croom helped break the color barrier. Croom became an All-American, helping Alabama to three SEC championships and the 1973 national title.
His dad, Sylvester Croom, Sr., was a small college All-American at Alabama A&M. A Baptist preacher in Tuscaloosa, Bryant and Sylvester Sr. became the closest of friends and Sylvester Sr. became the Alabama team chaplain. Those two men probably did more to break down racial barriers in the state of Alabama than any two men in history.
Bryant and Sylvester Croom, Sr. never saw themselves as pioneers but they did believe that character counted. The lessons learned from these two men continue to shape and mold Sylvester Croom as he builds the Mississippi State football program.
“There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about them,” he said. “My dad and coach Bryant have shaped everything and every decision that I make. There is something that one of them said or one of them have done in my life that affects almost every decision that I have made.
“I have been very fortunate to have had two men that had such a huge, huge imprint on my life. In a lot of ways when I seek out advice even though I can’t physically go to them my mind and spirit goes back and I do have conversations with them. What would they do? Or something will come to me and say this is what you should do and this is what you should think about before you make any decision.”
As he approaches for a 2008 season that will be a challenge — because he’s led Mississippi State to a bowl game, the bar of expectations has been raised considerably — he knows he will need to rely even more on the lessons learned from the two powerful men that have shaped his life.
“From my dad, the thing I took from his is my Christian faith which says that I should always put God first and try to please him,” he said. “From Coach Bryant, it’s mental toughness of getting the job done and getting it done the right way.”
The legacy of Paul Bryant and Sylvester Croom, Sr. lives on, a torch carried by a man with a big smile, a crushing handshake and a voice that could be the voice of God. From up in heaven, you have to know that one old football coach and one old Baptist preacher are smiling when they see what’s going on at Mississippi State.