When Derek Mason was officially announced as Vanderbilt’s head football coach last Friday, my thoughts immediately drifted to Sylvester Croom.
It was just a little more than 10 years ago that Croom became the SEC’s first black head football coach when he was hired at Mississippi State on Dec. 1, 2003.
He was the perfect choice in so many different ways to break that long overdue racial barrier in the SEC, and the way he went about his business with class, integrity and unwavering resolve opened doors for minorities in the league that are getting wider all the time.
They’re still not wide enough, but they’re a hell of a lot wider than they were a decade ago.
In that span, Mason is now the fifth black man to lead his own football program in the SEC, and the fact that he is black really is nothing more than a footnote.
That’s refreshing. That’s progress. And because of the trail Croom blazed in his time at Mississippi State and the way he set that program up for success, let’s hope we see even more progress over the next 10 years.
With this being Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I caught up with Croom to get his thoughts on Mason’s hiring and the direction the SEC is taking in giving minorities more opportunities.
He’s optimistic, but he also warns there’s still a ways to go.
“The thing I’m most pleased about for Derek is that he’s just the next head coach at Vanderbilt,” said Croom, who’s now the running backs coach for the Tennessee Titans. “The uniqueness of his being African-American isn’t the story. He can just coach football, and that, to me, is the most exciting thing.
“It’s more about who he is now and not what he is. I’m glad we’ve gotten to that point in the SEC.”
Croom, the 2007 SEC Coach of the Year, does have a challenge for those in power in the league. It’s not so much the presidents and athletic directors, either, as it is the head coaches.
He wants to see more black coaches get opportunities as offensive and defensive coordinators. In the SEC, there is currently only one: South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward.
“People are always critical of athletic directors,” Croom said. “Well, athletic directors aren’t the ones who hire coordinators. Head coaches do that. What has to happen is that head coaches have to start putting African-Americans who are qualified in those positions because you’re not going to have a chance to be a head coach unless you’ve been a coordinator first.
“Again, we’re talking about guys who are qualified. Nobody’s asking for something that’s not deserved.”
While head coaches are the ones doing the hiring on their staffs, Croom does think athletic directors have a responsibility to step forward and recommend minorities who are qualified.
“And if they don’t know any, I will help them find them,” Croom said. “There are plenty of them out there.”