It's about character, not color

Standing in the home of Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton two weeks ago, Sandra Tinner was holding her son Samson in her arms when the 2-year-old dropped his sippy cup, spilling water all over the hardwood floor.

Before she could put Samson down, a graying man in his forties grabbed some paper towels, climbed down on his hands and knees and blotted the mess until it was dry.

It was Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State's football coach.

"I was like, 'No, no, I got it, Coach. I can do it," said Tinner, who was in Starkville with her son Fred Aikens on a recruiting visit. "But he washed the water right off the floor all nonchalant. That stuck with me."

There is little correlation between squeaky-clean floors and SEC championships. But connect with a few parents and work until you can barley stand anymore and you'll get some players. Get some players and you'll get some victories. And maybe, along the way, you can touch some people. That's what Sylvester Croom, who two months ago made history by becoming the first African-American head coach in the SEC football conference, spent the last two months trying to do.

"I remember that," Croom said of his Mr. Mom impersonation. "It was just a reaction. You know, one day I'm the assistant coach of the Green Bay Packers and the next day, I'm the head coach at Mississippi State. But people forget -- I'm still the same Sylvester Croom, my momma's oldest. That's not going to change."

The 21 recruits that signed National Letters of Intent to play for Mississippi State on Wednesday weren't a group that would make national headlines. Of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger's Top 40 recruits in the state of Mississippi only five picked the Bulldogs, but none of its Top 10. Cross-state rival Ole Miss signed five of the Top 10.

But the past few months haven't been about who signed and who didn't. It had nothing to do with impressing the recruiting gurus. Instead, it was about pouring a foundation for the future. About shaking hands, kissing babies, meeting parents and building relationships. In the South, in one of the last areas of the country to integrate its school system, to treat blacks as equal to whites, Croom sat on living room couches, ate chicken dinners and convinced some of high school football's finest to play for him.

He did so not by insisting he was a barrier breaker, by urging kids to come on board and join history, but by talking about education. The NFL. And about becoming a contributing member of society.

It's something that every coach says. But because of his background, because he was one of the first African-Americans to play at the University of Alabama, because his Tuscaloosa high school was one of the first to be integrated, Croom's word carried weight.

"I don't want to have players come to State, play for our university, play for me for four or five years and then they can't provide for themselves or their family," Croom said. "That's an embarrassment.

"As much as I want to win a championship, I just will not accept the fact that they cannot take care of themselves and their families. Their education is not one of those things that just affect them. It affects their children, their grandchildren. Somewhere along the line, the cycle of not functioning in society has to be broken. I'm not going to change the world. But if I can have some sort of an effect on the players we're involved with at State, that's a start."

When he took the job back in December, leaving 17 years as an NFL assistant and his job as Packers running backs coach behind, one of the deciding factors, Croom said, was his ability to influence young adults during their most socially formative years. The prevalence of single-parent homes, especially in the African-American community, he said, is troubling to him.

"So many young people have no guidance, bottom line," he said. "And that's part of the reason I'm here now. You can get that immediate response that you're making a difference."

Anthony Littlejohn, a highly regarded linebacker from Jacksonville, Fla., didn't realize that Croom was the first African-American coach in the SEC. But it wouldn't have mattered anyway. The moment he first spoke with the Bulldogs' head coach, he sensed Croom was a role model.

"As a young African-American, I can look at him and say, 'Look, if he can become a head coach, if he can achieve his dreams, I can do the same,' " Littlejohn said. "He's a guy who doesn't sugar coat things. He tells you it like it is. You fight for guys like that."

The last time Croom went through the recruiting wringer was nearly 20 years ago, as an assistant to Ray Perkins at Alabama. Back then, he was the middle man. This time, he was the man. Until the Packers playoff loss to the Eagles on Jan. 11, he kept busy by coaching the Pack, hiring his staff at Mississippi State and hitting the recruiting trail. The main question he had to answer was not about his heritage, but the effect of pending NCAA rules violations that allegedly occurred under former coach Jackie Sherrill's regime.

"That blank canvas out there allows the opposition to create whatever picture they want to create," Croom said. "It created a fear of the unknown for several players."

Back on Dec. 2., when Mississippi State president Dr. J. Charles Lee introduced his new head coach, Croom downplayed the social significance of becoming the SEC's first black head coach, saying, "The only color that matters to me is maroon." Throughout the recruiting process, some of his players in his incoming class and their families agreed, saying they were uninterested in the color of Croom's skin. Others said that the fact Croom is African-American played a part in their decision to choose Mississippi State over other schools.

"When you're having problems, when you have things going on at home or you're struggling in class or people are giving you a hard time, he'll understand," said DeMario Bobo, one of the prized members of Croom's first class. "A white coach doesn't understand like a black coach would."

Back in December, shortly after Croom accepted the Mississippi State job, he and Bobo were talking on the phone when Croom asked what plans the defensive back had for Christmas. So Bobo told him: He had saved a bunch of money and was buying a new bed for his mom.

"And Coach Croom goes into this story about how he slept on the exact same bed for 35 years," Bobo said. "He actually had a way to relate."

Trenell Edwards was a four-year letterman at Mississippi State under Sherrill a decade ago and is now an assistant coach at South Panola High School, one of the state's premier prep football programs. Throughout his experiences as a player and coach, Edwards has said black players have more respect, and typically play harder, and thus better, for black position coaches.

"I was lazy sometimes and would dog it a little bit," Edwards said. "Black coaches can sense that. You feel like you're letting them down if you're not giving you're all."

Regardless of skin color, Croom impressed parents, recruits and high school coaches alike with his comfortable, laid-back ways. When Edwards showed up a few weeks ago to pick up Croom from the local airport, he was waiting at the wrong end of the airstrip.

"Coach gets off the plane and goes, 'What are you doing down there? Taking classes so you can fly us back?' " Edwards said. "I guess I expected a Jackie Sherrill-type, get off the plane with his briefcase and three-piece suit. But he was just a regular guy."

Tinner had the same reaction when Croom leaned over to clean up her son Samson's spilt water. Soon, her son Aikens would cement his decision to play for the Bulldogs.

"As the kids would say, he's on the down low," Tinner said. "He'll play with the little kids, comment on their little cowboy boots and yet he still stresses character and discipline. He's somebody young men will respect. And I know he'll be a very good influence on my son. I won't have to worry about him."

Croom downplayed any potential effect his race had on his first class.

"I don't think it had anything to do with players coming or not coming," Croom said. "It came down to the university, myself as a person and our coaching staff as people. And that's the way it should be. If your program is no good and you're not trustworthy, it doesn't matter what color your skin is -- people won't play for you."

When the final National Letter of Intent was signed Wednesday, when this utterly chaotic two-month span of Croom's life was finally behind him, he didn't head back to his hotel, climb into bed and get some rest.

Instead, he hopped on a Mississippi State jet, shaking hands and offering smiles at three pep rallies, in three cities, in six hours.

He's headed back to Green Bay this weekend, where his wife Jeri has anxiously waited since her husband left Green Bay just under a month ago. There are houses to buy. Moving boxes to pack. And bathrooms to decorate.

But don't count on Croom for much of it. He has his sights set on other goals: Like winning football games. And influencing the lives of young men.

"Every time you talk to him, it's the same thing over and over again," said Patricia Bobo, DeMario's mother. "Producing winning people. And unlike a lot of people, he actually means it. I can't wait to see what he's going to accomplish."

Wayne Drehs, a staff writer for ESPN.com, can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com