Croom walking pioneer's path at Mississippi State

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- On an otherwise idyllic fall Saturday in the South, a sad finality set in on Mississippi State offensive tackle Brian Anderson. He would conclude his college football career without the one pleasure every player dreams of: a bowl bid.

The Bulldogs dropped their seventh game of the season, an error-ridden 34-31 defeat to Kentucky. It clinched State's sixth straight losing season, the school's longest such streak since 1964-69. Speaking between sighs and pauses, the dejection and frustration cultivated by four years of losing was audible in Anderson's voice.

"It wasn't a good feeling in there," he said of the postgame locker room.

But Anderson's voice gained conviction when asked about his coach, Sylvester Croom. A young man who was not recruited by Croom and who has experienced precious little football glory in three years of playing for him is willing to pancake every Croom critic.

"Anybody who criticizes him, I don't have much for 'em," Anderson said. "I'm behind him 100 percent.

"If every man is as good a guy as he is, as good a person and as good a man, we wouldn't have as much stuff going on in the world today. If anybody needs a role model, he's it. I'm sorry he has to take all the heat and stuff for the losses."

With every loss, the heat is turned up on the first African-American coach in Southeastern Conference history. There have been 23 defeats for Croom at Mississippi State, and just eight victories. There have been a couple of heartening victories -- over No. 20 Florida in 2004 and a rout of bitter rival Mississippi in '05 -- but there also have been losses to Division I-AA Maine in '04 and Tulane last month. And now there are consecutive defeats against fellow SEC weak sister Kentucky.

Croom might be the most impressive coach in America off the field -- he's eloquent, witty, self-assured and personable. But in a league where patience is in preciously short supply, an 8-23 record is enough to make any coach uncomfortable and any fan base irritable.

But Anderson is not alone in his passionate support for Croom. In the halls of power at Mississippi State, the school is standing by its man.

"I was convinced when we hired him that he was the right guy," athletic director Larry Templeton said. "I'm as convinced today that this was the right decision."

"He's my man," said the school's new president, Robert "Doc" Foglesong, who ran sprints in the summer with some of the football players. "This is as serious as a heart attack: I'm into winning. I never thought I learned a lot from losing. But I'm also into character.

"Sylvester took over a program in a lot of disrepair, that brought disrepute to the university. I'm going to give him time to repair that."

As observers nationwide monitor the progress of the Croom Era, those words should resonate.

The cultural collision of race relations and college football in the South carries an immense impact -- one being the region's greatest historical shame and the other being one of its greatest points of pride. Passions are inflamed regarding both.

Given the fact that the dominant conference in a region with a tragic racial history was slow to hire its first black football coach, the logical question was this: How quick would it be to fire one?

Not very, if State's decision makers remain resolute.

This was a hard job when Croom accepted it three years ago. It's every bit as hard today. But at least he can continue walking a pioneer's path with some reassurance. He's going to get a reasonable chance to sink or swim at Mississippi State on his own merits.

Fair and balanced treatment
That was all the Rev. Sylvester Croom Sr. asked for when Alabama came to recruit his son in the early 1970s, as Bear Bryant began to integrate his program. Don't give him anything because of his color, and don't take anything away from him because of it, either.

"That's the way we lived our life," Sylvester Jr. said. "That's the way I want it now.

"I don't have to win here to prove to anybody that I can coach or any other black person can coach. Any people who think that's the case are ignorant. I'm not going to worry about people that ignorant. I'm going to let them live and die in their ignorance."

Most people think that this will play out as a referendum on a coach, and not a race. That any decisions made about Croom's future will be based on football and nothing else. Templeton said he's received just two racist letters and one racist phone call in the nearly three years since hiring Croom -- and that as near as he could ascertain, none was from a Mississippi State alum or booster.

Race is impossible to remove from the context of this situation, but it perhaps can be removed from evaluation and resolution.

"I don't think there's any black-white to this at all," said longtime Jackson Clarion-Ledger columnist Rick Cleveland, who described the fan base as "really split" on Croom. "I just think it's incredibly important that he be treated fairly. Because it was such a high-profile hire, and because of the state's past. I think he will get a fair chance."

Many factors need to be weighed in assessing what constitutes fair.

• NCAA probation. Croom inherited a program that had become a wreck under Jackie Sherrill, with scholarship reductions and a lengthy probation to overcome after significant rule-breaking occurred. And the program already had surrendered its place as an SEC West competitor by the time it went on probation.

"Part of the fan base understands just how horrible the situation was that he inherited," Cleveland said. "I mean, it was terrible. The talent level was down, the morale was down, the discipline was down."

That was the biggest reason Croom had to be talked into taking the job. He'd done his homework, and knew what kind of mess he was inheriting.

Given that, Templeton acknowledged that he and Croom had a handshake agreement for four years after the end of sanctions. The sanctions were lifted last year, and Croom says he's committed to never going back down that road -- even though some boosters want him to.

"The question is, can you build a championship program in the state of Mississippi without cheating?" Croom said. "That's the large question. A lot of people, even some of our fans, don't think we can.

"I guess I didn't realize how much that mentality -- whether we could win here by adhering to the rules -- was embedded with some people. But we know that way can't work. We know it doesn't work.

"I think the vast majority of our fans have been very supportive of that, but it has surprised me sometimes. It's almost as if some of them forgot probation happened and we're supposed to be dominating the conference already."

• Budgetary constraints. As of 2004-05 budgets, Mississippi State was last in the SEC in athletic spending at $25.5 million. That was more than $50 million behind first-place Florida.

Mississippi State has upgraded its facilities. But so has everyone else in the league. In a poor state with a relatively small population and three Division I-A football programs, there is only so much money to go around -- problems many of State's competitors don't have to deal with.

• Historic inertia. Mississippi State has never been Alabama and likely never will be. It has never been LSU and likely never will be. It has never been Auburn and likely never will be. Arkansas and even Ole Miss have won national championships, and have longer and stronger traditions.

"I don't consider myself a pioneer. I have a lot of respect for Jesse Owens, what he went through. Jackie Robinson, those guys. Dr. King, Andrew Young. You look at things some of those guys went through -- you want to talk about strong? I have often wondered, when they were alone, how they felt. "
-- Sylvester Croom

A realistic understanding of the difficulty of what Mississippi State is trying to do -- overtake perennial winners without cutting academic or compliance corners, or spending an absolute fortune on football -- is like trying to climb Everest in your socks. Croom still thinks it can be done, but he wants everyone to know that it won't be easy.

"The most stinging criticism I've had was when I said something honest and was accused of making excuses," Croom said. "That hurt. The fans have been great, except for some who don't fully understand where we are and what we need to get to where we want to be."

• Makeup of the coaching staff. There has been significant criticism of offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey, especially after the Bulldogs were shut out the first two weeks of the season and then fell behind Tulane 32-7 before rallying in vain.

Templeton said last week that he wouldn't be involved in making staff changes, and that Croom "will do the right thing" in that area. The coach said he has no intention of firing anyone and hopes the entire staff will be back in 2007.

In fact, Croom angrily made that point after the Tulane game, then launched a preemptive attack on callers to his weekly radio show who might be agitating for coaching changes. Steeped in postgame frustration, Croom said he didn't even enjoy doing the radio show and did not want to do the show.

He showed up and did the show that week, and apologized for the outburst.

"That was the worst mistake I've made since I've been here," Croom said. "And I knew it as soon as I opened my mouth. I thought, 'I am in deep.' It probably won't be the last mistake I make, but I won't make that one again."

Alone at the top

Problem is, the mistakes have kept coming on the football field for Sylvester Croom's team.

Against Kentucky, the Bulldogs jumped offside three times in the first quarter alone. In the second quarter, the Bulldogs put 10 men on the field to return a punt. In the third quarter they surrendered consecutive kickoff returns of 47 and 46 yards to facilitate short Kentucky scoring drives. And in the fourth quarter the Bulldogs burned two precious timeouts at odd times: one on a third down with seven minutes to play, down 10, the other on first-and-goal from the 1.

Those timeouts could have allowed Mississippi State a chance to tie or win at the end of the game. Croom defended calling the last one, saying that the Dogs had to replace their three-wideout personnel with the goal-line personnel. Thing is, a well-oiled team can replace multiple players without needing to stop the clock.

These are the issues that now land on Croom's desk. Dealing with that has been an adjustment.

In a decorated lifetime of football, Croom had never been the boss. He was a college assistant for 11 years and a professional assistant for 17. He could have continued down that path all the way to retirement without feeling he was missing anything.

"To make any significant change in life, you've got to get out of your comfort zone," Croom said. "And nobody wants to get out of their comfort zone. I was very, very comfortable at that stage of my life.

"I don't like change. My wife [Jeri] doesn't mind change. She changes toothpaste or changes soap, I'm out of kilter for weeks."

So you understand why accepting the challenge of being a head coach -- much less a pioneering head coach at a fixer-upper program -- was not an easy decision for Croom to make.

"The old saying is that it's lonely at the top," he said. "I've had to learn that. Quite often you don't have anybody to talk to. You're out there by yourself, with your own inner strength and faith. You call on every ounce of what you've learned over the years. You call on that to keep going.

"I don't consider myself a pioneer. I have a lot of respect for Jesse Owens, what he went through. Jackie Robinson, those guys. Dr. King, Andrew Young. You look at things some of those guys went through -- you want to talk about strong?

"I have often wondered, when they were alone, how they felt."

Croom, Bulldogs remain optimistic

Sylvester Croom is alone, walking off the field at Davis Wade Stadium. Another loss is on his record, another postgame address to a crestfallen team is his next duty.

"My worry when leaving the sideline, after some of the losses, has been, 'What am I going to say to the team?'" Croom said. "When you're the leader, nobody can do that but you. How you react has a large influence on how they react."

By that standard, Croom's reactions have been consistently strong. Even in defeat, the Bulldogs have presented weekly optimism and perseverance -- while asking for the same from their fans.

"If I could say anything to the fans, it's please be patient," quarterback Michael Henig said. "We're going in the right direction."

How long it takes to reach the right destination is the question. For now, Sylvester Croom has the time to keep working down his difficult and lonely path.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.