Croom's breakthrough season meaningful for many

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The Mississippi State locker room was dripping with emotion on Nov. 23, the kind of raw emotion that knows no boundaries.

The sun was still a few hours from setting and outside Davis Wade Stadium the long-suffering Mississippi State fans were basking in their come-from-behind 17-14 victory over bitter rival Mississippi.

Left for dead -- much like the program when Sylvester Croom took over as the SEC's first black head coach in 2004 -- the Bulldogs rallied from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to ensure their first winning season and first bowl trip since 2000.

"Those last 10 minutes changed this program forever and they changed those young men's lives forever," Croom reflected recently as he sipped on a soft drink inside his office at the Bryan Athletic Administration Building.

"Until you come back in the fourth quarter to win a football game, you don't know what kind of team you are. It's the same way in life. Until you're down and things are going against you, you don't know what kind of person you are until you face that adversity and bounce back.

"They know now that you don't quit no matter what. It might cross your mind. It's only natural that it crosses your mind. But you never quit, and that's not a football lesson. That's a life lesson."

And a lesson that was drilled into Croom's head incessantly while he played for the legendary Paul W. "Bear" Bryant at Alabama.

It's one of the myriad things that were swimming through Croom's head that Nov. 23 afternoon as he gathered his team around him for the prayer. Normally, the team chaplain led the Bulldogs in the postgame prayer. But this time, it was Croom, the son of a minister and the architect of one of college football's most heartwarming turnarounds.

"You could just feel what he was saying, and it got to all of us … the players, the coaching staff, everybody," recounted Mississippi State offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey, who's known Croom for 25 years and was hand-picked by his friend to help revive a Mississippi State program that had been rocked by NCAA sanctions and sundry other off-field issues.

Only minutes earlier, Croom had been too overcome with emotion to do the postgame television interview. He recovered to take a few laps around the field carrying the giant Mississippi State flag.

But as he started to address his team inside the locker room, he nearly lost it again.

"His speech was the most heartfelt, surreal moment in our time here, and the joy Coach Croom displayed in his tears and his words is something many will always remember," said Brad Pendergrass, Croom's coordinator of football operations. "It was a true representation of who Sylvester Croom is."

The whole scene also tugged at the heart of outgoing Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton, the man who had the guts to hire Croom and stood staunchly behind him during the lean times those first three years, when the Bulldogs never won more than three games and lost to the likes of Maine, Tulane, UAB and Houston.

"He gave me the game ball and asked me to say something," Templeton said. "Hell, I got so choked up that I couldn't say anything. Here the two of us were, standing in front of the kids. When Coach teared up, all the kids teared up.

"It was one of those special moments. It was more than just a football game."

Likewise, this is more than just a bowl trip.

It's only fitting that Croom's breakthrough into the postseason as the Bulldogs' coach will come Saturday in the Liberty Bowl, 25 years to the date after Bryant coached his last game in the very same bowl and died at age 69 less than a month later. That historic 21-15 victory over Illinois in the 1982 Liberty Bowl still resonates with Croom.

He was on the sideline for that game as one of Bryant's assistant coaches and was an All-America center under Bryant a decade earlier, when he was also one of the first five black players at Alabama when Bryant began integrating the program in the early 1970s.

To this day, two men continue to have a profound impact on the way Croom lives his life and the way he coaches and molds players: his late father, Sylvester Croom Sr., and Bryant.

"The two most important men in my life were my father and Coach Bryant," said Croom, whose mother, Louise, is still living and resides in Tuscaloosa, Ala. "Every day of my life, whether I'm on that field or anywhere else, I'm trying to measure up.

"They're still with me in so many ways."

The neat irony of Croom's Bulldogs (7-5) being in Memphis for the 25th anniversary of Bryant's last game isn't lost on anybody, especially the Bryant family.

After Mississippi State beat Alabama for the second straight season on Nov. 10, Bryant's son and one of the Crimson Tide's most influential boosters, Paul Bryant Jr., sent Croom a note congratulating him and telling him how special it would be if Mississippi State wound up playing in Memphis.

"I've really enjoyed the success he's had, other than against Alabama," Bryant said with a throaty chuckle, sounding very much like his dad. "I don't want to sound corny, but I pulled for them against everybody but us. He coaches the same way Papa did. There's a lot more to it than just football. His teams don't quit, and they go about it with class. But the life experience part is what sticks out."

Bryant, not above needling Croom a bit, didn't hesitate to dial up the pressure meter.

"Tell him to be sure to win the game," he quipped. "I congratulate him for getting in it, but he needs to win it."

The truth is that Croom's whole life has been about pressure.

Being one of the first black players to play at Alabama was pressure enough, not to mention growing up in segregated Tuscaloosa. Then came the burden of making sure that Bryant went out a winner 25 years ago, when Illinois was driving late in that game.

"I'm not sure they would have let any of us back in the state had we lost," Croom joked. "That was a game we all knew we had to win."

All that pales in comparison, though, to the pressure of being the first black head coach in the SEC and essentially having to start from scratch. Not only was Mississippi State about to go on NCAA probation after winning a total of four league games the previous three years, but the Bulldogs were at the bottom of the barrel (among the 11 public institutions in the SEC) in terms of dollars being spent on football.

"Yeah, there was pressure. There still is pressure, and it transcends the game of football," Croom said. "If I didn't make it here, what kind of impact would it have on some other [minority] who was trying to better himself and his family? I thought about those things.

"But what I finally decided was that I wasn't going to get caught up in proving that a minority could do this job. I was going to prove that I could do this job, and everything else would take care of itself."

Initially, Croom told Templeton no thanks when the Mississippi State athletic director began courting him for the job. Croom had been an NFL assistant for 15 years and knew the task of rebuilding Mississippi State was a monumental undertaking.

"We didn't just need somebody to turn the program around, but we needed somebody like Coach Croom to come in and change the way people think about Mississippi State," said senior defensive end Titus Brown, an All-SEC performer.

"Mississippi State football was known for two things: drugs and thugs. That's one of the first things he told us, that you represent your family and you represent this university. If you embarrass either, you're not going to be here. There weren't any exceptions, and there still aren't.

"Those people who bought in thrived, and those who didn't are no longer with us."

Templeton thinks Croom is a year ahead of where he thought he would be at this point. Croom, in earning SEC Coach of the Year honors, won three of his last four games to get the Bulldogs into a bowl. It's also the first time since 1998 that they beat Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss all in the same season.

"People just don't know how hard a climb it was and what Sylvester had to overcome," Templeton said. "He's never wavered."

As he looks back on it, Croom isn't sure he would have taken the job had it not been for the advice of one of his closest friends in coaching, the late Milt Jackson, a veteran wide receivers coach in the NFL who died of a heart attack two years ago.

"I wasn't going to do it, and Milt just told me that I had to," Croom recounted. "He said, 'Sylvester, for whatever reason, you've been chosen. If you don't take this job, it might be another 30 years before a black man gets a head coaching job in the SEC.'"

Determined to do it his way, Croom was scoffed at by some long-time Mississippi State fans and boosters who urged him to cheat.

"I heard people say you can't win in this state, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, unless you're buying players," Croom said. "That may be the way some people have done it, but I don't believe that. I actually had an alumnus come up to me and say, 'I like you. I like what you stand for. But if you're not paying players, you're never going to win and you're not going to be here very long.'

"I'll never be a part of that, and nobody on my staff will. I can promise you that. If I ever hear of any player involved in any situation where he was bought, I'll go to him myself, and if it's true, I'll go to the NCAA and turn ourselves in.

"I want to win, and we're going to do everything we possibly can to win. But we're not going to win that way."

Croom knows unequivocally what a win over Central Florida would do for his program heading into the offseason. The Bulldogs have some real momentum for the first time since Croom took over and want to keep that momentum. The Mississippi State fans undoubtedly feel it. They gobbled up more than 32,000 tickets for this game in less than four days.

The players also want to say thanks, one more time, to the coach who taught them what it takes to win.

"To me, the great coaches are the ones who can get it out of their players, get their players to lay it on the line every single down," said Brown, who lost both his father and grandfather during his time at Mississippi State and considers Croom a surrogate father. "We don't have the best players here at Mississippi State. The talent is getting better, because guys want to come be a part of what Coach Croom is doing here.

"But whether you're a five-star or one-star player, I promise he's going to get the absolute best out of you. That's something you can take with you the rest of your life, whether you're playing football or not."

His old coach with the houndstooth hat would be proud.

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at espnclow@aol.com.