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Croom's slow building process gaining momentum

The postgame prayer was almost over, the deep voice distinctly heard above the still-screaming, cowbell-clanging mob outside the dressing room doors celebrating Mississippi State's 17-12 victory over Alabama on Nov. 10.

"Thank you God for sending me these young men," Mississippi State fourth-year coach Sylvester Croom said with a mix of relief and conviction.

From the bowed heads of the players around came the instinctive response, "Thank you God for our coach."

It was an emotional, telling moment for Croom. He is such a personable, honest, straight-shooting figure that even media have been reluctant to skewer him for having just four SEC wins prior to this season.

When the Bulldogs beat the Crimson Tide to improve to 6-4 (3-3 in the SEC's Western Division) to gain bowl eligibility for the first time since 2000, a lot of people shared Croom's happiness.

Unless you've walked in Croom's shoes in a couple of different ways, first as a coach who took over a program on NCAA probation and the second as a coach at a place regarded as outside the winning tradition and budget of the SEC's power programs, you can't appreciate what mere bowl eligibility means for the Bulldogs.

Winning six, seven or eight games at Mississippi State -- and at Ole Miss -- is equal to winning 10, 11, 12 games at places like Florida, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.

"He's done an awesome job, he gets my vote for SEC Coach of the Year," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said of Croom. "He's a guy who's done it the right way."

Tuberville just didn't feel compelled to say that because Croom's Bulldogs beat Tuberville's Tigers, 19-14, on Sept. 15. In 1995, Tuberville took control of an Ole Miss program short on scholarships because of an NCAA probation and located in a state where there wasn't an abundance of major college caliber prospects who were academically qualified.

"I had a couple of talks with Sylvester when he took the job," Tuberville said. "I coached in that state, getting a program back on track coming off a probation, and he just asked how we did things.

"But he's done it his way. He's done it the right way. He put discipline back in the program that you need. From Day 1, he hasn't cut any corners, and sometimes it takes a little longer to get a program back that way."

It was Croom's stern but fair hand that convinced former MSU head coach Rockey Felker to do something that you rarely see.

Felker went back to work as an assistant coach at the school that fired him.

Felker is still the most beloved football player in Mississippi State history, a quarterback from 1970-74 who was the SEC's player of the year in '74 when he led the Bulldogs to a 9-3 record and a win in the Sun Bowl. He was the nation's youngest head coach when he took over the State program from 1986-90 before being fired.

After serving as an offensive coordinator assistant coach for a nine-year period at Tulsa and Arkansas, Felker came home to Starkville in 2002 as coordinator of football operations for previous coach Jackie Sherrill.

Felker thought he might get back on the field again. But when the running backs coach spot opened after last season, he was approached by Croom.

Felker's love for his school had him leaning toward saying "yes." But his respect for the way Croom ran the program made it a no-brainer.

"He had a plan and he stuck through it, in terms of discipline, being hard nosed and recruiting a certain type of young man," Felker said. "He could have won a few more games earlier if he had not stuck to the plan.

"But he was willing to sacrifice some wins for building the program the right way. What you see in Sylvester Croom is what you get. If he tells you something, you can believe it."

Believe this -- Croom should have his best recruiting class to date this winter, and that's because of this year's success and the fact his players believe in him. The best recruiters any coach can ask for are his own players, like senior Titus Brown.

"One of the things that sold me on coach is what he said when he came to my house and he recruited me," Brown said. "He sat in my living room, he looked my mom and dad in their eyes and said, 'This is your son. When he signs with Mississippi State, he becomes my son.' That's what really sold me. I wanted a coach who really cared about me on and off the field."

On Saturday, when Brown closed out the Alabama victory with a game-ending sack of Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson, he was stunned when Croom ran to the pile, bear-hugged the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Brown and ran 30 yards downfield with him.

"The man is crazy," said Brown with a laugh.

The man is also focused, and he's hoping that his team will be viewed differently from now on.

"We beat Auburn at Auburn, we beat Kentucky at Kentucky and we beat Alabama," Croom said. "What happens in all those games is it [the reaction] is not like we played well, it's like the other team had a bad day.

"It bothered me that we weren't the favored team here at home [prior to the Alabama game] over basically the same team that we beat the year before on the road in Tuscaloosa."

Croom said that during the pregame warm-ups before Saturday's game, he exchanged pleasantries with Alabama coach Nick Saban.

"He said after the [last] two years he had been out of conference [when Saban was head coach of the NFL's Miami Dolphins], he was amazed how much difference there was in our football team. That was a class thing for him to say."

Croom said the only way his team would keep gaining more respect was to keep winning. He hopes the days are over of media members writing or saying that an opposing team that lost to Mississippi State had been "Croomed."

Going into this season, Croom was 4-20 in SEC play and two of those wins resulted in the firing of coaches Ron Zook of Florida in 2004 and Mike Shula of Alabama last season.

"That's not one of my favorite deals," Croom said of the word 'Croomed.' "I thought Ron did a good job at Florida and he left a lot of outstanding players. [Florida coach] Urban [Meyer] has been the beneficiary of that.

"I sort of took it as a little bit of insult to our program just because they [Florida] lost to Mississippi State there was this attitude that if Mississippi State beat you, then there must be something totally wrong with your program.

"They are not going to fire everybody we beat, because sooner or later they are going to run out of coaches."

Ironically, Croom is playing against a coach on Saturday, Arkansas' Houston Nutt, who will likely be fired or quit. Croom is 0-3 against Arkansas, and Mississippi State has never won a game in the state of Arkansas. The Bulldogs are 0-4 in Fayetteville and 0-4-1 in Little Rock.

There's also this motivation for the Bulldogs: While they are bowl eligible, a seventh win would assure them of a bowl bid, because NCAA rules now state bowls must fill spots with seven-win teams before six-win teams.

"I don't want to put it in somebody else's hands," Croom said. "It's up to us. If we want to assure ourselves of getting in a bowl, we need to get another win."

If the Bulldogs win out, beating both Arkansas and then Ole Miss on Nov. 23 to finish 8-4, there's a good chance the Bulldogs could end up in the Cotton Bowl if the SEC gets a second team in a BCS bowl.

A 7-5 Mississippi State team could land in either the AutoZone Liberty Bowl or the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl.

Croom said before the Kentucky game he told his team it was a four-game season.

"Right now, we're 2-0," Croom said.

Players like running back Anthony Dixon bought into Croom's stretch-run tunnel vision.

"It's like coach Croom told us, that we could win any of these games or lose all of them," Dixon said. "We just take one game at a time. A lot of people don't want to believe that."

But his players do. And that's all that really matters.

Ron Higgins covers the Southeastern Conference for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn.