Croom resigns after five years at Mississippi State

Sylvester Croom came to Mississippi State with much fanfare, deemed by many a pioneer, the first black man hired to be the head coach of a Southeastern Conference football team.

After five seasons, he's out, gone for the most basic reason: His team didn't win enough.

Croom resigned Saturday, less than 24 hours after an embarrassing 45-0 loss to Mississippi in the most lopsided Egg Bowl in 37 years. He announced the decision in a statement released by the school after meeting with athletic director Greg Byrne.

Croom was 21-38 at Mississippi State and coached the team to one winning season.

Byrne said it was Croom's decision to resign.

"We talked about a lot of different ideas, and Coach Croom was open to a lot of different ideas," Byrne said at a news conference. "The final idea was where we landed."

With Croom gone, only three black coaches remain at the 119 major college football programs -- Miami's Randy Shannon, Buffalo's Turner Gill and Houston's Kevin Sumlin.

Ty Willingham at Washington, who has one game left with the Huskies, and Ron Prince at Kansas State have been fired.

Croom, who took over the team while it was under NCAA sanctions, won 2007 SEC coach of the year honors after leading the Bulldogs to an 8-5 finish and an appearance in the Liberty Bowl. He signed a contract extension in the offseason that paid him $1.7 million this year.

But he came under immediate pressure from fans after a season-opening loss to Louisiana Tech of the Western Athletic Conference, and the heat only intensified as the offensively inept Bulldogs stumbled to a 4-8 finish.

Croom did not immediately return a phone message left by The Associated Press.

"Five years ago, Mississippi State gave me the unprecedented opportunity to be a head football coach in the Southeastern Conference and to build a program based upon a strong foundation," Croom said in a statement.

"We have tried to build a program the right way that can compete for conference championships. I believe the foundation has been set for those goals to be reached under the leadership of someone else, and it was my decision to resign."

Byrne was scheduled to meet with reporters later Saturday afternoon.

Running backs coach Rockey Felker, who was once head coach at Mississippi State, will run the team while the Bulldogs search for Croom's replacement.

Calls for Croom to make changes to his coaching staff and run-first offensive philosophy dogged the Bulldogs. The team continued to have trouble at quarterback, and Croom switched starters midway through the season.

A source familiar with Croom's situation at Mississippi State told ESPN.com's Pat Forde that the breaking point was not a refusal on Croom's part to make staff changes; rather, an important issue was the continuing ineptitude of the Bulldogs' offense under Croom. In five years, Mississippi State has never ranked in the NCAA top 100 in total offense.

The Bulldogs were 11th in the SEC in scoring offense (16.6 points per game) and 10th in total offense (297.7 yards per game) through 11 games and lost badly at Georgia Tech (38-7) and Tennessee (34-3). Yet some optimism remained that Mississippi State could salvage a bit of pride and its promising recruiting class after a 31-28 win over Arkansas last week and after a good game against the revitalized Rebels.

Croom even got a vote of confidence from incoming Mississippi State president Mark Keenum.

But Mississippi State was outmatched from the start and looked poorly prepared against Ole Miss. The quarterbacks were hit hard on nine of their first 10 pass attempts, as the Rebels put together a school-record 11 sacks and set another mark by holding the Bulldogs to minus-51 yards rushing.

Croom seemed stunned after the game.

"They came in here with the idea they were going to beat us bad, and they did from start to finish," Croom said. "I don't know why what happened today occurred. I'm sorry to say that it's an absolute mystery to me."

Byrne, a new hire who's been on the job for less than a year, wouldn't comment on the speculation surrounding the football team during the season but said Saturday that a possible resignation had been discussed during the morning meeting.

"We discussed the football program and many topics were addressed, including resignation," Byrne said in a statement. "I want to thank Coach Croom for the leadership he has provided our football program over the last five years."

Although Croom wasn't able to squeeze out many wins during his tenure, there's little question he improved a Mississippi State program that was at its lowest ebb. The Bulldogs were hit with major sanctions following rules violations under previous coach Jackie Sherrill and had won just three games a season between 2001 and 2003.

Hired Dec. 1, 2003, the Bear Bryant disciple who had been an All-American center at Alabama and an NFL assistant for 17 seasons inherited a team low on talent. Heavy sanctions and the SEC's lowest budget made the challenge even steeper.

"We couldn't even get recruits to visit campus," Croom said this past week while talking about his early recruiting efforts.

But Croom upgraded the talent enough that the Bulldogs were competitive in the nation's toughest conference and earned their first winning season since 2000 last year, capping it with a 10-3 win over Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl.

Croom also was having success off the field. He'd drawn commitments from several top recruits, including a quarterback.

A spokesman said players would not be available Saturday, but some defended Croom following Friday's loss.

"I think it is unfair," wide receiver Delmon Robinson said of the criticism. "When it's man-to-man coverage, it's the receiver against the [defensive back]. If the receiver doesn't win, it's not the coach's fault that he didn't win. It's all about the players. We've got to win, and we've got to go out there and execute Coach's plays."

It was the second straight season an embarrassing loss in the Egg Bowl led to a coaching change. Mississippi coach Ed Orgeron was fired a day after the Rebels collapsed in a 17-14 loss. Ole Miss had led 14-0 going into the fourth quarter, but Orgeron went for it on fourth down at midfield. The Bulldogs stopped the play, went on to score and finished with 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.

Byrne said Croom's assistants remain under contract and will work until a new coach is hired. He told Forde that Mississippi State's search for a successor begins immediately and will be national in scope. He declined to discuss any specific potential candidates but said he wanted a "passionate leader who is capable of helping us win in the SEC. We have a lot of talent here in this state and a very supportive fan base. We can win here."

Among the coaches Mississippi State might target to replace Croom are Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables, East Carolina coach Skip Holtz and TCU coach Gary Patterson.

"Looking forward, I plan to work closely with athletic director Greg Byrne to move quickly, but with due deliberation, to find a new head football coach with high energy and a commitment to compete for championships and bowl opportunities in the best conference in America," Keenum said.

There likely will be several candidates for a coveted SEC job, but Mississippi State's new coach shouldn't get comfortable. Five of six SEC West schools have made coaching changes in the past five years, with only Tommy Tuberville at Auburn lasting through that time. And even he's facing criticism in a losing season.

The Rebels' new coach, Houston Nutt, had been at Arkansas for 10 years before resigning after last season and moving to Ole Miss. But he believes that tenures such as that one could be a thing of the past because fans and boosters have little patience for losing.

"It's sad, but it doesn't surprise me," Nutt said. "It's the way of the world in college football right now."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.