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Sylvester Croom

Sylvester Croom, Jr. (born September 25, 1954) is the football head coach at Mississippi State University. He is the first African American head football coach in the Southeastern Conference. His father, Sylvester Croom, Sr., was himself an All-American football player at Alabama A&M, later the team chaplain at the University of Alabama, and has been recognized posthumously by that school as one of the state's 40 pioneers of civil rights.

Playing career

Croom, a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, starred at Tuscaloosa High School as a linebacker and tight end. He then played those same positions before settling in at center for Paul "Bear" Bryant at the University of Alabama, where in 1974 he was a senior captain, earned the Jacobs Blocking Trophy, and like his father years earlier earned Kodak All-American honors. During his playing career there, Alabama garnered three SEC championships from 1972 to 1974 and a national title in 1973.

He played one season in the National Football League for the New Orleans Saints before returning to the University of Alabama to begin his coaching career.

Coaching career

Before coaching at Mississippi State, Croom was an assistant at Alabama for 11 seasons, one as a graduate assistant coach and ten more variably as inside and outside linebackers coach. During this eleven-year period on the Alabama staff Croom participated in ten bowl games, two national championships in 1978 and 1979, and he coached four eventual NFL first-round draft picks, including Cornelius Bennett and Derrick Thomas.

He then spent 17 years in the professional ranks as running backs coach at Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, San Diego, and Green Bay. Before going to Green Bay he served as offensive coordinator for Detroit from 1997-2000, and during his tenure in San Diego was on the Chargers' staff for Super Bowl XXIX.

He was a finalist for the head coach position at the University of Alabama in 2003, but the job ultimately went to Mike Shula. In March 2004, Alabama's Sylvester Croom Commitment to Excellence Award, given annually for 16 years to outstanding players, was changed to the Bart Starr Commitment to Excellence Award, reportedly at Shula's request. The award has since been changed back and has Croom's name attached. Shula originally changed the award because he did not want an award named for a rival coach. After complaints by alumni and fans, the award was changed back to its original name.

After the 2007 season, during which his team won 8 games, including a Liberty Bowl win, Croom garnered Coach of the Year awards from three organizations. On December 4, 2007, Croom was named coach of the year by the American Football Coaches Association for region two. The AFCA has five regional coaches of the year and announces a national coach of the year each January. That same year, on December 5, Croom was named SEC Coach of the Year twice, once as voted by the other SEC coaches and once as voted by The Associated Press. It was the first time a Mississippi State coach received the AP honor since Charley Shira in 1970 and the first time a Mississippi State coach received the coaches award since Wade Walker in 1957.

Education

Croom earned a Bachelor of Science degree in history with a minor in biology from the University of Alabama in 1975 at the age of twenty and while a graduate student and coach there earned a master's degree in educational administration in 1977.

First African-American head football coach in the SEC

Responses

Croom has consistently downplayed the personal significance of his status as the first African-American to be the head coach of an SEC football team. A characteristic response has been that while he is proud of his African-American heritage, the most important part for him is "the head coach part" and the ability to pursue a dream he has held for all of his adult life, stating notably at a press conference upon his acceptance of the position "I am the first African-American coach in the SEC, but there ain't but one color that matters here, and that color is maroon." Elsewhere, in an interview shortly before his first season as a head coach, when asked if as the first African-American coach in the SEC he considered himself "a trailblazer," Croom responded "I'm just a guy trying to do the best job he can. It just happens that the timing of my hiring puts me in that position. I don't see myself that way. If other people perceive that, so be it. I'm just trying to do the best I can here."

However, the initial response to his hiring was lauded by many as a moment of relative cultural significance. An article published in USA Today on the day that Croom was hired listed a few responses from members of the political, cultural, and athletic communities. In it Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, noting that the hire was in Mississippi, a state often regarded as having one of the poorest civil rights records, said that "For Mississippi State to place the fortunes of its team in black hands is more than welcome, however long it has taken." In the same article Bennie Thompson, the lone black member of Mississippi's U.S. congressional delegation, said that the hiring "speaks well of Mississippi State. Mississippi State alumni and friends are more concerned about winning than the color of the coach. There's still a lot of work to be done by other schools."

On February 12, 2007 in observance of Black History Month President George W. Bush, at a gathering of African-American leaders and dignitaries where Croom was present, recognized the efforts and achievements of NFL football coaches Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, both acquaintances of Croom and a friend in Dungy's case. The President went on to state that he was "proud to be [there] with another football coach who deserves a lot of credit, Sylvester Croom, who is the head football coach from Mississippi State University. His achievement is the first African American coach in the Southeastern Football League -- Southeastern Conference. He was picked because he's a strong leader and a fine man. And I thank you for blazing trails."

In February 2008 Croom was featured in a half-hour segment of "Say it Loud," ESPN's documentary celebration of Black History Month. In it are featured interviews with Croom along with coaches and players, among others. Relevant to the topic he speaks generally in this documentary on his decision to accept Mississippi State's offer for the head coaching position and on his race and the history of race relations in the region being major contributing factors.

Position at Alabama

Croom's own position on African-American coaches in college football has not always been so apolitical, however. In an interview with Black Athlete Sports Network in July, 2003, after losing out to Mike Shula in the head coach vacancy for the University of Alabama Croom speculated that race was more of a factor in that hiring process than University of Alabama athletic director Mal Moore let on and that he lost the job because of it. "I have a real problem there," he said. "A lot of those [SEC] schools, guys are good enough to play for them, good enough to be assistant coaches and not good enough to be in the positions of decision making and the positions of high financial reward. And they're qualified." In that same interview with Black Athlete Sports Croom acknowledged that he "had great support from the former players and the fans there and even some people within the administration," but that "Somewhere in the final process, somebody made another decision." His initial impression of the interview with Alabama was that it was fair and was so positive that he considered himself to be the lead candidate afterwards, which was why he was so surprised when the offer was given to Shula, a coach with over ten fewer years of coaching experience. Afterwards the Rev. Jesse Jackson got involved, calling for an investigation into the hiring practices at Alabama and all SEC schools. Croom's response to Jackson's intervention was that "Rev. Jackson did his job. Because quite often, inside the business you can't draw attention to things. He is a voice for a great mass, for a lot of people who don't have a voice." On the question of Croom's timing in his response to this issue being given only after Jackson's call for investigation, he continued by saying that "in this particular case, I felt I could speak for myself. I chose not to say anything at that particular time because there was just too much emotion."

Legacy of segregation

Elsewhere Croom has treated his status as the first African-American head football coach in the SEC with the complexity he sees befitting the situation of a person so deeply connected to the American South. In a 2004 interview with The Washington Post Croom said of his situation in Mississippi that "There's much more at stake here than football. The fact that I'm African American, that I'm the State football coach -- well, I think it will have a positive impact on race relations in the state of Mississippi, and how the rest of the country views Mississippi. The place has changed a great deal. I don't know how many people outside here understand that. But they're about to find out." A 2003 article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recalls his experiences of integration as a middle-schooler in Tuscaloosa, the near-lynching of his father years before in a case of mistaken identity, and segregated restrooms, an institution which he said “bothered me [then], and it still does to this day.” In that article and elsewhere like the article in the Washington Post Croom and his family have communicated a cultural and historical connection to the South and an insistence that genuine progress has been made in race relations there. His younger brother Kelvin Croom, a pastor and assistant principal of Paul Bryant High School in Tuscaloosa, said in the Journal Sentinel interview of their experiences in the segregated South that "We chose not to be intimidated. We chose to be motivated and hoped that one day we would make a difference. And we have made a difference, because the crosses have been taken down and the ropes have been put away."

Head coaching record

References

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