Excerpted from Previous Articles by Rick Bragg and Richard T. Davis
History really was made here, in the college town of Starkville, Mississippi, not far from the Alabama line. One of the last unwritten taboos in college sports really was busted here, amid the darkpine barrens and clear-cut timber and nowhere roads, when Sylvester Croom was hired as the first Black head football coach in the storied Southeastern Conference. Yet if you ask players, fans or university officials whether history has been made, they tend to say much the same thing, at first: Mississippi State hired a coach, not a color.
“We have never once mentioned in a press release that he is the first Black coach in the SEC,” said Mike Nemeth, the school’s associate director for media relations. People at the school said that Croom’s race had nothing to do with his hiring, where the respected longtime college and professional assistant coach was being asked to snatch up a sliding program and shake it into something people could be proud of again.
Attorney and friend, Rick Davis remembers it well. “The date was December 2, 2003. I was practicing law in West Palm Beach and had flown from my firm’s offices to Starkville, Mississippi for a press conference where Sylvester Croom was being introduced as the head football coach at Mississippi State University. Sly is a close friend.
“We both graduated from high school in 1971 and signed football scholarships to play for Coach Bryant at Alabama. We roomed across the hall from each other during our freshman year and we were elected co-captains following our senior season in 1974.
“I wasn’t attending the press conference just as a friend and former teammate: Sylvester was our client. History was being made that day in Starkville — until December 2, 2003, no Southeastern Conference football program had named an African-American as its head coach. Mississippi State President Dr. Charles Lee, Athletics Director Larry Templeton, and other leaders at Mississippi State changed all of that. Here’s how it happened.
“In mid-October 2003 Mississippi State head football coach Jackie Sherrill released a statement that he would be retiring at the end of the 2003 football season. Sherrill’s action was prompted by an NCAA investigation for violations of recruiting rules by boosters and members of the Bulldogs football staff. Just seven months earlier Sly and Mike Shula had been finalists to be the head football coach at the University of Alabama. Alabama made the decision to hire Shula, and Sly, while disappointed, continued to coach the running backs with the Green Bay Packers.
“After Sherrill’s announcement in October, I called Sylvester and asked if he would be interested in the position in Starkville. He wasn’t sure, but we agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to reach out to Mississippi State to see what their thoughts were and learn more about their situation. I didn’t know Bulldogs’ Athletics Director Larry Templeton but I called a friend of Sly’s and mine who knew Templeton well and asked if he would call Larry. He said he would and ten minutes later our friend called back and said he had talked with Templeton and Templeton wanted me to call him.
“I called and during that first conversation in October Larry said he and Dr. Lee had followed the coaching search at Alabama and had been impressed with Sylvester. Templeton said Mississippi State would have to go through the process but they had done their due diligence and Sly was who they wanted to hire. A month and a half later Sylvester Croom was the head football coach at Mississippi State.
“Sly inherited a football program that had suffered through three straight losing seasons (total of 8 wins) and was going on NCAA probation. His first task was to clean things up and to do it the right way was going to take time. In 2007 (his fourth year as head coach in Starkville) the Bulldogs won 8 games, including the Liberty Bowl, and Sly was named the SEC Coach of the Year. The win total dropped to 4 in 2008, but with a new athletics director in place, Sly was forced out.
“Working with and assisting a coach as he and his family make career decisions has always been an exciting part of what I do but Sylvester and Jeri Croom’s move to Mississippi State stands out from all of the rest. My personal relationship with Sly and Jeri coupled with the historical significance of the hire made it very special! As Sly said in Starkville on December 2, 2003, ‘with interaction and communication, the walls can come tumbling down.’ That happened in Starkville — and it opened the door for Joker Phillips at Kentucky, Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M and James Franklin and Derek Mason at Vanderbilt.”
As he was settling into his position at Mississippi State, Croom sat down to speak with Rick Bragg in a spacious office with still-bare shelves. He first swore that maroon and white, not black and white, were the colors of this football team, the only colors that concerned him. But something odd happens the more you let people talk, the more you ask them who they are, where they are from, what they remember about life before integration — or, if they’re very young, what they were told about that time – and it became clear, as a Mississippi writer once said, that the past is not dead there, nor even past. The then 49-year-old coach drifted back in his mind to the people who bled and died in a struggle he remembered mostly through the eyes of a child and teenage boy — people who absorbed genuine hatred, who changed his society and made it possible for him to play his way onto the Alabama football team in 1971, the second year that Paul (Bear) Bryant allowed Black players on his squad. And he began to cry.
His father, in the late 1940s, feared being lynched. Croom himself attended a newly integrated junior high school where students refused to talk to him or even look at him, where a spit-wad spattered on his face the first day of classes.
More than 50 years have passed since the first Black scholarship athlete took the field in the SEC. And a lifetime, it seems, has passed since Sylvester Croom kicked a field goal over the clothesline in his yard in Tuscaloosa and dreamed about being swept up into glory on the Crimson Tide. But even as he entered high school, the only players wearing Alabama jerseys were white. “No way I should be sitting here,” he said once from his MSU office, his mind hung up — for just a moment — on that clothesline.
Then, that quickly, he was standing before a team of SEC athletes–his boys–in the Mississippi State field house. In 2003, he was one of only five Black head football coaches in Division I-A, five out of 117. His players sat straight and tense, and you got the feeling that if he told them to jump off a roof, they would balk only long enough to write notes to their mamas.
Croom knew how hard it is to keep believing when the things you want seem so far away. He was uncomfortable being a symbol. But there was no denying it, really.
Somewhere, in a backyard in Alabama or Mississippi, a boy is kicking field goals over the clothesline and throwing touchdown passes to himself, lobbing the ball so high that he can be quarterback and receiver all in one.
“He needs to know,” Croom said, “that things do change.”
If you work in athletics and have questions about contracts or would like advice on career moves, please contact Rick at email@example.com.