The graying, burly preacher’s son from Alabama wasn’t interested in becoming a trailblazer or a college football pioneer.
Almost a decade ago, Sylvester Croom entered a meeting with his friend Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton intent on turning down his offer to become the Bulldogs’ head coach. Croom didn’t want to break barriers in the Southeastern Conference; he was happy as the running backs coach of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.
Templeton didn’t know this at the time. But even if he had, he was ready with the perfect response.
“I’m like ‘Coach, I’m just being honest with you,’ ” Templeton recalled. “ ‘What would your daddy say, and what would coach (Bear) Bryant say, if they knew you had an opportunity to be the football coach at Mississippi State?’ ”
Croom, a Tuscaloosa native and a former center for the Crimson Tide, told Templeton he wasn’t playing fair; the Rev. Sylvester Croom Sr. and Bryant had been two forces in his life. He knew what his father, a pioneer for civil rights in the state, and Bryant, the Tide’s legendary coach, would tell him to do if they had been alive.
Despite his best efforts, Sylvester Croom could not outrun his fate. He accepted the job before the 2004 season, effectively making him the first minority to hold such an esteemed position in the Southeastern Conference.
Croom’s hiring laid the groundwork for other African-Americans to become head football coaches in the SEC: James Franklin at Vanderbilt, Kevin Sumlin at Texas A and Joker Phillips at Kentucky.
“Ten years ago, the story was that no minority served as a head football coach in the history of the Southeastern Conference,” said SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who made diversity an emphasis when he was hired in 2002.
Today the SEC has three minority head football coaches, eight minority head basketball coaches and five minority women’s basketball coaches.
It has taken a confluence of circumstances to get the SEC to this point. The right school (Mississippi State) needed to the hire the right coach (Croom) to get the ball rolling, but it also took leadership, not only from the league’s chancellors and A.D.s, but from Slive.
“When you look at the transformation of the SEC,” said Chuck Gerber, a friend of Slive’s and a retired ESPN vice president for college sports programming, “it’s because of his vision.”
At the crack of dawn one day in March 2002, Gerber and Slive were tucked in the corner of a restaurant in an Atlanta hotel, drinking coffee and eating breakfast.
It was here that Slive presented Gerber with a question. Slive, then Conference USA’s commissioner, had been approached by SEC powerbrokers about becoming their leader. He didn’t know if he should go.
“I said, ‘Here’s the choice, I think,’ ” Gerber recalled. “The choice is: You can continue living your lifestyle in Chicago as commissioner of Conference USA. … But if you want to leave your legacy within the collegiate world, you have to think about the SEC.’”
And part of that legacy, Gerber said, was changing the SEC’s national perception. When Slive took the job, he immediately sought to improve ethnic and gender diversity in leadership positions.
He had the league office distribute biographies of every minority head coach and assistant in Division I to the league’s presidents and chancellors yearly.
“First it was in the form of a notebook,” Slive said. “Now it’s in the form of a DVD.”
The conference also started an annual minority coaching forum to help football assistants with professional development.
Still, these initiatives alone could not break the minority coaching barrier in SEC football. Slive had the vision, but nothing would have happened if the schools weren’t ready for change. By 2004, after Slive’s first two years as boss, no one had taken the plunge.
“The No. 1 priority was to win, and it was difficult for a minority coach to have a proven track record, so it was probably a little more difficult to take a chance,” said Templeton, Mississippi State’s athletic director from 1987 to 2008. “Having sat in that chair, the decision at the end of the day was not ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ but rather, ‘Am I getting the guy that can win?’ ”
In December 2003, the answer to both those questions would lead to Croom.
Jackie Sherrill had guided Mississippi State to some success during his 13 years as football coach. But with the program on probation for potential recruiting violations (neither he or the school was found guilty), Sherrill told Templeton that 2003 would be his last season.
“I had the ability of having almost half a football season to research and think about what we wanted to do with our next football coach,” Templeton said. “I talked to a lot of people, a lot of people I respected. They all said Sylvester Croom was the guy.”
It was known that Croom, a long-time college and NFL assistant, wanted to be a head coach. He had been a finalist for the Alabama job months earlier, but the Tide hired Mike Shula, who is white.
“I have a real problem there,” Croom told The Associated Press shortly afterward. “A lot of those 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.”
Those comments spoke to the hurt that Croom, who’s now with the Jacksonville Jaguars and could not be reached for this story, felt at the time, especially when he believed fans, former players and even Alabama athletic director Mal Moore had supported his candidacy.
Even Templeton, who did his due diligence during the search, said he doesn’t know why Croom didn’t get the job.
“The two people I talked to inside the Alabama administration told me they would have hired him in a New York minute,” Templeton said.
So Templeton went to work.
“I needed someone who was not only squeaky clean, but also someone where there was never going to be any question as to the direction we were going,” Templeton said. “Part of our (defense) with the NCAA was we understood what we have done, but here’s where we’re headed — and here’s who is going to lead us.”
Templeton also thought Croom’s stature and influence would play well with Mississippi’s best recruits, who had a history of leaving the state.
“There wasn’t a mama that wasn’t going to say ‘Son, you’re going with him,’ ” Templeton said. “He had that charisma. And if we could recruit the best talent in Mississippi, we were going to be competitive.”
Croom’s desire to win showed during his introduction in Starkville, where he didn’t even give the reporters a chance to ask about becoming the first black football coach in the SEC.
“There ain’t but one color that matters here,” Croom told the room, “and that color is maroon.”
Croom’s start at Mississippi State was rocky. Under the specter of potential NCAA penalties, Croom won three games in each of his first three years as he established his expectations.
“If you were going to be here,” Templeton said of Croom’s approach, “you were going to get an education, come to meetings, do things on time, keep your (butt) out of trouble and not be on drugs.”
Fortunes turned for Croom in 2007. He opened the year with his best recruiting class, ranked No. 39 by Rivals.com, and had started making in-roads with in-state kids.
“My grandma, she loved coach Croom,” said Mississippi State senior cornerback Johnthan Banks, a 2012 preseason All-American from Maben, Miss. “There aren’t too many guys in athletics as good as him.”
Croom also had his best season on the field. That year, he led Mississippi State to an 8-5 record, a victory in the Liberty Bowl and was chosen national coach of the year by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and SEC coach of the year by the coaches and media.
But Templeton was forced out as A.D., and Croom resigned after the following season as Mississippi State finished 4-8 and lost 45-0 to rival Ole Miss in the season-ending Egg Bowl.
Templeton, who talks to Croom regularly, said the way things ended do not bother his friend. A foundation was laid for Mississippi State, which has finished 5-7, 9-4 and 7-6 the past three seasons under Dan Mullen, who has relied on several of Croom’s recruits.
Croom also laid the foundation for other minority coaches in the league.
“Look at where we are now — three minority football coaches, eight minority basketball coaches,” Templeton said. “There ain’t another conference in this country that can touch that.”
Fittingly, Croom’s story will be told in greater detail this fall, when ESPN releases a documentary about him in a continuation of its “SEC Storied” series. To Slive, it is a reminder of how far his league has come.
“I am very grateful that the hiring of minority coaches in the Southeastern Conference is no longer a story,” Slive said. “It is simply part of who we are.”