- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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Forty years ago, the Mississippi State basketball team snuck out of Starkville in order to violate state law and compete against a team with Negro players in the NCAA Tournament.
Today, Green Bay Packers running backs coach Sylvester Croom, 49, an African-American, will be introduced as head football coach at that same Mississippi State. SEC commissioner Mike Slive released a statement Tuesday congratulating the university for hiring Croom. Only at the end did Slive mention "the fact that Coach Croom becomes the first minority football coach in the SEC makes this an historic day for the Southeastern Conference."
In social parlance, Slive said the appropriate thing. Croom is a coach first and a minority second. In journalistic parlance, Slive buried the lead. When a state university in Mississippi hires a black football coach, that is News. You can argue about the pace of progress, which has been as slow as a Mississippi Delta drawl. But an inch here and an inch there, and after 40 years, you've come a long way.
Segregation is against the law, literally as well as culturally. The word Negro is in disuse. And a university that once forbade African-Americans from achieving anything but cooking meals for white students and picking up after them now has an African-American coach in charge of its highest-profile sport.
One of the few aspects of life that hasn't changed in Mississippi is the role of football, which remains the mother's milk of sport and cultural life in the state. With no disrespect meant toward Rob Evans or Rod Barnes, the former and current African-American basketball coaches at Ole Miss, that is what makes Croom's arrival a watershed.
"I'm happy to see Mississippi State step up," Pittsburgh Steelers assistant John Mitchell, the first African-American starter at Alabama and college teammate of Croom, said Monday. "I've had some bad views of the state of Mississippi for a long time, since I was growing up. For them to beat Alabama and the rest of the states, not only to hire an African-American coach, but someone as qualified as Sylvester Croom, it says a lot for them."
Mitchell also became the first black All-American and the first black captain at Alabama. Croom, who grew up in Tuscaloosa, became the third in each category. He was a 6-foot, 229-pound center, small and feisty, just the way Bear Bryant liked them. He played one season in the NFL, then returned to Tuscaloosa in 1976 to join Bryant's staff.
When Croom left Tuscaloosa after the 1986 season and went to Tampa Bay with Ray Perkins, Alabama named a spring practice award for him -- the Sylvester Croom Commitment to Excellence Award.
"I dodged playing center for two full years," Croom said in "Talk of the Tide", an oral history of Alabama football, "and that was the only regret that I have about my career at Alabama. It wasn't that I didn't want to play center, but I thought by moving to center that I was a failure at the other things I was trying to do."
Bryant asked Croom if he would consider playing the position. Croom asked him, "Coach Bryant, do you think I can play center and be good at it?" When Bryant answered yes, Croom said, "That's good enough for me."
It took Croom longer than usual to find the position that fit him in coaching, too. He became a finalist at Alabama last spring, pushed by his generation of players and alumni. Croom had no desire to leave Green Bay. In fact, he anguished over leaving. He likes working for Mike Sherman. He wanted a chance to return to the Super Bowl. With Mississippi State under NCAA investigation and probation expected, he had to assure himself that he could win in Starkville, and do it on the up and up.
It is an ideal place for him. Because of looming NCAA punishment, expectations will be tempered. Mississippi State does not attract the media spotlight the way that Croom would have at Alabama.
"It's going to be a shot for the state of Mississippi and a shot for the SEC," Mitchell said. "He's recruited top guys at Alabama. He's going to shake up the apple crop for all the good ol' boys. When he goes into a home, the parents are going to love dealing with Sylvester Croom."
The people who know him return over and over to his personality. Bryant thought enough of Croom that he singled him out in his 1974 autobiography, released during Croom's senior season.
"Sylvester Croom was a good center for us last year," Bryant wrote. "His daddy is a preacher, one of the three top black leaders in Tuscaloosa, and a warm personal friend of mine. He's one of my advisers on local affairs, and I go to him when I need answers.
"Sylvester made a statement after the season that made me feel we had to be on the right track.
"He was quoted as saying, 'The blacks on this team love the white guys as much as they do the black guys.'
"Don't you think that made me proud?"
Imagine what Bryant would think today. He would probably wonder why Croom is being introduced not in Tuscaloosa, but 80 miles west.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
No doubt about it: Mississippi State's hiring of Sylvester Croom is the right choice at the right time.