Croom embraces opportunity with Bulldogs
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- As a boy, Sylvester Croom would pretend he was an Alabama football player at a time when none of the guys suiting up for the Crimson Tide had his skin color.
Eventually, he became one of the first blacks to play for his hometown university.
"Things do change. And that's what my dad always told me," Croom said. "If you try to do things the right way and put your faith in God they will change."
Croom grew up in the Deep South at the height of the civil rights struggle. He is returning to his roots to become the first black head football coach in Southeastern Conference history at Mississippi State.
"I am in a lot of ways the recipient of the sacrifices that other people made," he said. "I realize that it's not my doing. I'm just the one that's reaping the benefits."
The Green Bay Packers assistant coach was greeted with a standing ovation, cheers and the clanging of a few of the Bulldogs fans' beloved cowbells as he was introduced at a packed news conference Tuesday.
Croom tried to play down the significance of his hiring, even though SEC commissioner Mike Slive called it historic.
"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," said Croom, referring to the school color.
The son of a preacher and a first-grade school teacher, Croom rooted for Bear Bryant's powerful Crimson Tide teams and idolized Joe Namath as a kid.
"At that time, throughout the Southeast, there were two worlds. One was black. One was white," Croom said. "Even though things were segregated you were from the South. So, you took pride in anything your state's name was on."
Croom's father, Sylvester Croom Sr., played football for Alabama A&M, an historically black school in Huntsville, Ala. When his father was young, he would watch the Crimson Tide practice through a fence because blacks weren't welcome in the stadium.
Years later, the elder Croom became close with Bryant, acting as a spiritual adviser for Alabama players and giving invocations before games.
Even during the tumultuous 1960s, the late Sylvester Croom Sr.'s son had a hopeful view of integration.
"He would say, 'I'm going to play for coach Bryant one day,' " said Kelvin Croom, Sylvester's younger brother.
Sylvester Croom's class was among the first integrated classes at Tuscaloosa High School.
His high school coach, Tom Danner, who made the 90-mile trip from Tuscaloosa to Starkville for the news conference, said even then he could see Croom was a leader.
"He came into our program with certain goals and objectives, because of who he was he felt like he needed to succeed and he needed to be a role model for other kids to follow," Danner said. "Other kids in the same situation saw how he acted and they mimicked him."
Croom enrolled at Alabama in 1971, the year after the first black players played for the Crimson Tide.
"It wasn't a big deal," he said. "When you line up in three-point stance and hit another guy in the mouth you forget what color he is real fast."
Croom played a season in the NFL, then started his coaching career as a graduate assistant with Bryant in 1976.
He moved to the NFL along with Ray Perkins in 1986 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He has been an assistant coach for five NFL teams since.
Croom almost became the first black head coach in the SEC earlier this year, but his alma mater passed him up.
Alabama chose Mike Shula, who is white, despite Croom having more experience.
Croom figured his chance to be the first black head football coach in the SEC had passed.
"I always thought that if it did happen in the SEC it would happen, for whichever individual was fortunate enough to have that opportunity, it would be at his alma mater because people knew him," Croom said.
But Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton offered him a chance to turn around the Bulldogs, who have won just eight games the past three years.
Croom took it the job and, he joked, turned himself into the answer to a trivia question.
"Thirty or 40 years from now, one of these mornings while we're sitting there watching 'Jeopardy,' my name will come up," Croom said.
Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press
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