Croom makes emotional return to Bama

The Mississippi State players might be biased, but they're not shy. Nope, not in the least bit.

It's hard to believe this is the same team some were calling one of the worst in Southeastern Conference history a few short weeks ago. Losing to Maine tends to have that effect.

But, then, there's no substitute for a few wins and a cause.

The Bulldogs, after five straight ugly losses, have both as they head to Tuscaloosa, Ala., this Saturday to play what may be the most intriguing and emotionally charged game in SEC history between a pair of teams sporting 2-3 conference records.

Sylvester Croom, in his first year as the Mississippi State coach, is going back home to Alabama, which had a chance to hire him in the spring of 2003, but opted instead for a younger, less experienced Mike Shula.

At the time, Croom felt race was a factor in his not getting the job. Then an assistant coach with the Green Bay Packers, Croom was interviewed by Alabama athletic director Mal Moore and walked away feeling as if he were the top candidate.

But Croom said something happened at the "very end" to scare the Tide away.

A year later, Mississippi State came calling and made Croom the first black head football coach in SEC history.

It's the kind of storyline typically reserved for Hollywood.

"The game is played on the field, by the players," said Croom, whose mother still lives in Tuscaloosa. "We'll compete head to head and move on. That's the thing I love about football. You can compete, and if there's any character between the individuals involved, you can walk away and still be friends."

Croom, a former All-America center for the Crimson Tide and an assistant coach under the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant at Alabama, has done his best to downplay the whole revenge factor this week. His players have not.

Mississippi State defensive end Michael Heard said this is a game they would dearly love to win for their coach.

"Everybody's taking it as, 'We gotta win this game for Coach Croom,'" Heard told the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. "We're not just looking at it like we gotta win this game so we can win three in a row in the SEC. It's like, win for Coach Croom and have that third win in the SEC.

"He don't bring it up. We don't bring it up. You can just tell. If you were a coach, and you did all that stuff at your school and they wouldn't let you be head coach, you'd be a little fired up, too.

"I'm glad they didn't hire him. We got the best coach. He turned the program around."

Linebacker Quinton Culberson suggested it was personal with Croom and added, "We're going to take it out on Alabama."

The truth is that Croom loves Alabama, always has and always will. He still talks reverently about his time under Bryant and the rich tradition he was a part of at the Capstone as both a player and coach.

But he was also irked by Shula's short-sighted decision earlier this year to strip Croom's name from an annual spring practice award. Realizing his mistake, Shula wisely relented and re-attached Croom's name to the award.

The two talked soon after that whole affair, and Croom insisted this week that all was well. They coached together on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff, and Croom was an assistant at Alabama when Shula was a player.

"All that is water under the bridge," Croom said. "As soon as Mike and I talked, it was over. We've been friends for a long time. Something like that's not going to change our relationship. This game's not going to change our relationship.

"If they win, they win. If we win, hey, we win."

There's still the question of whether or not the color of Croom's skin is what truly cost him the Alabama job following the Mike Price fiasco.

One of Croom's teammates at Alabama, current Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, wasn't bashful about making his feelings known soon after Shula was hired.

"An African-American will probably never be hired at Alabama because nobody there has the guts to pull the trigger," Mitchell said. "For years, they have told African-American players and coaches to get experience and get a résumé.

"I know Mike Shula, but Mike Shula's résumé shouldn't be in the same room with Sylvester Croom's."

Croom, or Sly as he's commonly referred to by friends and colleagues, has no interest in dredging up the past. Maybe that's because he sees a bright future at Mississippi State, which has shown the kind of fortitude the last two weeks in wins over Florida and Kentucky that Croom wants to see become a staple in Starkville.

The recruiting trail the next two years will be critical for Croom. But equally important is establishing the proper attitude.

"Our players have a lot more confidence than we had prior to the open week," Croom said. "I know they're buying into the program and believe now if they play as good as they can play, then we have a chance.

"Anything less than that, then we have no chance."

Win or lose Saturday, Croom has his work cut out in trying to rebuild a Mississippi State program facing four years of NCAA probation and modest scholarship reductions.

But he walked into this job with his eyes wide open. All he ever wanted was a chance.

The fact that it was Mississippi State -- and not Alabama -- that gave him that chance only adds to the drama.

Chris Low covers the SEC for The Nashville Tennessean.