The new "Croomed"

Dan Wetzel

His name had been turned into a verb – "Croomed" – which meant an opposing coach was fired, in part, for losing to Mississippi State and Sylvester Croom.

Florida Croomed Ron Zook back in 2004. Alabama Croomed Mike Shula in 2006.

In the college football lexicon, it was extrapolated nationally to mean an inexcusable loss serving as the final nail in a coach's coffin. While it was supposed to be a joke about the deposed coach, for Mississippi State it was humiliating, for Croom a major hurdle.

For coaches, perception is often reality, not just with potential recruits but with big money boosters who determine your employment status.

Croom believed he just needed time and he could deliver the kind of corner-turning seasons such as this one – the Bulldogs 6-4, with victories over three ranked teams and two more winnable games to go.

But this Croomed thing was problematic.

It meant during his first three seasons, as he posted a 9-25 record, he couldn't get any positive momentum from upsetting a big name opponent. State was so low it had lost to Maine in Croom's first season. Beating Florida and Alabama should've generated at least a little talk about a foundation being laid.

Instead, in both cases, rivals spent millions to buy out the coach so bad he lost to Sylvester Croom.

"There was this attitude that if Mississippi State beat you then something was totally wrong with your program," Croom said. "It (wasn't) as if we played well, it was the other team had a bad day."

If that was the mindset out there, if MSU was the pathetic punch line, then how in the world would he ever buy enough time to turn things around?

How would he earn patience on a campus where he wasn't an alum, wasn't a former assistant and had no built-in base of support? How would he win in recruiting – something he hadn't done for 17 years as a NFL assistant?

And, quite honestly, what about the boosters who, for the most part, didn't look like him?


"They're not going to fire everybody we beat (now) because they're going to run out of coaches," he said with a laugh on Monday, two days after beating Alabama, once again.

Sylvester Croom, now 53, became the SEC's first ever African American head football coach on December 1, 2003. That was all well and good and historic, but in real terms the only race he cared about was the one for the conference title.

When he surveyed what he had inherited in Starkville, he realized he wasn't just a long way from the finish line, but the start even. The talent was bad, the attitudes worse. There were lingering NCAA sanctions. The Bulldogs had won a meager eight games over the previous three seasons.

Competing with Florida and LSU is challenging enough for Mississippi State when things are going well.

"The No. 1 thing is there had to be a change in attitude within the entire program," Croom said. "Then a vast improvement in talent."

He went on to list a bunch of other stuff; off the field, in the classroom, in the weight room. He claims they even changed the way "we eat."

"We basically started over," Croom said.

Croom needed to make a sea change in Starkville. He was completely convinced it would work, but he wasn't entirely confident he'd have enough time to make it work.

"I knew it would work because it was the same thing I learned at Alabama," said Croom, a Tuscaloosa native who played for Bear Bryant from 1972-74 and later worked on his staff.

"If it worked there, then why not here?"

Sure, as long as it had time to work. There would be no quick fix. The program was too far gone. Everyone agreed with that in theory, but, in this instant gratification sport, what about reality?

"I was doubtful of whether the fans would be patient enough to allow us the time to do it," he said. "And if the negativity and impatience would not hurt our efforts to recruit. That's what I was worried about."

Then there was race. It wasn't something to be discussed in polite circles – and Croom has made a point to never bring up skin color – but it's naïve to pretend that it couldn't, at the very least, have an impact, one way or the other.

Mississippi State was color blind enough to give him a chance. And that was great. But if boosters have little patience with white coaches, what about a black one? There was no way anyone could know.

One person Croom didn't have to worry about was athletic director Larry Templeton, who was sold on Croom shortly into a two-hour job interview that wound up six hours long.

"I told our president, 'the search is over,' " Templeton said. "This guy is what college football should stand for, not because he is a black coach, but because of his commitment to his kids, his staff and doing it the right way.

So even though State won just three games in each of Croom's first three seasons, he got a fourth. There was some grumbling, but mostly the fans were fine, still hopeful. But then LSU drubbed them 45-0 in this year's opener.

Time? Patience?

"I was going to do everything in my power to make sure he had the time," Templeton said. "All the talk about a 'hot seat' was external."

In the end it didn't matter. Croom's team suddenly gelled. His two lines got tough. The team became selfless. Plays were made, games were won. Auburn went down at Auburn. Kentucky at Kentucky. And then 'Bama, for the second consecutive year, this time in front of a wild, record crowd in Starkville.

Now the talk is about a contract extension. Sylvester Croom is going to have all the time he could ever ask for.

The future now is bright. Both this season – victories over Arkansas and Ole Miss could mean the Cotton Bowl – and seasons to come. This team is still young – 15 of 22 starters will return next year and the quarterback is a freshman. Recruiting is on an up tick, not just instate but over in Croom's native Alabama, which makes sense since he just beat Alabama, Auburn and UAB in the same season.

"I still think he's a year away from fully implementing his plan," Templeton said.

Croom is bringing in and developing a team that will win in the trenches first. It will run the ball, stop the run and physically beat people up. If this sounds like something out of Bear Bryant's old coaching book, well, it's not by accident.

"I don't try to emulate Coach Bryant, but everything we've done in our program is from the philosophies I learned there," the old offensive lineman said.

If nothing else, he's making the old definition of "Croomed" seem so outdated.

Nick Saban isn't just keeping his job at Alabama after losing to State, he refused to even apologize for it. This was just another tough road game in SEC, he said.

"I'm not ashamed by this," Saban said Saturday.

So maybe the new meaning of "Croomed" should be you just got your ass beat. And, given time, Sylvester is going to do it to you again.