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Croom's Debut Is a Piece of History

September 05, 2004|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

STARKVILLE, Miss. — History-making is not always what you expect.

It can be Rosa Parks on a bus, a march to Selma or, as it happened Saturday night, Sylvester Croom running onto a field after emerging from a giant, inflatable Mississippi State helmet.

Surrounded by Bulldog players, Croom burst through a blow-up facemask at 5:01 Central Daylight Time and, a few steps later, broke down one of sport's last, and most shameful, barriers.

On a muggy night, in front of a crowd of 52,114 at Scott Field, deep in the heart of Dixie, the 49-year-old Croom became the first African American head football coach to lead his team in a Southeastern Conference game.

"It's a historic day," said SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, who flew in for the occasion.

Mississippi State's 28-7 victory over Tulane served only as a happy-ending footnote to the larger story.

Jerry Devine, an African American who worked 36 years as a cook for the Mississippi State athletic department, welled with emotion just moments before Croom ran onto the field.

"It's time, it's time, it's time," the 65-year-old Devine, a lifelong Starkville resident, said. "Everyone should be proud of this. The ones not proud of it, we don't count them."

What it took Croom to get to this point: 28 years as an assistant coach in the college and pro ranks and an 80-mile trek from his hometown in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

What it took the SEC: 71 years.

It all hit Croom on the bus to the stadium.

"I thought to myself, 'Twenty-eight years of work toward this day,' and how it's been a dream that has been an impossible dream all that time. Today, it's a reality. I just relished the moment."

After his first victory, Croom doffed his capped to both sides of the stands and made his exit.

Croom could not wait for this night to arrive, not to savor it as much as to get it over with.

For the nine months since his hiring, he has tried to deflect the focus on him.

Croom knows this watershed moment will be in the lead to his obituary, but all he really wants to do is coach.

"It's the fun part for me," he said. "Everything else I do is work."

Croom is so hip-deep in the mess that is Mississippi State football he doesn't have time to sit still for a PBS documentary.

He inherited a team that has gone 8-27 the last three years and a program about to be sanctioned by the NCAA for violations incurred under his predecessor, Jackie Sherrill.

Croom is trying to win games in a conference that grinds coaches up like sausages. He is trying to retool the offense, reshape minds and be a father figure to the fatherless.

Croom told a local paper here this week he "hated" the attention his first game was receiving nationally because it was diverting attention from his monumental undertaking.

People want to talk history as Croom tries to tackle a menacing monster called the present.

"I know the historical significance of the hiring," he would say Saturday, "but I didn't get into this to break any kind of barriers."

The chronicling of his achievement is left to surrogates.

Kelvin Croom, Sylvester's younger brother, was happy to oblige Friday as he sat in his office at Tuscaloosa's Paul W. Bryant High School, where he serves as assistant principal.

Saturday morning, Kelvin picked up his 74-year-old mother, Louise, in nearby Holt and drove west on Highway 82 toward the dawn of a new era.

"The people in Starkville have been real cordial, black and white," Kelvin said. "You hear stories of people crying because they got to see this in their lifetime. It's bigger than football."

The shame of it is Sylvester Croom Sr., who died in 2000, is not here to see this.

"We wish dad was here," Kelvin said.

Croom Sr., a reverend and civil rights activist, raised his sons in a different South. Sylvester and Kelvin were among the first blacks to be integrated into Tuscaloosa's schools.

"We watched the Ku Klux Klan burn crosses in the park," Kelvin said.

Sylvester was good enough to play for famed Alabama Coach Bear Bryant; he was a member of the 1973 national title team. Kelvin followed his brother to Alabama but a knee injury ended his career -- he would go on to earn a doctorate.

Truth be told, Sylvester didn't want to break the coaching color barrier at Mississippi State; he wanted to break it at Alabama.

Kelvin and Sylvester grew up idolizing two men -- their father and Bear Bryant.

Thursday night, speaking at the Starkville Quarterbacks Club, Sylvester choked up after talking about his father. He then read a quotation from Bryant.

Kelvin joked that his brother was even starting to "have that growl like Coach Bryant."

The fact that Sylvester Croom did not break the SEC color barrier at Alabama is a larger mystery.

Croom was a disciple of Bryant and a Crimson Tide assistant coach for 11 years before beginning a 17-year stint in the NFL.

Yet, when the Alabama job opened suddenly last spring after Mike Price's firing, the school bypassed Croom and hired Mike Shula.

Sylvester doesn't like talking about what didn't happen at Alabama, but Kelvin will.

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