The latest installment of ESPN’s SEC “Storied” series airs tonight at 6 on ESPNU. “Croom” is, of course, about former Mississippi State football coach Sylvester Croom, who was the first black man hired as a head football coach in the SEC. That’s what the film revolves around.
It also touches heavily on Croom’s not getting the Alabama job in 2003; it went to Mike Shula instead. Below is a clip of the film, in which that situation is examined. (Croom played center at Alabama and was an assistant coach there for 10 years.)
If you didn’t see it in Sunday’s Journal, I had a story about the film. I spoke at length with John Dahl, executive producer for ESPN Films, and below is an excerpt of that conversation.
BL: Why did you take on this project?
JD: When you’re looking at the rich history of the SEC, which is what we do with the ‘Storied’ series, you have to take notice of a pioneer like Sylvester Croom. When you talk about the first African-American head football coach in the conference, that’s a story. It’s not in the too distant past there; he just left five years ago. I just thought it was an opportunity to help people understand maybe what they didn’t know or didn’t understand about Sylvester Croom and the situation that he was in there.
BL: Does his win-loss record (21-38) diminish the significance of the hiring in the eyes of some?
JD: Yeah. The film tries to address that; it takes it head-on. … He wanted to build the program a certain way, the way that was molded by his own father and Bear Bryant, and that would take some time. He had an opportunity to lay out that it was taking time. What’s interesting in his story is he’s making progress, he had that breakthrough win at Alabama against Mike Shula in 2006, and then 2007 ends of being such a big year, it’s like he’s finally getting the payoff of what he’d been building toward there. They go 8-5, they win the the Liberty Bowl, they beat Alabama again – this time with Nick Saban coaching – and he’s getting the coach of the year honors. And then the next year it takes a turn for the worse. Here’s why it did, and here’s what happened as a result of that. It’s a chance to get beyond that 21-38 record and try to understand what happened behind the scenes and what kind of man he was and is.
BL: Does Croom seem comfortable with his place in SEC history and with the story being told here?
JD: I think he does. I think the way he feels, the way the film ends up, he talks about a disparaging letter he got, which was actually an anonymous letter. He had put together a response to the letter, only to realize, hey, wait a minute, I don’t have a return address, I can’t respond. So I guess his response was the final comment that he had in this film. He conveys very well in the film that he stayed true to who he was and is as a man, as a coach.
BL: Part of his job was to clean up and rebuild the program.
JD: He was very focused on producing men that were ready for the world after their playing careers were over, and most of them their careers end in college. He feels good about that. He feels he has nothing to apologize for there. There’s no question he would tell you that he wishes he had a better record. I don’t think that’s a question at all. I think, though, that he feels like he did it the way he felt was the right way to do it.