By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Sylvester Croom’s legacy won’t be found in the win-loss column. It goes far beyond that, reaching past the playing field and into the lives of countless young men, and its origin reaches back into an important time in American history.
On Tuesday (6 p.m., ESPNU), the SEC “Storied” documentary series takes a look at Croom, who became the first black head football coach in the SEC when Mississippi State hired him in December of 2003.
“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,” said John Dahl, executive producer of ESPN Films. “When you talk about the first African-American head football coach in the conference, that’s a story.”
The film frames Croom’s story within the larger context of the struggle blacks have experienced in the effort to gain equal footing in American society. It opens with Croom’s childhood in Alabama and his view of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
He first attended an integrated school in ninth grade, at Tuscaloosa Junior High, and was the first black center on Alabama’s football team, coached at the time by the legendary Bear Bryant.
Setting the tone
“The director of the film, Johnson McKelvy, he wanted to set the tone so you understand the man and how he was shaped and what he went through and what he gets emotional about,” Dahl said. “Very early on when he talks about the church bombing in Birmingham in 1963, you see him tear up over that. You start to get an impression of the man, what they went through.”
The film traces Croom’s coaching career, which began at Alabama under Bryant, who was a major influence on his life. After spending several years in the NFL, Croom was up for the head coaching job at Alabama, but former Crimson Tide quarterback Mike Shula got the job.
“I was led to believe the job was mine,” Croom said in the film. “Somewhere along the chain of command, somebody said no.”
It wasn’t long before MSU came calling. Croom initially intended to decline the job because he didn’t want to be “the token black coach,” but a friend convinced him that he had “been chosen” for this job. Of course, it was more than just a job.
Croom was making history. And he was doing so in Mississippi, a state that, like Alabama, was at the epicenter of the Civil Rights movement.
“These states, Alabama and Mississippi, they have this history with Civil Rights struggles, particularly in the time that Sylvester Croom is growing up in the ’50s and ’60s,” Dahl sad. “So yes, without question, where this was happening adds significance to it.”
wins and losses
Croom had a 21-38 record in his five years at MSU. His only winning season was 2007, when the Bulldogs went 8-5, beat Alabama and Ole Miss, and won the Liberty Bowl. On top of that, MSU recorded its highest team GPA ever.
Croom was convinced the program was headed in the right direction. Then it fell apart, with Croom citing off-field incidents and personnel losses as the main culprits.
Croom was asked to resign after a 45-0 loss to Ole Miss. He was working for a new athletics director by that point, Greg Byrne. He said he “didn’t have any support within the department” and told his players in their last meeting with him, “I didn’t quit on you.”
Dahl said Croom’s impact on college football’s landscape might be diminished in the eyes of some because of his win-loss record. But he pointed to the fact that the SEC now has three black head football coaches: James Franklin (Vanderbilt), Joker Phillips (Kentucky) and Kevin Sumlin (Texas Aamp&M).
For Croom, the ultimate impact he hoped to have was on players he coached. He tried to impart the lessons he’d learned from Bryant, lessons that would carry them off the field.
“He was very focused on producing men that were ready for the world after their playing careers were over, and (for) most of them their careers end in college,” Dahl said. “He feels good about that. He feels he has nothing to apologize for there.”