OPINION: As Sylvester Croom takes his place in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, let’s appreciate one of the good guys
Football is all about the scoreboard. Of that, there can be little doubt.
Case in point – mention the name Sylvester Croom to Mississippi State fans. Odds are, they’ll make the same face they’d make if you’d just showed them their junior high school portrait. You know, the one when they were going through their awkward phase?
On one hand, the reaction is understandable. Croom was 21-38 in his five years as head coach of the Bulldogs from 2004 through 2008. He was just 10-30 in Southeastern Conference games. There was Maine. There was Auburn 3, MSU 2. There was the 2008 Egg Bowl beatdown. And yes, there was more.
However here’s what the scoreboard doesn’t show. Here’s what no career records will ever indicate. Here’s one of the things that’ll be on display Saturday night as Croom – an Alabama native and former player and assistant coach for the Crimson Tide – goes into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame: Sylvester Croom is one of the good guys.
While that might not be enough to endear him to a football fan base as much as consistent winning and championships would’ve, it’s absolutely enough to make Croom stand out in a field where, well, some folks just aren’t as concerned with how they handle their business.
“He’s a terrific human being,” former Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton told me when I asked him about Croom on Friday. “Probably one of the most Christian, devoted, what-you-see-is-what-you-get guys that I’ve ever known. Just a great human being.”
I’ve got a challenge for all of you reading this. Go find something – anything – negative about Sylvester Croom. See if you can find anybody that would speak ill of him. I dare say the only thing you’ll ever find that you can hold over his head goes back to what we talked about earlier – the football scoreboard.
And here’s the deal with that. This isn’t to make any excuses for Croom. MSU was well within reason to pull the plug after his five years. But don’t forget the monumental task State handed Croom to begin with.
The Bulldogs were 8-27 over the three seasons before Croom arrived. They were staring down the barrel of punishment from the NCAA. Croom wasn’t trying to dig State out of a hole. He was forced to try and scale all the way up the side of a massive canyon.
“We asked Sylvester to come into a very difficult job,” Templeton said. “We were going through an NCAA probation. We knew we were going to get sanctions. We knew we had some issues that needed to be cleaned up. And he accepted that challenge and honestly, I think he got this football program headed in the right direction. While Dan Mullen was a great football coach, he inherited a pretty good football team when he walked on this campus (before the 2009 season).”
Yes, you all are well aware of how the Croom story ended in Starkville. There was the moment in 2007 where it seemed as though he might be pulling the Bulldogs back to respectability (8-5 with a Liberty Bowl victory), but it all fell apart in 2008 and Croom was dismissed by then-recently-hired MSU athletic director Greg Byrne.
The Croom tenure at Mississippi State was over, but its impact was not. I can’t count the number of people that have praised Sylvester Croom over the last decade-plus as I’ve both worked in the MSU athletic department and then covered the Bulldogs as a member of the media. It happened again in a conversation I had with someone just a few days ago.
That’s not to even mention the fact of how Croom broke down the color barrier in the SEC.
“Mississippi State chose the best coach at that point in our history and he happened to be a minority and it happened to be the first minority football coach in the Southeastern Conference,” Templeton said. “(Former SEC Commissioner) Mike Slive, until the day he went to the grave, said it was the most significant event that happened under his leadership as the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference.”
Alas though, none of it was enough for Croom to last in Starkville. Again, as it has for many coaches before him and will be the case for many coaches after him, that darn scoreboard proved to be the problem.
Of course Croom’s football career isn’t relegated to just his five-year stint at MSU. He won three SEC championships and a national title as an offensive lineman at Alabama. He then won a couple more national championships as an Alabama assistant coach. He’s spent decades as an NFL assistant. There’s no other way to look at Croom’s football career that dates back about half a century as anything other than a roaring success, even if about 10 percent of that career included his tumultuous time in maroon and white.
And beyond that, Croom’s success story is one that goes far beyond any football field. He’s impacted countless young men. He’s been a shining example for others, myself included if only momentarily. I had several interactions with Croom as I worked in the athletic department during his tenure. He was always gracious, kind and attentive to even a lowly student like me.
I suspect a lot of Croom’s character was built by his parents, including a father that was a minister and team chaplain at Alabama. I’d guess Sylvester Croom, Sr., probably at some point mentioned Matthew 5:16 from the bible to his son – “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Croom was, and is, a shining light. If the scoreboard kept points for that, very few would have ever been able to hang with him.