Long Time Coming As the SEC's first black head football coach, SYLVESTER CROOM knows he is a symbol, but he's more concerned with helping Mississippi State win a few games

April 18, 2004

History really was made here, in the college town of Starkville,
Miss., not far from the Alabama line. One of the last unwritten
taboos in college sports really was busted here, amid the dark
pine barrens and clear-cut timber and nowhere roads, when
Sylvester Croom became the first man of his color hired as a
head football coach in the storied Southeastern Conference. Yet
four months later if you ask players, fans or university
officials whether history has been made, they tend to say much
the same thing, at first: Mississippi State hired a coach, not
a color. ¶ "We have never once mentioned in a press release
that he is the first black coach in the SEC," says Mike Nemeth,
the school's associate director for media relations. People at
the school say that Croom's race had nothing to do with his
hiring, where the respected longtime college and professional
assistant coach is being asked to snatch up a sliding
program--one that may slip deeper still, as the NCAA mulls
punishment for alleged recruiting violations under former coach
Jackie Sherrill--and shake it into something people can be
proud of again. The university's president and its athletic
director, praised for their courage, almost shrug. "The
university could not have bought this publicity for a million
dollars," says the president, J. Charles Lee. But, "That
courage issue was never a significant factor for me."

It is the same in the community. "Well, I asked my boyfriend,
Buster, about him, and Buster said, 'He's going to be a good
one,'" says Louise Ming, who is 78 and has sewn a maroon sweater
for his toy bulldog on the shelf. Croom can win, people are
saying. Too much time has passed to yammer on about color.
Mississippi State has an A-plus football man, they say, and by
God, that is all that matters.

"Same thing as if he was white," agrees Howard (Buster) Hood, who
is retired from the dairy business and food industry and already
has paid for his season tickets. "We give him a chance. He can't
do the job, we don't need him."

But something odd happens the more you let people talk, the more
you ask them who they are, where they are from, what they
remember about life before integration--or, if they're very
young, what they were told about that time--and it becomes clear,
as a Mississippi writer once said, that the past is not dead
here, nor even past. Croom himself, sitting in a spacious office
with still-bare shelves, first swears that maroon and white, not
black and white, are the colors of this football team, the only
colors that concern him now.

Then the 49-year-old coach drifts back in his mind to the people
who bled and died in a struggle he remembers mostly through the
eyes of a child and teenage boy--people who absorbed genuine
hatred, who changed his society and made it possible for him to
play his way onto the Alabama football team in 1971, the second
year that Paul (Bear) Bryant allowed black players on his squad.
And he begins to cry.

His father, in the late 1940s, feared being lynched. Croom
himself attended a newly integrated junior high school where
students refused to talk to him or even look at him, where a spit
wad spattered on his face the first day of classes.

But none of that is worth crying over, for Croom. It is the
memory of a white woman that is causing him to break down, a
39-year-old homemaker and mother of five from Detroit who
volunteered to drive protesters during the historic
Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965. Three Ku Klux
Klansmen pulled up beside her as she drove down a stretch of
road, a black man in the seat beside her. It was more than the
Klansmen could stand.

"Viola Liuzzo," says Croom, and he takes off his glasses and
wipes his eyes. It looks a little strange, to see hands that big
wiping at tears. "When she got shot ... all that lady was trying
to do was help someone. Just plain ol' people, trying to do the
right thing, and they killed her."

That was perhaps the first time the young Sylvester Croom
realized the awful cost of the change that was taking place
around him. And suddenly it very much matters that a black man is
the head coach at a school in the conference of the Bear, the Big
Orange, Death Valley and the Loveliest Village on the Plain.
Because if it doesn't matter, then what was all that suffering
for?

"It was coming, sooner or later," says Ming, who is white, a few
days after she approached Croom in a Starkville diner and asked
him for his autograph, for Buster. She even had her picture taken
with him. Not too long ago, this would have been scandalous. Now
the autograph--a black man's name--is in a frame, a thing of
value. Southerners get where they need to go, Ming says sweetly,
"but we don't like to be pushed."

Nearly 40 years have passed since the first black scholarship
athlete took the field in the SEC. And a lifetime, it seems, has
passed since Sylvester Croom kicked a field goal over the
clothesline in his yard in Tuscaloosa and dreamed about being
swept up into glory on the Crimson Tide. But even as he entered
high school, the only players wearing Alabama jerseys were white.
"No way I should be sitting here," he says from his MSU office,
his mind hung up--for just a moment--on that clothesline.

Then, that quickly, he is standing before a team of SEC
athletes--his boys--in the Mississippi State field house. He's
one of only five black head football coaches in Division I-A,
five out of 117. His players sit straight and tense, and you get
the feeling that if he told them to jump off a roof, they would
balk only long enough to write notes to their mamas.

"We're kind of tickled with him," says Jimmy Cowan, class of
1959, a retired engineer who lives in Aberdeen, Miss., and drives
his recreational vehicle to all the Bulldogs' home and away games
and--like most white Mississippians of his generation--went to
all-white schools.

"It was a chance to do the right thing," Douglas Brinkley,
historian, author and director of the Eisenhower Center for
American Studies in New Orleans, says of Croom's hiring. But,
because of the coach's credentials, "it was also a safe thing."

Head football coach of a state school in the South is a position
whose prestige rivals, and in some places exceeds, that of the
governor. In the increasingly conservative, increasingly
Republican South, the first black coach in the SEC had to be
someone too solid to question, too deserving to deny. "We have to
be able to say we were looking for the best football coach, not
to cure the ills of our state," Brinkley says of the Southern
mind-set.

Croom wishes, of course, that his father had lived to see this.
The Reverend Sylvester Croom Sr. passed in January 2000, but not
before he saw many of the barriers that he once peered through
knocked to the ground. His sons, Kelvin and Sylvester Jr., both
played for the Bear, and Croom Sr. became the Alabama football
team's chaplain, invoking God on behalf of whites and blacks (but
rarely Auburn). He died too soon to see his older son take over
an SEC program. But Kelvin, the baby brother, knows what their
father probably would have done. He would have placed a hand on
Sylvester's shoulder and, in a voice that always seemed to be
dropping down from a mountain, told him something you had to know
Croom Sr. to understand: "Son, you had the best ice cream."

In the glow of the stage lights, in a community theater in
Tuscaloosa, a wrongly accused black man stood trial for his life.
It was only theater, only another local interpretation of the
classic To Kill a Mockingbird, but in the pitch dark of the
auditorium, sweat beaded on the Reverend Dr. Kelvin Croom's face.
In his mind he did not see an actor, a stage or the curtain that
could drop and cover the ugliness of the story with thick, soft
velvet. "In my mind," he says, "I saw my father."

He saw the same South, the same story, but this one unfolded in
Holt, Ala., not Harper Lee's Maycomb, in the mid-1940s. A white
woman had been raped and had told authorities that three black
men had done it. Justice had to be swift, for the sake of
society. It did not need to be accurate.

Sylvester Croom Sr. had been out rabbit hunting with two of his
brothers. They had blood and hair on their clothes when police
went for them, acting on a tip from a black woman who said she
had seen the Croom boys splashed with red.

Police arrested them and put them in jail, even as local
clergymen tried to convince authorities that the boys were
innocent. A short time later, fearing for the safety of their
prisoners, officials spirited the boys out of the local jail and
took them to a Birmingham lockup.

All this happened before Kelvin and Sylvester Jr. were born, and
the story would be told and retold, sharpened every time, an old
razor that still draws blood. How close, Kelvin would always
think. How close his father had come to being another victim of a
doomed, hateful way of life. "It was hard to sit through that
play," Kelvin says.

The elder Croom's arrest might have cowed some men, might have
made some men walk with their eyes glued to the tops of their
shoes. Sylvester Croom Sr. straightened up tall in the service of
God and took to wearing a cowboy hat. "You can't keep a good man
down," he would boom from his pulpit at Beautiful Zion A.M.E.
Zion Church in southwest Tuscaloosa, "and you can't keep a bad
man up."

He was 6'4", 290 pounds, and on the football field at all-black
Alabama A&M he had hit like a pickup truck. The stories he told
and the ones told about him made his boys want to be him.
"Against South Carolina State, in about 1950, he picked up a ball
on the one or two and ran it all the way back for a touchdown,"
says Sylvester Jr. "I'd always liked that story, and in my head I
always saw myself doing that."

In the pulpit Sylvester Sr. was demanding, unbending. If he saw
his sons acting a fool or just not paying attention, he would
point one big finger at them, silently passing sentence, and it
augered right into their hearts. "You didn't enjoy any of the
rest of that sermon," Kelvin says. "You knew what was coming when
you got home."

As the civil rights movement took hold of Alabama, Sylvester Sr.
lived the nonviolence that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr. preached, but in the afternoons he would stand at the
practice field fence and stare at the vaunted all-white Alabama
football team, and dream. His sons stood with him, dreaming too.

To work beside a man or share a lunch counter with him or sit
with him on a bus, that meant something. But to line up across
from him in full pads and slam into him with all the power in
your body, without any consequence beyond the outcome of a play,
a game? When was a man more free than that?

Tuscaloosa, like the rest of Alabama, was rigidly segregated,
with an insidious Klan presence. The Alabama campus was
off-limits--Sylvester Croom Jr. never strolled across it, or even
walked past it. He saw it from the windows of cars.

Once, in the midst of the civil rights movement, an ice cream
vendor came to Croom Sr. for counsel. "He was having difficulty,"
Kelvin says. It was a matter of conscience. The vendor was known
to have the best ice cream in Tuscaloosa, and people--blacks and
whites--lined up for it. He served whites through the front door
and blacks through the back door. His business thrived, within
the conventions of society. But it was a time to question
convention, and the vendor, who was white, wanted to do something
revolutionary. He wanted to serve blacks and whites through one
door. "He knew what was right, but he needed someone to lean on,"
Kelvin says.

"You do have the best ice cream in town," Croom Sr. told the
vendor. The people would have to decide if it was worth standing
beside someone of another color to get some. "Serve it from one
door," he told the vendor, and make it about flavor, not about
color.

There is a Southern tradition of lamentation when it comes to
daddies. Men have been known to drink too much and talk and cry
all night, remembering. But a sober man sings the best songs of
praise.

"I guess the best sermon he preached was the one he lived,"
Kelvin says. "If anybody did without in our house, it was him. It
was important to him what Mom, me and Sly thought of him. He
always told us to love people, to never hold grudges." It would
have been just words if Kelvin and Sylvester Jr. had not known
that their father had a reason to hate.

"He always said, 'You got to do right every day,'" Sylvester Jr.
says.

"Work within the system when you can," Kelvin says.

"Fight by the rules," Sylvester Jr. says.

"And," Kelvin says, "have the best ice cream."

The spit wad caught him square in the face. It was his welcome to
the overwhelmingly white junior high school in Tuscaloosa that he
and, later, his brother attended.

He did not do a thing except wipe it off. "I look around, and I'm
ticked, and I see who did it," Sylvester Croom Jr. says.

"Follow Dr. King's teachings, no matter what happens," his father
had said.

Later that day, at football practice, Sylvester Jr. saw the boy
who had thrown the spit wad--across the line from him in pads. "I
hit him as hard as I could," Croom says, and he laughs out loud.
It was a bone-numbing hit. "I would find a way to hit him ...
every day."

But is that in keeping with Dr. King's teachings? "Sometimes,"
Kelvin says, "you slip."

White students refused to be Sylvester Jr.'s study partners, to
share a locker with him, to let him into groups formed for class
projects. He was not so much mistreated as ignored. The thing he
hated most was the silence, which he endured even in a hallway
that rang with voices and pounding feet and banging lockers. "The
biggest fear I had was just being isolated," he says. For all the
interaction he had with students in some classes, "I might as
well have been a tree."

But kindnesses, and courage, filled the silence. The practice
field was three miles from the school, and the ninth-grade
football players had to get there as best they could. The handful
of black players did not have a ride, and it took time to walk
three miles. They would have to miss part of practice. But the
first week of football a car pulled up, and a white player, a
quarterback named Stan Bradford, motioned the black players over.
There was not room enough for all of them to sit in the backseat,
so a couple of them squeezed into the front, beside Bradford's
mother.

Every one of them knew that this was taboo, that people had been
killed for less. "You just didn't sit with no white lady," Croom
says. "It seems like a little thing, but that lady did something
that wasn't supposed to be done in that time, and it changed my
world."

Another challenge to convention came from the Tuscaloosa High
football coach, Billy Henderson. Other Alabama coaches had black
players, but they left them at home or on the bench when they
played in racially charged places such as Montgomery--or across
the state line in Mississippi. But no one was going to tell
Henderson who could start on his football team. "It took courage,
but he believed in us," says Kelvin. "He was some man."

Sylvester Jr. played practically every position--even did some
kicking. He was a big, strong, 5'11" and 195 pounds, and while
his team won only about six games his whole high school career,
he caught the attention of colleges. One day a recruiter from
Alabama stood at the Crooms' door.

Sylvester Jr. had believed that Alabama was for dreaming, and
that A&M was for playing. But Wilbur Jackson had broken the color
line as the Crimson Tide's first black recruit, in 1970, and
Croom followed him there the next year. He remembers his first
day of college. White players, knowing he was from Tuscaloosa,
asked him how to find this place or that on campus.

"How would I know?" he said. "I never been here."

"I wanted one thing," Croom says. "I was sick of losing. I wanted
to win." At that time all Alabama did was win. "And I wanted to
stand there at the foot of Denny Chimes as the captain of the
football team." His teammates, predominantly white, made him that
in 1974.

As a center in the wishbone Croom won honors--he was on Kodak's
All-America team and voted the best offensive lineman in the
SEC--and signed with the New Orleans Saints, for whom he would
play one game. But coaching would be Croom's football future, and
he was an assistant for 10 years at Alabama before moving on to
the pros where he was an assistant coach at Tampa Bay,
Indianapolis, San Diego, Detroit and finally Green Bay. Then,
last May, Alabama fired coach Mike Price. Mama called, as Bryant
liked to say, but the door closed in Croom's face before he could
step inside.

"At one point I thought I had the job," Croom says, and
Alabama--by all accounts--strongly considered him before settling
on former Tide quarterback Mike Shula, who was nearly 11 years
younger than Croom, and that much less experienced.

Croom loves Alabama. His brother, who took over their father's
place in the pulpit at Tuscaloosa's College Hill Baptist Church,
leads the devotion before every Crimson Tide home basketball
game. Not getting the Tide football job hurt Sylvester, says
Kelvin. "He had been successful at every juncture. He was
All-America. Why not bring him back?"

But Sylvester would no more bad-mouth Alabama than he would his
family. Asked about not getting the job, he thinks a minute. Then
he says, "I just remember something Coach Bryant said: 'Go where
they want you.'

"The interest Alabama showed probably opened this door for me,"
he says of Mississippi State. "They wanted me. Not a black coach.
They wanted me."

The MSU athletic director, Larry Templeton, is not worried that
Croom will leave for Alabama if things go badly for Shula and
Mama calls again. "Not the least bit," he says. "Mississippi
State gave him the opportunity, and he will remember that."

He will have every chance to succeed and will not be penalized
for transgressions that may have been committed by his
predecessors. His new contract would be extended for each year
the school might be on probation. "If there are NCAA sanctions,
his four years will begin when those sanctions are over,"
Templeton says.

Any backlash to the hiring of a black coach has been minuscule,
says Lee, the MSU president. "We got mail from Ole Miss
graduates" praising MSU--and some from Alabama, expressing regret
that Alabama didn't get him. The response "reaffirms that
[people] just accepted that it is time. Private giving for
athletics has increased. We're quite happy."

Mississippi State, at least for now, has more pressing problems
than its place in civil rights history. "The program has to be
above reproach," Lee says. He felt Croom would guarantee that.
But then, of course, he also has to win in the SEC. Recruiting
has gone better than expected for a team under an NCAA cloud, but
the players will have to line up against faster, stronger, more
talented teams, such as LSU, and bleed. They need a reason to do
that. They say they will do it for Bulldog pride and a place in
history. Everyone says color doesn't matter, at first. Then you
ask them who they are, where they are from, and....

Deljuan Robinson's mama mopped floors and drove a school bus and
worked every other job she could find to give her four sons a
chance. "She raised us by herself," said Robinson, a 6'4",
295-pound defensive lineman from Hernando, Miss. "She made us
finish school. Wasn't nothin' easy about that." If growing up
poor and black wasn't a deep enough hole, the 19-year-old
Robinson found out two years ago that he had a leaky heart valve.
A scar from open-heart surgery bisects his chest. Now a black man
will succeed or fail as a head coach in the SEC based in part on
how Robinson performs. "I'll be proud to take on a role like
that," Robinson says. "She'll be proud too," he says of his mom.

Quarterback Omarr Conner's father is on dialysis, and his mother
used to work at a chicken plant and now works at a fish plant in
Macon, Miss., about 30 minutes southeast of Starkville. College
football was supposed to be a ticket to something better. Conner
watched his first season, under former Bulldogs coach Jackie
Sherrill, collapse into a 2-10 agony.

Conner will never forget the first team meeting under Croom. "I
thought, God has sent us someone to save us. I am fixing to play
for Coach Croom, and Coach Croom played under Bear Bryant. And I
can tell my child, 'I was part of history. I made history with
the first black coach in the SEC.'"

Croom knows how hard it is to keep believing when the things you
want seem so far away. He is uncomfortable being a symbol. But
there is no denying it, really.

Somewhere, in a backyard in Alabama or Mississippi, a boy is
kicking field goals over the clothesline and throwing touchdown
passes to himself, lobbing the ball so high that he can be
quarterback and receiver all in one.

"He needs to know," Croom says, "that things do change."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HOWARD SCHATZ B/W PHOTO: JACK ENGELHART BREAKING THROUGH Croom (59, against LSU) was the Crimson Tide's first black All-America center. B/W PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA ATHLETICS (INSET) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF SYLVESTER CROOM (TOP) COACH'S PROGRESS Croom was an assistant at 'Bama before moving to the NFL (with Brett Favre, bottom). COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS CALLIES [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE CROOM FAMILY (TOP) CHANGING TIMES Sylvester Sr. (with Sylvester Jr., top left, and Kelvin) would have loved to see Ming (above right) ask his son for an autograph. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES FORWARD MARCH Croom will try to turn the Bulldogs around by emphasizing discipline, conditioning and more passing.

Until a recruiter stood at his door, Croom had believed that
ALABAMA WAS FOR DREAMING, and A&M was for playing.

Croom's players will have to line up against faster, stronger,
more talented teams and bleed. THEY NEED A REASON to do that.

"The best sermon he preached was the one he lived," Kelvin says
of his father. "He told us to NEVER HOLD GRUDGES."

"They wanted me," Croom says of Mississippi State's
administrators. "NOT A BLACK COACH. They wanted me."

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