Sylvester Croom .. Meet the Coaches ..
By Nick Wagoner
Had Sylvester Croom followed the life plan that he had laid out for himself as a youngster, there’s no doubt he would have had a profound impact on plenty of people.
Make no mistake, though, the things Croom has done and seen in an alternate career path has opened doors, broken down walls and served as inspiration for more people than he might have ever touched as a school administrator.
Croom had originally intended to go through school, coach high school football and eventually work his way up to school principal and eventually superintendent of a local school district.
Instead, Croom became a football coach but what he’s done in a coaching career spanning 32 years has had an impact well beyond what happens on a football field.
“Once I got into coaching, a lot of it had to do at the time there were very few minority coaches, it’s hard to convince yourself you can do something when nobody that looked like you had ever done it,” Croom said. “You know you can but there are a lot of reasons why you can’t do it. But I was raised in a household where you prepare for anything even if the chance is very minor that it could happen.”
Growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Croom spent most of his spare time around a football field. His father, Sylvester Croom Sr., was an All American player at Alabama A&M and eventually became a high school coach.
As a kid, Croom would spend any possible free minute around his father and the game with a particular fondness for games on Friday nights. That played a big role in introducing Croom to the game but he first earned his playing chops on the sandlots of Tuscaloosa.
Football in Alabama is a sort of religion and playing ball on the sandlot fields around town provided kids their first opportunity to experience the competitive aspects of the game.
“It was always serious, even playing in the sandlot,” Croom said. “We’d break up teams based on where you live and what neighborhood you were in. That’s the way we played. It was all about pride. That’s what has always stuck with me in the game.”
It wasn’t until the ninth grade that Croom began playing organized football, stepping on to the team at Tuscaloosa High as a linebacker and tight end. It was in that first year of high school when Croom was first involved in the progress of integration. He was a part of one of the first classes to integrate in Alabama and quickly learned the various moving pieces of that time in history.
Still, as Croom’s career on the field developed and he proved to be one of the better players in the state, he never harbored dreams of doing anything but possibly playing at a traditionally all black college like his father and eventually following his educational pursuits.
As a senior, Croom rooted for the home state school and quarterback Joe Namath but never thought he would get an opportunity to play for the Crimson Tide. In addition to the fact that Alabama had just started accepting black players the year before, Croom said it was rare for players from his part of the state to even get looks from big schools.
So when legendary coach Bear Bryant came calling with an offer to play for the Crimson Tide, Croom didn’t hesitate to take him up on the offer.
Because of his high school experience with the process of integration, Croom said the hardest part of going to Alabama had nothing to do with racial issues and everything to do with playing for the head coach who demanded so much from his players.
“Any trepidation I had wasn’t about integration, it was about Coach Bryant,” Croom said with a laugh. “That was it. A lot of guys like me came and went through there but more than anything it was a test to see if you could play for him. That’s really what it was about going there in those days.”
Croom enjoyed a college career for the Crimson Tide that was nothing short of an overwhelming success. He moved to center and by the time he was a senior became a team captain and earned All American honors. Alabama won the national title in 1973 and two additional Southeastern Conference Championships.
Upon the completion of his college career, Croom had hoped to land a spot playing professionally. That didn’t last long as Croom played one season for New Orleans before moving into the coaching ranks.
As Croom went to get Bryant’s advice on pursuing graduate school on his way to pursuing the higher education needed to be a school administrator, he got a different offer from his coach.
Bryant asked Croom to consider coming on board as a graduate assistant who would specialize in coaching centers.
Once Croom dived into the coaching ranks, it didn’t take long for him to get hooked. Before he had never given much consideration to pursuing the upper reaches of the coaching ranks, let alone ever becoming a head coach.
Croom stayed at Alabama from that first season in 1976 until 1986, moving from graduate assistant to full time assistant working with linebackers. Along the way, the Crimson Tide won plenty of games (including two national championships) and Croom tutored star players such as Derrick Thomas and Cornelius Bennett.
It was a job Croom loved and never envisioned leaving until he started to see other minority coaches getting opportunities to lead their own teams or at the least become coordinators.
“There was a point in my life where if I had stayed at the University of Alabama as an assistant for the rest of my life, I would have been perfectly happy because I never planned (on getting into it),” Croom said.
But when Ray Perkins, who was then the coach at Alabama, took a lucrative offer to go to Tampa Bay, Croom went with him and got his first chance to coach at the game’s highest level.
That was in 1987 and it was the first time Croom coached running backs at any level. He stayed in Tampa Bay until 1991, surviving a 1-15 year and plenty of losing.
Any doubts about whether he did the right thing by getting into coaching were soon erased.
“I guess when you really know it’s what you want to do is when it looks like you will not be able to do it again,” Croom said. “You have those moments where you don’t know where you will end up. Going 1-15 is when you REALLY know it’s your life’s work.”
Croom would go on to spend time in Indianapolis and San Diego before new Detroit coach Bobby Ross would give Croom a shot at breaking down another important barrier in his coaching career, naming Croom the Lions offensive coordinator in 1997, a position he held until 2000.
After that, Croom would go to Green Bay as running backs coach for the next three seasons. But it was that chance to be a coordinator that Croom believes helped him get where he would go next.
Croom interviewed and fell just short of getting the vacant head coaching position at Alabama. That interview opened doors for Croom and eventually Mississippi State came calling.
While the Crimson Tide weren’t ready to make Croom the first black head coach in SEC history, it was a move Mississippi State was willing to embrace.
In 2004, Croom was announced as the new head coach of the Bulldogs, shattering a barrier that many thought would never be broken.
In the immediate aftermath of his hiring, Croom didn’t concern himself with the cultural significance of his new job.
“I was very thankful and after being there, I look back on it…at the time I knew it was big but I didn’t realize how significant it was,” Croom said. “I was just looking for a chance to be a head coach and I had a job to do so I put blinders on and was full speed ahead.”
Croom’s rebuilding job at Mississippi State took some time but peaked in 2007 when he led the Bulldogs to eight victories and a Liberty Bowl win. In the process, he earned SEC Coach of the Year honors and appeared to have the program on its way back to contending on a regular basis.
Mississippi State regressed in 2008 and Croom tendered his resignation after some changes in philosophy were made around him and he refused to compromise on the values he had instilled in his time there.
“I thank God for having had the opportunity and I thank the fans for supporting me and I have a great gratitude for the players who played for me,” Croom said. “The guys came there and gave everything they had and I will forever be grateful for those things. It was a tough, hard road but I am a better man because of it and I know without a doubt that the players will be better men because of it.”
When Croom arrived at the Senior Bowl in January, he had little expectation for what the trip would yield. He had friends considered for head coaching jobs around the league but none of them got jobs. So, when he arrived in Mobile, he was forced to rely on his name being spread by friends in the business.
One of his friends dropped Croom’s name to new Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo and Croom got a surprising interview opportunity. It didn’t take long for Croom’s knowledge and resume to put him on the short list of coaches to land on Spagnuolo’s staff. Soon enough, Spagnuolo made Croom the team’s new running backs coach.
The fit was a perfect one.
“The things they believe in; discipline, character, toughness are things I believe in also,” Croom said. “I don’t want to be in another system. This was a great fit for me.”
In a long and distinguished career teaching young men about football on the field and life off of it, Croom never quits learning himself. Maybe he didn’t do his teaching in a classroom but the lessons he has taken away from the game on and off the field were equally important.
“The game has had a huge impact on who I am as a man other than who I am as a coach other than my philosophy as a coach,” Croom said. “The things I feel about football are the things I feel about life. To me, it’s about giving it your best in whatever you do all the time. I try to apply that in my life and instill it in players and people all around.”
Re: Sylvester Croom .. Meet the Coaches ..
Croom is a class act, I was very glad when I heard we got him as our RB coach. He's been under some of the best, and was able to get a lot more out of his Mississippi State football teams than most others would have.