By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The fifth installment of the ESPN Films SEC “Storied” series debuts on Tuesday with the film “Croom,” highlighting the career of Sylvester Croom, the first African-American head football coach in the Southeastern Conference. The film will premiere at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday on ESPNU.
It was directed by Sports Emmy winner Johnson McKelvy, who sat down with the SEC Digital Network for this Q&A to discuss the film “Croom.”
SEC Digital Network: What appealed to you about Sylvester Croom’s story and how did that inspire your film?
Johnson McKelvy: “He has such a rich history. Growing up in the South, his upbringing is rooted in the civil rights movement and I’m a history guy. I love a good story and his starts all the way back in the middle 1950s and runs through to today. He’s still building his resume and he’s had an amazing life and been a pioneer. He’s an amazing man and a very compelling character. I was drawn to that.”
SEC Digital Network: As you interviewed a number of people about Sylvester Croom, what were some of the recurring themes that people mentioned about him?
Johnson McKelvy: “People honestly kept circling back to the character of the man. He is a difference maker; as a football coach, as a father and a friend, he was trying to help these young men become better human beings first. I think he truly cared deeply about his kids. It’s funny, building character, changing attitudes and becoming better human beings, that starts at the top. Sylvester Croom was one of those guys. He has immense character; it rubs off on you. I think it rubs off on his players. There was a major change at Mississippi State and his footprints are felt there today.”
SEC Digital Network: You talk about the civil rights movement a lot in the film; how formative was that experience in his life?
Johnson McKelvy: “I don’t want to say it is everything, but he and I were talking about this and you can’t have an understanding of the measure of a man without knowing where he’s from. You can’t understand the journey someone has taken without understanding the first step. That was his experience as a kid, going to school as one of the first black kids at Tuscaloosa High. It was just the era and the city that he was born in and those experiences definitely influenced him and have influenced him as he has gone through life. He takes great pride in his family, great pride in his roots and it was a difficult time in our history. I think he learned a great deal from it. He pays attention to it; he hasn’t shelved it. It made him a better person for having gone through the experience.”
SEC Digital Network: What was your experience like working with Sylvester Croom on this film?
Johnson McKelvy: “He’s a fantastic guy; he’s funny and we enjoy each other. In 2007, I did a feature about him. We got along really well in 2007 and he’s a story that I always wanted to circle back and do. There’s just so much there, so much more that I wanted to say about him. He’s a good soul. He’s an old soul, but a good soul and I’d like to think we are going to be friends for a very long time. He’s a very, very good man.”
SEC Digital Network: How do you feel like “Croom” fits in with the SEC Storied series?
Johnson McKelvy: “There are three black coaches in the SEC now and I think Sylvester Croom laid the groundwork for those coaches. Somebody has to be first and I think he was a great choice. You have to tip your hat to [former Mississippi State athletics director] Larry Templeton and the group at Mississippi State for picking Croom. That’s where this story fits. It fits within the evolution of the conference. In a way, I feel like ‘Croom’ stands on its own. I feel like ‘Croom’ could be a 30 for 30 and run in the documentary world. It is a story that people are going to gravitate to and a story that should be told.”
SEC Digital Network: What do you hope viewers take away from this film when they watch it?
Johnson McKelvy: “In some respects, I hope people have a greater understanding of Sylvester Croom the man, what he’s been through and the impact he has had on these young men and that program. Sylvester is a great coach and winning is very important to him, but he wasn’t going to sacrifice his integrity in order to win. That says a lot about the man. For Croom, it was never about wins and losses, it was about his players. If that’s the epitaph for him, I’m pretty sure that’s something he could live with.”