I remember the last time any coach or athletic director ever listened to my advice, and actually thought I didn’t needed to be drug-tested.
On October 18, 2003, a day after then-Mississippi State football coach Jackie Sherrill announced he was resigning at the end of that season, I wrote the following in The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis (which is still thankfully my day job):
“Now that Sherrill is retiring effective at the end of the season, State has a chance to do more than raise eyebrows. It can drop jaws by becoming the first Southeastern Conference school to hire an African-American football coach.
It is a logical step for the Bulldogs. In 13 years as the winningest coach in State's history, Sherrill made it no secret that one of the selling points to black recruits was the State program and the general atmosphere on campus radiated small-town, middle-class comfort where black athletes could be comfortable.
The unspoken recruiting pitch was that going to Mississippi State would be an easier transition for a black athlete choosing between State and Ole Miss. While that isn't necessarily accurate, all's fair in war and recruiting, and that is what Sherrill used so effectively.
An African-American coach at State would be a good fit, but a qualified African-American coach is a better fit. And there are plenty of them out there, from Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, who recruited Mississippi as a one-time Ole Miss assistant, to Green Bay Packers assistant Sylvester Croom, who got snubbed by his alma mater Alabama when the Tide didn't hire him in May over Mike Shula.”
About a month and a half later, then-Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton made me look like a genius. He hired Sylvester, whose hiring and five seasons from 2004 to 2008 in Starkville have been captured in an ESPN documentary that debuts on ESPNU at 7 p.m. ET on September 25, which happens to be Sylvester’s 58th birthday.
True, Sylvester’s record of 21-38 overall and 10-30 in the SEC was below par, but NCAA probation for violations incurred by State’s previous staff resulted in a loss of 10 scholarships (five each year) for the 2005 and 2006 recruiting classes. Still, Sylvester’s team went 8-5 in his fourth season in 2007, won the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and beat Alabama for the second straight year. He was the SEC’s Coach of the Year that season.
What I liked about Sylvester was that he was a man of integrity, someone determined to play by the rules, someone who never forgot that the “student” in the term “student-athlete” took priority, that making his players better people was as important as improving them on the field.
“We love all these guys, as long as they do the right things on and off the field," Sylvester told me during his first season in ’04 when State went 3-8 but beat No. 20 Florida, 38-31, after the Bulldogs had lost five straight games. "They have to learn how to produce, and I don't think some of them are used to that.
"When they leave here and go out in the world and they get a job, they will be expected to carry their share of the load.
"They're on scholarship here, and as far as I'm concerned, it's like having a job. There's a gap moving from high school to being a professional in whatever endeavor they move into. I want them to learn how to be a real pro."
Sylvester’s philosophy is exactly what Templeton was shopping for when he began to look for Sherrill’s replacement. After Templeton talked to three long-time friends he trusted as advisers, and they all said Sylvester should be on Templeton’s short-list, Templeton flew to Green Bay alone to talk to Sylvester, who was the Packers’ running coach at the time.
“It was the night before the Packers were playing the 49ers and I met him at the 49ers hotel,” recalls Templeton, now a consultant to SEC commissioner Mike Slive, “I said, `Coach, you need to check Mississippi State out, you need to check me out.’ He said, `I already have.’ From that point on, we just clicked. It was very open, very frank.
“When I came back to Starkville, I told our president, `Dr. (Charles) Lee, we don’t need to go much further. You just need to go to Green Bay with me. When we went back to Green Bay, we went back to offer him the job.”
Except there was one snafu. Sylvester had decided he didn’t want it.
Maybe it was because he thought State’s lingering NCAA probation would hurt his recruiting. Maybe it was there were some fights he just didn’t want to fight as the first African-American coach in SEC history.
As the son of a minister, Sylvester, a Tuscaloosa, Ala., native, had already had to face that challenge as one of the first African-American players ever recruited to play at Alabama under Bear Bryant from 1972-74.
Sylvester was an all-America center on three Crimson Tide teams that went a combined 33-4 overall, 21-1 in winning three SEC titles and a national championship. He later was an assistant on Bryant’s last Alabama staff.
Bryant, Sylvester’s late father and Bobby Ross, who hired Croom with the San Diego Chargers in 1992, gave Sylvester the foundation for his principles. In Sylvester’s words, here’s what he gleamed from each:
Bryant: "Coach Bryant said a lot of profound things, but he said one thing that always stuck with me. He said, 'If you ever get to a point where you're trying to figure out what's best for your player or what's best for the program, do what's best for the player, because what's best for the player is what's best for the program.' "
Ross: "Bobby is the most detailed guy I've ever met. Bobby would take our playbook when we finished in the spring, go on vacation and read every word in the playbook. He'd circle any typos or misspellings.
"He said, 'Make a mistake in a playbook and this could be the one play that's the difference in a ballgame. One ballgame could be the difference in us making the playoffs.' He's absolutely right."
Sylvester's father: "Like Coach Bryant, my Dad taught me there's only so much you can do to help somebody succeed. You can't make somebody want to succeed.
"It's that philosophy that 'you can take a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.' After a while, you get tired of trying to make him drink. That's when there's nothing else left to do, and it's time to leave.”
Templeton knew it would take a lot for Sylvester to leave Green Bay, and it wasn’t about money. It was about trust and healing a broken heart.
When Templeton and Dr. Lee hopped a private plane bound for Wisconsin on Nov. 26, 2003, they knew they were about to face someone who had all but given up on his dream of becoming a college head coach. Even at that point with Sylvester's 28 years of coaching experience including 17 seasons in the NFL, the University of Alabama hired the considerably less-experienced Shula in the spring of '03.
After that, Sylvester almost swore he wouldn't feel that pain again, and Templeton realized such an emotional dagger would be the sticking point. So before Templeton and Dr. Lee met with Sylvester for four hours in an Appleton, Wis., hotel room, Templeton formed his strategy.
"I thought it was 50/50 that we'd get Sylvester, but I knew he was our guy," Templeton recalls. "Not one person I talked to about Sylvester said anything bad about him. I promise you there has been no other coach who got checked out as much as Sylvester got checked out.
“I knew that if we didn't get him, that it might take a good bit longer to find someone else. It took us about two hours to convince Sylvester he wasn't going to be the bridesmaid again. I had told Dr. Lee on the flight that we had to convince Sylvester that he was the only guy we were offering the job, and Dr. Lee did a great job of that.
“And then about 30 minutes into the session of him telling us he didn’t think he needed to take the job, I put my hand on his knee and said, `Sylvester, what would your daddy and Coach Bryant want you to do?’
“He said, `You’re not playing fair.’ From that point on, I knew we had him.”
Two days later when Sylvester visited Starkville for the first time, Templeton made sure he closed the deal.
He was driving from his house, where he and Sylvester ate lunch, to State's athletic office building.
"We were stopped at a red light and I said, 'Coach, you realize that you can be under Mama's kitchen table in 65 minutes,'" Templeton remembers. "His eyes lit up."
At the press conference announcing his hiring, Sylvester addressed the historical issue as being the first African-American SEC head football coach in history by saying “The only color that matters is maroon.”
Then in the first five minutes of Sylvester’s first meeting with his new team, he rocked the world of a program that had lost discipline, focus and 23 of its last 26 conference games.
When a couple of players showed up late to the meeting, Sylvester sent them right back out the door. When he saw another player looking down and writing something, Sylvester called him out.
The line was drawn. There was a new sheriff in town, and it was his way or the highway.
"I asked them (in the first meeting) simply if they wanted to win," Sylvester says. "They said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Good, because if you don't believe that way I want you to leave right now.'
"Then I asked them if they were willing to pay the price to win, and I asked them not to raise their hands. I told them, 'Over the next six or seven months you're going to show me whether you're willing or not to pay the price.' "
Sylvester forced all sophomores to move back to campus and away from their off-campus housing. He asked all players who lived off campus for a copy of their leases because he explained at the time “if their
Mama calls to check with me to see how their son is, I want to know where to look.”
To ensure class attendance, Sylvester snuck into players’ classes once a month. One time, he sat at the back of a health and nutrition class and watched one of his players walk in 15 minutes late.
"He didn't even know I was there until I asked the teacher a question,” Sylvester once said of his discipline methods in the first year of his program. “That player looked at me and almost fell out of his chair."
Soon, Sylvester’s players read him perfectly, such as Ronald Fields, a nose tackle that eventually played six seasons in the NFL.
"Croom sent a lot of messages to a lot of people who didn't have the right mindset; he didn't go for all of that," Fields remembers. "His message was that you better roll with the Bulldogs or you'll get rolled over. It was as simple as that."
By the end of Sylvester’s second spring, 11 players had quit. Despite being short of scholarships because of NCAA sanctions, he stuck to his principles and never sacrificed his integrity.
He stayed that way to the end, when he and then-first year State athletic director Greg Byrne agreed at the end of Sylvester’s 4-8 season in 2008, that he was done as Bulldogs’ coach. Sylvester left his successor, Dan Mullen, with enough talent to help Mullen to winning seasons in 2010 and last season.
This year’s Bulldogs, off to a 3-0 start, have 17 players that Sylvester committed or signed, including 15 starters (eight offense, six defense and one specialist). Sylvester, now running backs coach for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars after holding the same position with the St. Louis Rams the previous two seasons, keeps a low profile these days but stays in touch with Templeton.
“I usually talk to him once a month,” Templeton says. “And I know if he was coaching college again today, he’d do it the same way. That’s the only way he knows to go.”
Since Croom’s coaching tenure at Mississippi State, SEC members Kentucky (Joker Phillips in 2010), Vanderbilt (James Franklin in 2011) and Texas A&M (Kevin Sumlin this season) have hired African-American coaches.
Perhaps a sign of progress is the Associated Press wire story from each hiring.
When Sylvester was hired, “first-ever African American SEC head coach ever” was in the first paragraph.
When Phillips and Franklin were hired, the first mention of their race was in the fifth paragraph.
And when Sumlin was hired, it was in the 11th paragraph.
When the day comes that such a fact is so accepted that it’s a waste of space in a story to mention it, that’s when real progress will be made.