Why the Croom era ended in year 5

By Bo Bounds

The Sports Think Tank – Sylvester Croom took over Mississippi State in December of 2003, after spending 17 years in professional football. Croom had not recruited a player on the collegiate level since 1987. And it showed. He had never been a coordinator at the college level. And it showed from the get-go. I blame Larry Templeton more than anybody else in this situation. And, yes, Croom should have run an offense that he could recruit around. The West Coast was a debacle from the start.

From 1987 to 2003 college football changed. Sylvester Croom did not. As a position coach (and a coordinator for brief time) in the NFL, Croom could do his thing and go home. As the CEO of a college football program you have to live, eat, sleep and breathe “The Program”. Yes, hiring Woody McCorvey and a 27-year old graduate assistant to be your recruiting coordinator was a mistake. Keeping Guy Holliday, but not retaining Jim Tompkins was borderline insane. Loading up your first staff with non-recruiters was painful to watch. Trying to implement the West Coast offense with Omar Conner was down right too much. The list could go on. At the end of the day, Larry Templeton was not prepared to hire a football coach in 2003. In turn, Sylvester Croom was setup to fail from the start with a probation-laden team, mixed in with poor scheduling and a promise of 5-6 years to build the program. A good football coach can turn around a program in 3-4 years, regardless of what they do or don’t inherit.

The New SEC

There is no time for learning on the job in the new SEC. With heavyweights like Saban and Meyer, and outstanding coaches like Richt, Nutt and Johnson, you cannot learn on the job. It was obvious Croom was learning on the job from Day 1. Not only was he learning, but the athletic director at the time, Larry Templeton, made sure to sell/dictate a couple of things to Croom and the public:
1. Croom would get all the time in the world to turn around a losing program.
2. Croom had to clean up a program full of ‘bad apples’.

Both were overplayed. And I mean over and over like a broken record. Unfortunately, the majority of the MSU fan base bought into Templeton’s plan. Nobody gets all the time in the world to build a program in major college football. College football is a money driven sport. The horse was let out of the barn 20 years ago, and John Wayne is not coming back with the horse.

A group of us happened to buy Maroon & White Magazine in Sly Croom’s first year as the head football coach. Obviously, we covered Croom and the program on a day-to-day basis. In the first one-on-one interview with Croom, I was blown away with two things. First, how good he was in a one-on-one setting. There was no doubt he was a preacher’s son. I remember thinking his demeanor was perfect for “sofa recruiting”. Croom talked a great game. Second, Croom talked about building a program with character and integrity over and over. But he never gave specifics, and I kept thinking – When did Croom build a program?

Croom was trying to learn on the job, with a weak supporting cast, in the SEC. It can’t be done. Not today. The my way or the highway mentality is fine, but there is no need to self-impose major probation on your own program, by running off just about every player associated with the former coach. Bulldog fans cheered that first year of cleansing. Then they woke up in 2005, and started to ask the question: Will the attrition ever stop?

It was almost like Croom and the program fed-off the players leaving. And there were rumors of a double-standard from day one. Regardless, you can’t run-off 30-plus players at Alabama, much less Mississippi State. And you damn sure can’t run-off players at that pace, while racking up average recruiting classes. Early on, the cleansing was celebrated. By 2006, most people realized the numbers were not there to win anytime soon. The “rebuilding” process was closing in on year three, and progress was not being made.

2007, the aberration

2007 was a glorious year on the field for the Bulldogs. Several close wins produced the first winning season and bowl bid since 2000. Majority of the fan-base jumped back on the bandwagon in 2007. With an opportunistic defense and good special teams play, MSU was able to overcome another bad year on the offensive side of the football to win 8 games. Fluke wins in the SEC? Maybe. Bottom line, after the off the field incident in the spring of 2008, and no improvement on the offensive side of the football, MSU took a giant step backwards in 2008.

New Sheriff in town

Greg Byrne will tell you he wanted to be an athletic-director ever since he was a little kid.
Byrne understands now that his dream has come true, if the coaches he hires or retains don’t win, he goes back to a head-fundraiser position in D-I athletics. Athletic departments are driven by money and wins. CBS and ESPN will pour $3 billion into the richest league in America over the next decade. With that money, you will see better facilities and higher expectations across the board. Learning on the job and 5-year rebuilding plans do not fit into that criteria. The “new” SEC is a big-boy ballgame. Byrne proved last spring he could handle a difficult situation. This weekend re-enforced what many have believed all along….There’s a new sheriff in Starkville, and winning football games is a priority, today.

The Future

Byrne is comfortable in this situation, unlike his predecessor. He’s prepared. Byrne has said over and over you always have a “short-list” on hand as an athletic director. One thing MSU has to avoid – a learning curve coach. The Bulldogs need a head coach and staff full of recruiters. Players are the life-blood of the program, and MSU doesn’t have enough good players to compete for a bowl every year. Sylvester Croom did a solid job, and represented the university in a first class way for 5-years. Now, it’s up to Byrne to go out and find a coach who can lead Mississippi State to football games played in late December and early January.

Bo Bounds is the editor of Yallsports.com. He is the host of the fast-paced, irreverent sports talk radio show, Out of Bounds on Supersport 930.