Bryant’s influence weighs heavy on Croom|[12/26/07]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 26, 2007

STARKVILLE — Sylvester Croom had no idea the words his father spoke to Paul “Bear” Bryant would define his life.

He only knew that the legendary coach of his favorite team was asking the Rev. Sylvester Croom Sr. to let him play for Alabama — something impossible even a year earlier for a poor black preacher’s son in the deeply divided South.

Don’t give him nothing because he’s black, the elder Croom told Bryant. Don’t take nothing away from him because he’s black.

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“That was his belief because in his mind, his whole idea about integration was simply this: All I want you to do is open the door and let me walk in. I’ll do the rest,” the younger Croom said. “Just don’t say I can’t. Just give me a chance.”

More than 35 years later, the Mississippi State coach has made the most of that chance as he prepares to lead the Bulldogs into Saturday’s Liberty Bowl against Central Florida. The appearance marks the 25th anniversary of Bryant’s last game, a tense 21-15 win over Illinois.

From All-America center to the first black coach in the Southeastern Conference and now 2007 SEC coach of the year, the 53-year-old Croom has charted a path so unlikely for any black boy growing up in civil rights era Tuscaloosa, Ala., that he never bothered to dream it.

“Alabama A&M, that’s where I was going,” Croom said. “Up until ’71, up until my senior year, I never thought about going anywhere else but Alabama A&M.”

Then Bryant entered his life, making him one of the first five black players at Alabama, and hiring him as an assistant after that.

Croom’s thoughts are always on Bryant, but even more so as he celebrates a breakthrough 7-5 season and the Bulldogs’ first bowl since 2000. His players are used to hearing Croom channel Bryant’s wisdom and words.

“That’s who we feel like we’re playing for sometimes,” said tailback Anthony Dixon, the subject of a few of Croom’s growling Bear-like speeches. “We feel like we know what some of them Alabama players felt like when they were playing for Bear Bryant back in the day. We really do. There’s a lot of it in him.”

Bryant was an exceptional coaching model. He won 323 games at Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Alabama, and guided the Crimson Tide to five Associated Press national titles. Croom said he was a tremendous organizer and motivator who wasn’t afraid of change.

“When he talked to the team I wrote down a lot of the things,” Croom said. “I still read them. I have incorporated a lot of it into the program. Even some of the old recruiting material they’ve got, hey, I take them and put them on our stationery. I’m not ashamed.”

Croom did not always appreciate Bryant’s wisdom, though. Croom earned his scholarship as a tight end and linebacker. Bryant soon switched him to tackle. No explanation was forthcoming — and there was no thought given to asking for one. Starters might be demoted, offensive players switched to defense, seemingly without cause.

“You hated him for it, but the deal was you knew just when you thought you couldn’t take no more, he was going to say or do something to make you feel like you’re his favorite child,” Croom said.

Over time Croom began to accept Bryant’s decisions without question because they were usually dead on. Bryant saw enough in Croom that he asked him to join his coaching staff, though he never explained to his protege why.

“The way I look at it is he had so much confidence in himself that he felt he could overcome my coaching,” Croom joked.

Croom spent decades as an assistant at Alabama and in the NFL, coaching the likes of Barry Sanders and gaining the respect needed to become a head coach. Yet those who knew Croom at Alabama never thought he’d be a coach.

Most thought he’d become a preacher, like his father.

Looking back, though, Croom’s former roommate, Mike Washington, said the coach already had most of the traits he uses so successfully today.

“He was different,” said Washington, an SEC official who remains close friends with Croom. “I always thought it was because he was the child of a preacher. You’re different when you’re the son of a Baptist Methodist preacher in Alabama. He was serious in his work and he was serious on the field.”

Mississippi State’s berth in the Liberty Bowl comes in large part to the Bulldogs’ upset of Alabama this year. Croom’s second consecutive victory over his alma mater was like a kick aimed at the guts of Tide fans.

Alabama officials had their shot at him in 2003 and chose another former Tide player, Mike Shula. But the snub made him wonder if he’d ever get the chance in the who-you-know world of football.

“This is the way I thought, particularly being a black coach: If the school that I played for and coached for in the hometown that I grew up in, if they ain’t gonna hire me, nobody is,” Croom said.

Mississippi State took a chance on Croom a year later and began reaping the rewards this season, a year after Shula was fired. The Bulldogs won just nine games in his first three probation-shackled years and there was intense pressure to win and calls to fire him.

Yet nothing in those lean years compares to the pressure Croom and the rest of the Alabama coaching staff felt in 1982 as Illinois put together a late drive that threatened Bryant’s last win.

“It’s the most pressurized game I’ve ever been associated with,” Croom said. “You can’t lose. I can still remember that last drive to this day. They were driving the football and I’m thinking, ‘We’ve got to stop them. We can’t lose this last game. We can’t live with this,’ and that’s the way we felt. We couldn’t live the rest of our lives in Alabama if we lose this game.”