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Croom’s long and winding coaching road reaches its end

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While many Bama players stepped from the Capstone into legend, fewer cast a longer shadow historically than former Tide All-American Center and coach Sylvester Croom

Mississippi State v LSU
His win-loss record may not reflect it, but Croom’s legacy looms large in the SEC.
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

For many of Bama’s most recent generation of fans, the name Sylvester Croom may not mean a great deal. NFL junkies may have seen his name on numerous professional coaching rosters in the last two decades. Others may remember his stint as a coach at Mississippi State in the mid-2000s. But for those well-versed in the Tide’s great teams of the 1970s, Croom is an icon and a representative of Coach Paul Bryant’s impact on the field of sports.

Croom was a fantastic player, but he grew into a fantastic leader of men. Steeped in the same hard-nosed tradition as many Tide greats of Bryant’s heyday, Croom is a man (and coach) forged in the furnace of hard-work, discipline, and doing things “the right way.” He carried that legacy with him from his high school days, through his college years, and beyond into a coaching career that spanned four decades. Now, after being released from his most recent duty station as running backs coach for the Tennessee Titans, Croom has decided to let the sun set on a noteworthy career…at least, for the moment.

Alabama’s former All-American center announced last week that he was calling it a career after being released from the Tennessee staff following a coaching change, with plans to retire to Mobile where his daughter has lived for the last decade. Behind him he casts a long shadow, as his impact on the game went well beyond X’s and O’s, cracking a long-standing glass ceiling in the SEC and becoming a pivotal part of the integration of Southern football.

Humble Beginnings

Born on September 25, 1954, Croom loved the game of football from his youth. How could he not? His father, Rev. Sylvester Croom Sr., was a legendary All-American player in his own right at Alabama A&M in the days before the college game was integrated. Named one of the top 40 civil rights pioneers in the state by the University of Alabama, Croom Sr. also served as team chaplain to the Crimson Tide following the team’s integration in the early 1970s.

As a Tuscaloosa native, Croom became a starter at Tuscaloosa High School, where he played both linebacker and tight end. In his senior year in 1971, he was named the team’s “Outstanding Player,” and with a football pedigree and local proximity to the Capstone, he signed to play for Bryant and don the crimson and white.

Initially, Croom played his familiar positions, working at both linebacker and tight end at Alabama. However, the Tide needed a center, and Croom had the bulk, aggressiveness, and quickness off the ball to fill that void well. He settled at center, and his upward trajectory began. It culminated with an outstanding campaign in 1974, when Croom was named a Kodak All-American and won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy. Alabama was a winner during the center’s career in Tuscaloosa, as the Tide claimed three SEC Championships between 1972-74, including an undefeated regular season in 1974 in which the Tide’s only loss came in the Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame.

Coaching Career

After graduating from Alabama, Croom tried his hand as a professional player with the New Orleans Saints. That was a short experiment, however, as Croom gave up his playing career after a single season to enter the field of coaching. In 1976, he returned to his alma mater as a graduate assistant, which began an 11-year stint coaching alongside Bryant and his successor Ray Perkins. At Alabama, Croom was a defensive coach, and he had the pleasure of coaching four eventual first-round NFL Draft picks (including Tide and NFL legends Derrick Thomas and Cornelius Bennett). During his time as a coach at the Capstone, Alabama played in 10 bowl games, won back-to-back national championships (1978 and 1979), and won four SEC Championships.

When Perkins left the University of Alabama to try his hand as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Croom left with him as a running backs coach. He was there for four years before moving on to Indianapolis in 1991. From there, he moved to the San Diego Chargers in 1992 (a stint which involved an appearance in Super Bowl XXIX) before taking the offensive coordinator position in Detroit from 1997-2000. It was during his stay at Green Bay from 2001-2003 that his name began to be mentioned around college coaching vacancies, as he had proven himself a strong leader and purveyor of sound offensive football.

Meanwhile, Croom’s alma mater had fallen on tumultuous times. The Mike DuBose Era of Alabama football had been encouraging enough early on, but after a 3-8 season in 2000, the former Alabama linebacker was ushered out. He was replaced with Dennis Franchione, and early returns were promising as “Coach Fran” went 7-5 in his first season, then went 10-3 in 2002 and won the SEC West. However, Franchione wasn’t cut out for the rigors of the Alabama job, and he unceremoniously bolted Tuscaloosa after the Tide’s season ending win over Hawaii. After an unexpected and somewhat panicked coaching search, offensive guru Mike Price was hired. However, he’d never coach a down in Tuscaloosa, as he was relieved of his post following the public disclosure of the coach’s indiscretions involving exotic dancers in Pensacola, Florida.

The Bama Job

With few legitimate head coaching options on the table, one of Alabama’s favorite sons appeared poised to become the first African-American head football coach at an institution famously branded with a segregated past ala former Gov. George Wallace’s “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.” It would be a historic hire, one that many believed would exercise any remaining phantoms of the university’s past.

Croom’s name was tossed around as a potential candidate for the Tide job, and those rumors bubbled like a heated cauldron as the coach interviewed for the job. He later said that he thought he was the lead candidate going in due to his pedigree and decades of coaching experience, that he felt good about his chances before the interview, and that the audition itself went so well that he was positive he’d won the job. Croom, and countless of his supporters, were shocked when another former Bama gridiron hero, Mike Shula, took the reins of the program despite having a decade less of coaching experience than Croom at the time he was hired.

As can be expected, there was some public outcry among those who were thirsty for a concrete manifestation of the sunset of a segregated Alabama. After all, Croom was imminently qualified for the head coaching position at Alabama. He was an alum from Bama’s Golden Era, a native of Tuscaloosa, a coach with decades of experience in the pro and college ranks, a man with roots so intertwined with the university that they resembled a kudzu thicket writ in crimson.

Many were shocked the university hired Shula over Croom…but many were not. After all, things were reaching critical mass at the football-crazed Capstone. The Tide needed stability, even if stability meant mediocrity. Alabama had floundered since Gene Stallings left the turmoil of Tuscaloosa behind, and Alabama needed a winner. Sure, Alabama could take a historic step and hire the first African-American head coach in the conference. It would pay dividends in telegraphing goodwill and would be a resonating demonstration that Alabama had finally let the ghosts of Jim Crow die a withering death.

But the decision to pass on Croom probably wasn’t as simple as that. What if the untested head coach couldn’t turn Alabama around…would the Tide face the unsavory prospect of being the school to fire the SEC’s first African-American coach? Alabama, after all, was still dealing with the after effects of NCAA sanctions. Despite its storied history, the Tide was a rusted hulk of its former self, and it would take someone with an iron will and a granite-rendered strategic tableau to restore it to its previous glory.

The quandary proved too corrosive for the administration, and with an alleged shove from prominent boosters in the Shula camp, the former Tide quarterback was hired while Croom remained an NFL assistant. Whether or not the decision to pass on Croom in favor of Shula was racially motivated has never been decisively reported, nor will it likely ever be. In appearance, one could draw such a conclusion, from a certain point of view. One could also figure that Shula just interviewed better, or that the Tide wanted to hire a younger coach, or that some other factor tipped the scales in the former quarterback’s favor.

Afterwards, Croom, rarely publicly vocal, decided to share his thoughts on his missed opportunity to coach the Crimson Tide with Black Athlete Sports. He said:

“A lot of those [SEC] schools, guys are good enough to play for them, good enough to be assistant coaches and not good enough to be in the positions of decision making and the positions of high financial reward. And they’re qualified.”.

He went on to say that he “had great support from the former players and the fans there and even some people within the administration…somewhere in the final process, somebody made another decision.”

A Historic Hire

Regardless of what happened to prevent Croom’s hiring, he would mark his date with history soon enough. Like their SEC brethren just across the state line from Starkville, Mississippi State was seeking a new head coach after the unceremonious departure of Jackie Sherill.

After interviewing with Mississippi State, Croom was hired as the Bulldogs’ head coach, the first African-American to hold that position in the history of Southeastern Conference football. While the hire made news and sent historic ripples in its wake, Croom downplayed the significance as one would expect of someone who learned from the School of Bryant.

“I’m just a man trying to do the best job he can. It just happens that the timing of my hiring puts me in that position. I don’t see myself that way. If other people perceive that, so be it. I’m just trying to do the best I can here.”

Despite his aw-shucks demeanor, Croom’s hiring at MSU signaled a sea change from the decades before, and it opened the door for a tide of African-American head coaches who have walked the sidelines of conference schools since then (Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M, Joker Phillips at Kentucky, and James Franklin at Vanderbilt, specifically).

Outside of the historic hire, Croom had an uphill charge to make in Starkville. The school was coming off a sharp decline due to NCAA sanctions, and was annually the whipping boy of the conference with sub-.500 records year in and year out. In his first two seasons, Croom did the yeoman’s work of establishing a work ethic, injecting high character into the program, and laying a foundation for future success. His first three years were rocky, as the Bulldogs failed to win more than three games per year from ’04-’06.

However, in 2007, Croom’s Bulldogs had a breakout season (by MSU standards) by going 8-5 overall and 4-4 in the conference, the first time that Mississippi State had finished with a winning record since the 2000 season. They even won the Liberty Bowl, leading several national organizations to name Croom SEC Coach of the Year (specifically, the AP and the SEC Coaches). It was the first time an MSA head coach had received the AP honor since 1970. Things appeared to be headed in the right direction for the Bulldogs and their old-school head coach.

But 2008 marked a regression to the mean for MSU, as they once again laboriously struggled to stay abreast of the competition in the SEC West. Nick Saban’s second team at Alabama contended for a national championship, and LSU, Arkansas, and Auburn were all legitimately more talented top to bottom than Mississippi state. The Bulldogs struggled to a 4-8 record which included a devastating 45-0 loss to archrival Ole Miss, and as a result, Croom was forced out as Bulldog head coach.

In an interesting epilogue to the tale of Croom and Shula, both men only lasted four years at their respective schools. Both men inherited troubled programs that lacked discipline and stability. Shula and Croom faced uphill battles, and history proved both to be placeholders for the more successful head coaches that followed (Nick Saban at Alabama, Dan Mullen at MSU).

Shula managed a winning record in his time at Alabama, going 26-23. Possibly due to the considerable disparity in talent at the two schools, Croom went 21-38 during his time Starkville. Head to head, Shula held the edge with a 2-1 record. However, the final meeting between the teams resulted in a 24-16 win for the Bulldogs in Tuscaloosa, a game which marked the beginning of the end for the former Tide quarterback, the final straw on the back of Shula’s camel, as it was the first of four consecutive losses for the Tide to close out the ’06 season.

After MSU

The old coach did not go unemployed for long, however, as he was quickly snapped up by newly minted St. Louis Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo for his staff. Croom went back to what he knew best: coaching running backs at the pro level, and he remained with St. Louis through the 2011 season, after which he did a tour with Jacksonville in the same capacity. Finally, he was hired by Mike Malarkey to coach backs at Tennessee, where he had the chance to coach former Tide running back and Heisman winner Derrick Henry. Henry began as Demarco Murray’s understudy, but is currently the expected starter for the Titans.

While there’s no telling how long Croom’s retirement will last (he didn’t seem to rule out a return to the game if such a door opened), for the moment Croom and his wife Jeri plan to reside in Mobile, where they’ve had a second home since his daughter moved to the area a decade ago.

(To see a great piece on Sylvester Croom the man, click here to watch his segment on ESPN’s “Say It Loud” Black History Month special.)

[ED. NOTE 5/29/18: Croom has been hired as Senior Vice President of Operations of the Senior Bowl.]