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The S.E.C. Has Its First Black Football Coach


Published: December 2, 2003


ylvester Croom became the first African-American head football coach in the 71-year history of the Southeastern Conference yesterday, accepting the position at Mississippi State.

In moving to Mississippi State from the Green Bay Packers, where he coached running backs, Croom became the fifth black coach at the 117 colleges that play Division I-A football.

Croom's hiring came 41 years after James Meredith needed the assistance of federal troops to integrate the University of Mississippi, located in Oxford, about two hours north of the rural Mississippi State campus in Starkville.

It also came 33 years after his alma mater, Alabama, another S.E.C. college, was prompted to recruit black football players aggressively after losing at home, 42-21, to Southern California.

On that day, Sept. 12, 1970, Southern Cal's fullback was an African-American named Sam Cunningham, who ran over and around Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide for 135 yards and 2 touchdowns. Later, according to The Los Angeles Times, the former Bryant assistant Jerry Claiborne said that "Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King had accomplished in 20 years."

Croom, who is 49 and has 28 years of coaching experience, was among the early African-American football recruits at Alabama. He was the starting center on Alabama's 1973 national championship team, and was named an all-American in 1974. He served as an assistant coach at Alabama from 1977 to 1986, coaching linebackers, a stretch that included national championship seasons in 1978 and 1979.

He has spent the last 17 years as an assistant in the N.F.L., coaching running backs and offensive linemen. This will be his first job as a head coach.

Croom, a preacher's son from Tuscaloosa, Ala., who holds a bachelor's degree in history and a master's in educational administration, could not be reached for comment yesterday. Mississippi State officials said he would be introduced at a news conference today.

At Mississippi State, Croom replaces Jackie Sherrill, who finished 2-10 this season and 8-27 in the past three seasons, with just three S.E.C. victories. The hiring of Croom represents a landmark for the S.E.C., the last major conference to hire a black football coach.

Conference members resisted integration in football until the mid-1960's. It was 1967 when the University of Kentucky's Nat Northington became the first African-American to play in the S.E.C., in a game against Mississippi State.

Four years earlier, Mississippi State's basketball team, coached by Babe McCarthy, entered the N.C.A.A. tournament against Loyola of Chicago, ignoring strong pressure from segregationists not to play against teams fielding black players. This decision helped lay the groundwork for interracial competition in Mississippi.

Last May, Croom was considered for the head coaching position at Alabama after Mike Price was fired following an episode at a strip club. When Mike Shula, another former Alabama player, who is white, was hired to coach the Crimson Tide, university officials received some criticism because Croom had considerably more coaching experience.

"Some things move slower than you want, but eventually it was going to happen," said Ozzie Newsome, the first black general manager in the N.F.L., with the Baltimore Ravens, and a teammate of Croom's at Alabama. "A number of African-American players in the S.E.C. were looking forward to going back and coaching their alma maters. Although Sylvester is not at his alma mater, he knows the S.E.C.

"Sylvester is probably one of the two or three best leaders I've been around. He's been trained for this opportunity."

Newsome added: "I think he'll be a heck of a recruiter. He's got a command presence about himself."

That Croom would be hired as a coach in Mississippi, which is still confronting stereotypes of backwardness and resistance from the civil rights era, is a sign of the state's often unappreciated progress, Meredith said yesterday from his home in Jackson, Miss.

He noted the University of Mississippi's commemoration last year of the 40th anniversary of desegregation, and that Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, was stripped of his post as majority leader for making racially insensitive remarks.

Meredith said of Croom: "Forty years ago, I said Mississippi would be ahead of everybody in 20 years. I was wrong. It took 40. If you listen to Mississippi of the last year, this would not be thought of as anything but a normal process."


Croom arrives at Mississippi State at a time when its most bitter rival, Mississippi, has removed the Colonel Rebel mascot from the sideline at football games, and years after Ole Miss officials began discouraging the waving of the Confederate battle flag in the stands.

Croom will hold a highly visible position in a state that has more black elected officials than any other, including the mayor in Jackson, Mississippi's largest city, said Dr. Mfanya D. Tryman, professor of political science at Mississippi State and the president of the Oktibbeha County, Miss., chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.

"Mississippi State never had any black head coaches in any major sport; this is a first in more ways than one," Tryman said.

"Given the historical image that people have of Mississippi — nothing but dirt roads and people in bare feet and the Ku Klux Klan — all that is for the most part gone," Tryman said. "Killing those stereotypes is important symbolically. But there's going to be a lot of pressure on him, on anybody who takes the job.

"The fact that he's African-American increases the pressure."

Despite the great anticipation at his hiring, Croom also arrives at a time when Mississippi State has fallen behind Ole Miss in the integration of administrative and management positions, Tryman said. Only about 30 of 800 full-time professors at Mississippi State are black, as are 6 of the 120 employees in the athletic department, he said.

"Ole Miss has had a black vice president, two black basketball coaches and a black dean of the law school," Tryman said. "Mississippi State has not had any of that. We need to continue with more than one appointment in an administrative or management capacity."

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