The date was December 2, 2003. I was practicing law in West Palm Beach and had flown from my firm’s offices to Starkville, Mississippi for a press conference where Sylvester Croom was being introduced as the head football coach at Mississippi State University. Sly is a close friend. We both graduated from high school in 1971 and signed football scholarships to play for Coach Bryant at Alabama. We roomed across the hall from each other our freshman year and we were elected co-captains following our senior season in 1974. I wasn’t attending the press conference just as a friend and former teammate, Sylvester was our client. History was being made that day in Starkville – until December 2, 2003, no Southeastern Conference football program had named an African American as its head coach. Mississippi State President Dr. Charles Lee, Athletics Director Larry Templeton and other leaders at Mississippi State changed all of that. Here’s how it happened.
In mid October 2003 Mississippi State head football coach Jackie Sherrill released a statement that he would be retiring at the end of the 2003 football season. Sherrill’s action was prompted by an NCAA investigation for violations of recruiting rules by boosters and members of the Bulldogs football staff. Just seven months earlier Sly and Mike Shula had been finalists to be the head football coach at the University of Alabama. Alabama made the decision to hire Shula and Sly, while disappointed, continued to coach the running backs with the Green Bay Packers. After Sherrill’s announcement in October I called Sylvester and asked if he would be interested in the position in Starkville. He wasn’t sure but we agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to reach out to Mississippi State to see what their thoughts were and learn more about their situation. I didn’t know Bulldogs’ Athletics Director Larry Templeton but I called a friend of Sly’s and mine who knew Templeton well and asked if he would call Larry. He said he would and ten minutes later our friend called back and said he had talked with Templeton and Templeton wanted me to call him. I called and during that first conversation in October Larry said he and Dr. Lee had followed the coaching search at Alabama and had been impressed with Sylvester. Templeton said Mississippi State would have to go through the process but they had done their due diligence and Sly was who they wanted to hire. A month and a half later Sylvester Croom was the head football coach at Mississippi State.
Sly inherited a football program that had suffered through three straight losing seasons (total of 8 wins) and was going on NCAA probation. His first task was to clean things up and to do it the right way was going to take time. In 2007 the Bulldogs won 8 games, including the Liberty Bowl, and Sly was named the SEC Coach of the Year. The win total dropped to 4 in 2008 but with a new athletics director in place in Starkville, Sly was forced out.
Working with and assisting a coach as he and his family make career decisions has always been an exciting part of what I do but Sylvester and Jeri Croom’s move to Mississippi State stands out from all of the rest. My personal relationship with Sly and Jeri coupled with the historical significance of the hire made it very special! As Sly said in Starkville on December 2, 2003, “with interaction and communication, the walls can come tumbling down.” That happened in Starkville – and it opened the door for Joker Phillips at Kentucky, Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M and James Franklin and Derek Mason at Vanderbilt.
Click HERE to read an article by Mark Bradley in the December 3, 2003 Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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