It took just over three years for Sylvester Croom to rebuild a Mississippi State football program that was devastated by three straight losing seasons, a second NCAA probation with sanctions during the previous decade, countless student-athlete departures, all the while installing new offensive and defensive systems with a new coaching staff. With that as a backdrop, Croom was a landslide winner of Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year Award in 2007 for leading the Bulldogs to a 7-5 overall record.
Croom inherited all that and more when he accepted the challenge of reconstructing the Bulldog program for the 2004 football season. His work eventually built an organization that had endured six straight seasons with no more than three wins into one that earned seven wins overall in 2007, four in the SEC, and a post-season bowl reward. It was the school’s best results in six years.
When then-Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton began his search in October 2003 for the 31st head coach in the school’s long football history, Templeton sought an enthusiastic teacher with the energy to rebuild the Bulldog football program and an individual with an attention to detail who demands the discipline needed to bring structure to a vast organization. History will record that Templeton found his man when MSU hired Sylvester Croom on Dec. 1, 2003.
“Sylvester Croom met all of the criteria we laid forth for the selection of a new head football coach at Mississippi State,” Templeton said at the time of the hire. “We went after the best football coach, and we’re confident we found that individual in Sylvester Croom.”
Since that hiring, Croom undertook the daunting task of constructing the foundation upon which the Bulldog football program would be rebuilt. There was little question that progress toward that goal was being achieved, even as the team won just three games in each of his first three years. In those first three years since being named to head MSU’s football fortunes, the traits that made Croom the best coach for State came to life.
Croom immediately became an in-demand speaker at alumni and booster events because of his forthright approach to directing the pigskin program. But his non-stop energy on the banquet circuit was only exceeded by the fervor with which he began shaping the Bulldog football operation. He established new offensive and defensive systems, paying particular attention to an attack which mirrored what he taught as a National Football League assistant. And despite the fact he had been away from the college game for 17 years as a pro coach, he has been unwavering in his demand for student-athlete accountability, on the field and off it.
His first two Bulldog teams finished 3-8, a record he has been quick to point out is not acceptable at MSU. That said, the final marks were still one-win improvements over the team he inherited. His first team posted the school’s first victory over a ranked team in four years, a 38-31 win over then-No. 20 Florida, and his second squad captured the Egg Bowl Trophy for the first time in four years.
His third team concluded the year 3-9, but lost four games by a field goal each, three of those being SEC contests. The Bulldogs were just one made play away in each of those games from a winning season and a post-season bowl bid.
Croom’s fourth team turned those near-misses into success in 2007. State won three of its first four games, including two road triumphs – one at Auburn, a team that eventually earned national ranking during the ’07 season. Croom’s team also won three of its last four games, back-to-back wins over nationally ranked opponents Kentucky and Alabama, and a heart-throbbing victory over Ole Miss, to reclaim the Egg Bowl Trophy.
Even before coaching his first football contest on the Starkville campus, Croom was recognized nationally in 2004 for his impact on the college game. Dennis Dodd ranked him #2 on CBS Sportsline’s list of the 50 most relevant people in college football for the 2004 season. In so doing, Dodd said: “The State program took on a more organized look the moment he arrived.”
Sports Illustrated rated him the 31st most influential minority in all of sports. “In Mississippi and beyond, his impact has already been profound,” SI noted.
In February 2007, Croom was invited to the White House by President George W. Bush to celebrate African-American History Month. Croom was one of the 200 minority leaders invited to the program in the East Room. The President indicated that Croom was not only invited because he was the first African-American head football coach in the SEC, but because “he’s a strong leader and a fine man. And I thank you for blazing trails.”
Croom came to State from the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, where he served the previous three seasons under then-Packer general manager/head coach Mike Sherman as the team’s running backs coach. He is a veteran of 29 years in the coaching profession, 17 of which have come at the professional level on the offensive side of the football. He spent four years as an NFL offensive coordinator.
Croom’s Packer running attack ranked third in the National Football League in 2003, averaging 160 yards per game. Under his guidance, Ahman Green blossomed into one of the true stars of the NFL. He finished second in the league in rushing in ‘03 and was the fourth most productive rusher in the NFL over the three seasons in which Croom was his coach.
The natural by-product of Green’s stellar season in 2003 was a third-straight, 12-4 regular season and a second consecutive NFC North title. Croom, who had already accepted MSU’s head coaching position, helped the Packers to the second round of the NFL playoffs.
In 2002, Green Bay clinched the inaugural NFC North championship with a second-straight 12-4 record. Croom’s backs contributed to a Packers’ rushing effort that posted the most yards on the ground in 17 years. His rushers helped Green Bay rank fifth in the National Football Conference in that category. As part of that effort, Green earned his second consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl on the heels of his third-straight 1,000-yard season. He ranked fourth in the NFC in rushing. Additionally, Croom’s work with undrafted free agent Tony Fisher furthered his reputation as a successful teacher. Fisher’s rushing total was the most by a Green Bay rookie in 16 years.
In his first season in Green Bay, Croom helped the Pack qualify for the postseason for the first time in three years with a 12-4 record. Green Bay defeated San Francisco in the NFC Wild Card game, the Packers’ first postseason win in three seasons. Green posted a second-consecutive 1,000-yard season and led the team in receptions for a second-straight year. Green was second in the NFC in both rushing yards and total yards from scrimmage. Under Croom’s tutelage, Green was named the team’s Most Valuable Player and earned his first of three straight trips to Hawaii’s Pro Bowl. He was also a second-team, All-Pro selection by the Associated Press.
During his three seasons in Green Bay, the Packers were the second-most successful NFL franchise, winning nearly 70 percent of their games over that stretch.
“Sylvester is a great football coach,” Sherman said. “He is a salt-of-the-earth person who represents everything good.”
Sherman hired Croom on Jan. 30, 2001, and the latter arrived in Green Bay after four seasons as offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions (1997-2000).
Croom achieved noted success during those four years in charge of the Detroit attack. His 1997 offense ranked second in the NFL overall, and he helped lead the Lions to a postseason playoff berth. Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders led the NFL in rushing and became just the third player in league history to crack the 2,000-yard barrier that year. Wide receivers Herman Moore and Johnnie Morton both surpassed 1,000 yards receiving, with Moore leading the NFL with 104 catches. Detroit became the first organization to have teammates lead the NFL in both rushing and receiving in the same season. Moore and Morton entered the 2003 season Nos. 7 and 21, respectively, on the NFL’s top active receivers list.
In 1998, Sanders rushed for nearly 1,500 yards, and Morton duplicated the feat of more than 1,000 yards receiving in a season. One year later, Morton and Germaine Crowell combined for nearly 2,500 yards receiving and tight end David Sloan earned a trip to the Pro Bowl with the best production by a Lion tight end in 20 years.
Croom helped lead Detroit to its best finish in three seasons during the 2000 campaign, narrowly missing a second-straight, post-season appearance, what would have been the third in his four seasons in the Motor City.
Prior to his tenure with Detroit, Croom tutored the San Diego Charger running backs for five seasons (1992-96). During that span, the Chargers twice won American Football Conference Western Division titles and participated in postseason play three times. The ‘94 Charger team not only won a Western Division championship, it won a pair of postseason contests and played in Super Bowl XXIX.
Under Croom’s direction, second-year back Natrone Means set a team rushing record in 1994 with 1,350 yards. It was in San Diego where Croom first joined the staff of head coach Bobby Ross, with whom he made the move to Detroit.
“He’s as good a coach as you could ask for on the field and in the classroom,” Ross said. “He is a great communicator with coaches and with players. I’ve had some great coaches work for me like George O’Leary, Ralph Friedgen and Frank Beamer. I put Sylvester Croom in the same category as those guys.”
Croom broke into the NFL as running backs coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987. He worked in Tampa for four years (1987-90) before joining the Indianapolis Colts in the same capacity for one season (1991).
But the Tuscaloosa, Ala., native also has a solid resume on the college coaching level. He worked for 11 seasons at his alma mater, the University of Alabama, all on the defensive side of the football. Croom oversaw both the inside (1977-81, 1984-86) and outside (1982-83) linebackers during his tenure with the Crimson Tide. He helped Alabama to back-to-back national championships in 1978-79. With his help, Alabama led the Southeastern Conference in total defense during the 1979 and ‘80 seasons.
That ‘79 team recorded five shutout wins, gave up just seven touchdowns all season, and allowed only 180 yards of total offense per game during its championship run.
During his coaching tenure at Alabama, the Crimson Tide went to 10 postseason bowl games in 11 years. He accompanied Alabama teams to the Sugar Bowl (1977-79), Cotton Bowl (1980-81), Sun Bowl (1983,’86), Liberty Bowl (1976,’82) and Aloha Bowl (1985) while in Tuscaloosa. Croom helped Alabama teams to a composite 102-28-2 record during those 11 seasons.
Croom began his Alabama coaching tenure on the staff of legendary Tide head football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and stayed in Tuscaloosa when Ray Perkins was hired to succeed Bryant.
Croom only left UA when Perkins took him to Tampa Bay when the latter was named the head coach there.
“Mississippi State has hired a real good man,” Perkins said. “Sylvester is a great character guy, and he’s a bright coach. He gets along well with people, and he’s very organized.”
Croom also enjoyed a measure of teaching success on the collegiate level at Alabama. Four of his players - E.J. Junior (1981), Mike Pitts (1983), Cornelius Bennett (1987) and the late Derrick Thomas (1989) - all became first-round NFL draft picks following their days with Croom. Two of his linebackers - Wayne Davis (1983-86) and Thomas Boyd (1978-81) - rank one-two on Alabama’s all-time tackle chart, while Thomas still ranks first in career sacks at UA.
Croom first enjoyed achievement at Alabama as a player under Bryant, lettering for three seasons (1972-74), and starting the final two at center, helping the Tide to a 22-2 overall record as a starter. During his playing career with the Tide, Alabama captured three straight SEC titles and the national championship in 1973. The Crimson Tide went to the Cotton, Sugar and Orange Bowls during his playing career.
As a senior captain, the 6-0, 229-pound Croom was named all-SEC and a Kodak All-America, in addition to earning the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the best offensive lineman in the league. He earned a trip to the 1975 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., for his standout play. He was so respected by the Alabama coaching staff for his devotion to the game of football that the program each spring awards the “Sylvester Croom Commitment to Excellence Award.”
Before making his mark at center while at UA, he had stints at linebacker, tight end and tackle.
“In my career, I’ve been around a lot of great leaders,” Ozzie Newsome, Hall of Fame tight end, current general manager of the Baltimore Ravens and former teammate of Croom’s at Alabama, said. “And he led that huddle, trust me. He was impressive at a lot of things, but mostly a leader.”
At just 20 years of age, Croom earned a bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in biology in 1975 from Alabama. He earned his master’s degree in educational administration in 1977 from the Tuscaloosa school as well.
A 1975 free agent signee of the New Orleans Saints following his playing days at Alabama, Croom played one season in the NFL before going back to Tuscaloosa to launch his coaching career as a graduate assistant in 1976. He worked with the centers during that one-season apprenticeship.
Born Sept. 25, 1954, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Sylvester Croom Jr., starred at Tuscaloosa High School as a linebacker and tight end. His wife, Jeri, is also a Tuscaloosa native. The couple has a daughter, Jennifer, who lives with husband Ira Bates and daughter, Ryan, in Mobile, Ala.
The son of a Tuscaloosa minister, Croom’s late father, mother and aunts were all school teachers. The elder Croom, who was an all-America football player at Alabama A&M, served as the team chaplain at the University of Alabama and was recently recognized posthumously by the institution as one of the 40 pioneers of civil rights in the state.
- Played on three straight (1972-74) SEC Championship teams at the University of Alabama
- Member of the Crimson Tide's 1973 national title squad
- Named Kodak all-America as a senior captain in 1974
- 1976: Graduate Assistant Coach/Centers, University of Alabama
- 1977-81: Inside Linebackers Coach, University of Alabama
- 1982-83: Outside Linebackers Coach, University of Alabama
- 1984-86: Inside Linebackers Coach, University of Alabama
- 1987-90: Running Backs Coach, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- 1991: Running Backs Coach, Indianapolis Colts
- 1992-96: Running Backs Coach, San Diego Chargers
- 1997-2000: Offensive Coordinator, Detroit Lions
- 2001-03: Running Backs Coach, Green Bay Packers
- 2004-present: Head Coach, Mississippi State University
Notes on Coach Croom
- Named Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year in 2007
- Part of the San Diego staff that led the Chargers to Super Bowl XXIX
- Highly instrumental in developing NFL star running backs Ahman Green (Green Bay), Natrone Means (San Diego) and Barry Sanders (Detroit)
- On the Alabama staff that led the Crimson Tide to 10 bowl games in his 11 seasons, and back-to-back national crowns in 1978 and 1979
- Tutored four first-round draft picks (E.J. Junior, Mike Pitts, Cornelius Bennett and Derrick Thomas) while at Alabama
- Played on three straight (1972-74) SEC championship teams at Alabama, and the Crimson Tide's national title squad in 1973
- Named Kodak all-America as a senior captain in 1974
- Has an Alabama football annual honor named for him - "The Sylvester Croom Commitment to Excellence Award"