Mississippi State's hiring of Sylvester Croom as the first black head football coach in the 71-year history of the SEC was a proud moment for an institution and a state that share a shameful racial legacy. In 1963 the school's basketball team had to sneak out of Starkville to play the integrated Loyola of Chicago team in the first round of the NCAA tournament, in defiance of a court's injunction and the segregationist attitudes of many Mississippians. "People will see how much progress has been made here in terms of race relations," Croom says, of the heightened attention the school is expected to receive. "All the images that are conjured up when Mississippi is mentioned—people will see things differently, that what is imagined is not reality?'
Among the conference's first black scholarship players, as a center at Alabama from 1972 to '74, Croom, 49, paid his dues over 28 seasons as a college and pro assistant, the last three as running backs coach for the Packers. While he has been welcomed warmly by the Bulldogs' faithful, he is embarking on a difficult path. Mississippi State has gone 8-27 over the last three years and because of recruiting violations under coach Jackie Sherrill could face NCAA sanctions. While Croom's hiring should make the school more attractive to players of every race, he has been in the NFL and out of the recruiting game since '86. He inherits a program in need of an overhaul, and if Croom, who got a four-year, $3.2 million deal, doesn't succeed, history shows he's not likely to get another chance. According to the doctoral dissertation of San Jose State coach Fitz Hill, none of the 15 Division I-A black football coaches that have been fired has been rehired at the same level.
Croom is one of five black head coaches among the 117 Division I-A programs. "He'll be under the microscope, even if he doesn't want to be," says Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black Coaches Association, who says many black coaches feel added pressure because they tend to be evaluated collectively, unlike their white counterparts. "There's no doubt," Croom says. "I felt that pressure when I was offensive coordinator in Detroit [from 1997 to 2000]. Most of us minorities in those leadership positions have felt that same pressure. This time, despite the fact that my job has some historical significance, I am not going to get caught in that trap." Nor should he; the task at hand is challenge enough.