History really was made here, in the college town of Starkville, Miss., not far from the Alabama line. One of the last unwritten taboos in college sports really was busted here, amid the dark pine barrens and clear-cut timber and nowhere roads, when Sylvester Croom became the first man of his color hired as a head football coach in the storied Southeastern Conference. Yet four months later if you ask players, fans or university officials whether history has been made, they tend to say much the same thing, at first: Mississippi State hired a coach, not a color. � "We have never once mentioned in a press release that he is the first black coach in the SEC," says Mike Nemeth, the school's associate director for media relations. People at the school say that Croom's race had nothing to do with his hiring, where the respected longtime college and professional assistant coach is being asked to snatch up a sliding program-one that may slip deeper still, as the NCAA mulls punishment for alleged recruiting violations under former coach Jackie Sherrill—and shake it into something people can be proud of again. The university's president and its athletic director, praised for their courage, almost shrug. "The university could not have bought this publicity for a million dollars," says the president, J. Charles Lee. But, "That courage issue was never a significant factor for me."
It is the same in the community. "Well, I asked my boyfriend, Buster, about him, and Buster said, 'He's going to be a good one,' " says Louise Ming, who is 78 and has sewn a maroon sweater for his toy bulldog on the shelf. Croom can win, people are saying. Too much time has passed to yammer on about color. Mississippi State has an A-plus football man, they say, and by God, that is all that matters.
"Same thing as if he was white," agrees Howard (Buster) Hood, who is retired from the dairy business and food industry and already has paid for his season tickets. "We give him a chance. He can't do the job, we don't need him."
But something odd happens the more you let people talk, the more you ask them who they are, where they are from, what they remember about life before integration—or, if they're very young, what they were told about that time—and it becomes clear, as a Mississippi writer once said, that the past is not dead here, nor even past. Croom himself, sitting in a spacious office with still-bare shelves, first swears that maroon and white, not black and white, are the colors of this football team, the only colors that concern him now.
Then the 49-year-old coach drifts back in his mind to the people who bled and died in a struggle he remembers mostly through the eyes of a child and teenage boy—people who absorbed genuine hatred, who changed his society and made it possible for him to play his way onto the Alabama football team in 1971, the second year that Paul (Bear) Bryant allowed black players on his squad. And he begins to cry.
His father, in the late 1940s, feared being lynched. Croom himself attended a newly integrated junior high school where students refused to talk to him or even look at him, where a spit wad spattered on his face the first day of classes.
But none of that is worth crying over, for Croom. It is the memory of a white woman that is causing him to break down, a 39-year-old homemaker and mother of five from Detroit who volunteered to drive protesters during the historic Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965. Three Ku Klux Klansmen pulled up beside her as she drove down a stretch of road, a black man in the seat beside her. It was more than the Klansmen could stand.
"Viola Liuzzo," says Croom, and he takes off his glasses and wipes his eyes. It looks a little strange, to see hands that big wiping at tears. "When she got shot... all that lady was trying to do was help someone. Just plain ol' people, trying to do the right thing, and they killed her."
That was perhaps the first time the young Sylvester Croom realized the awful cost of the change that was taking place around him. And suddenly it very much matters that a black man is the head coach at a school in the conference of the Bear, the Big Orange, Death Valley and the Loveliest Village on the Plain. Because if it doesn't matter, then what was all that suffering for?
"It was coming, sooner or later," says Ming, who is white, a few days after she approached Croom in a Starkville diner and asked him for his autograph, for Buster. She even had her picture taken with him. Not too long ago, this would have been scandalous. Now the autograph—a black man's name—is in a frame, a thing of value. Southerners get where they need to go, Ming says sweetly, "but we don't like to be pushed."