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From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, April 19, 2004
HISTORY really was made here, in the college town of Starkville, Miss. One of the last unwritten taboos in college sports really was busted here when Sylvester Croom became the first man of his color hired as a head football coach on Dec. 1, 2003, in the storied Southeastern Conference. Yet, 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.
People at the school say that Croom's race had nothing to do with his hiring, where the respected coach is being asked to shake a sliding program into something people can be proud of again.
It is the same in the community. 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 that is all that matters.
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. Croom himself first swears that maroon and white, not black and white, are 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—people 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 '40s, feared being lynched. Croom himself attended a newly integrated junior high school where students refused to talk to him or even look at him. But it is the memory of a 39-year-old white mother of five from Detroit who volunteered to drive protesters during the historic Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in '65 that is causing him to break down. Three Ku Klux Klansmen pulled up beside her as she drove, 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. "When she got shot...all that lady was trying to do was help someone." That was perhaps the first time 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 an SEC school. Because if it doesn't matter, then what was all that suffering for?