Room for Two

Alabama getting its sixth win of the year and becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2001 was a big story Saturday night, and it should permanently remain a significant milestone in the Mike Shula era.

"It was obviously a big win for us to gout our sixth win," Shula said. "I'm happy for this group for the way these guys have fought and worked hard. It means, for me personally, that we're taking steps in the right direction. We're not there yet. We know that. But 6-3 shows a little bit more for our work than 5-3 did."

But Sylvester Croom's return to his alma mater - his hometown - had a large place in Saturday night's game.

"As long as I'm at Mississippi State and we play Alabama, it's never going to be behind me. It's never going to be behind me," Croom said following the game. "Every time they come to play us and every time we come to play them, I can deal with that.

"Plus, in a lot of ways I'm not going to let it be behind me because I want to be where Alabama is. I want Mississippi State to play like Alabama. I want us to expect to win as Alabama' expects to win. I want the kinds who come to Mississippi State to expect to wear championship rings just like the do here at Alabama."

The problem for those who follow Alabama football 365 days a year (366 this year) is that Sylvester Croom's recent relationship with The University of Alabama has been covered, addressed and redressed ad nauseum since Croom's candidacy and Mike Shula's hiring in May 2003.

That emotion-driven storyline was cemented when Croom was hired at Mississippi State, ensuring Croom an emotional return home. And as with all good stories, there was an unexpected twist in the spring of 2004 when a spring award bearing Croom's name was changed, then reinstated by Shula.

"A lot of people try to make this out as a revenge thing," Croom said. "What this game was to me was standing on that sideline where I sat on the bench and where I stood next to Coach Bryant. It meant to me the culmination of a life-long dream. How many people ever got the chance? Yeah, I was standing there with a different team but it was the same sideline that I played on, the same sideline that I stood on next to Coach Bryant. I'll take it any way I can get it."

Rick Cleveland, of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, was the first media member to write about the award change. That was 11 days after the list of awards was distributed to the press. Everyone knows what happened after in-state media picked up the scent of controversy, but that's not what Saturday night was about.

Like any good drama show, the same episode often has parallel story lines among different characters, playing to the sentiments of different audiences. For the ESPN's, the New York Times' and USA Today's, it was all Croom.

"Alabama and Notre Dame are the top two programs in the history of football," Croom said. "All these other ‘Johnny-come-lately's that are winning now, that's great. But you can't make up the tradition of Alabama and Notre Dame. That's just the way it is in college football: Notre Dame, Alabama and the Green Bay Packers. And while I'm at Mississippi State, I want us to have the same kind of characteristics that those three have. And that's where we've got to get.

"I want guys in our program that want to win championships, that are dedicated enough to make the sacrifice to win a championship, just like the kids that come here. And that's going to happen. You'd better believe it."

But from my seat in Tuscaloosa, the sixth win was just as big for Shula and his squad as the return of another favored son, and I can assure you there is enough newspaper space and Internet bandwidth for more than one angle. Both stories had a happy stopping point Saturday night, but are episodes "To Be Continued...".

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