Meet the new Alabama boss. Same as the old boss, if you're Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom.
Croom, an Alabama All-American center under Bear Bryant and a well-traveled, dues-paid NFL and college assistant coach, should have been hired by Alabama back in 2003 in a heartbeat when it mistakenly hired Mike Shula instead. Alabama didn't have the guts or the smarts to be the school to hire the first black head football coach in Southeastern Conference history. Instead, it hired a nice, good-looking guy with a great last name who is not a head coach and is somewhat out of touch.
A year later, Croom went to Mississippi State for the type of money some college coordinators make. So in the past two years, Croom has made it his job to beat Alabama.
If you can't get hired by 'em, beat 'em.
It took Croom a couple of years. Mississippi State, after Jackie Sherrill left following the 2003 season, may well have been the worst college job in America, considering the league it's in. Croom inherited probation and an 8-27 team that had three straight losing seasons and had not won more than three games since 2000.
Shula, who tried to remove Croom's name from an award at Alabama but was later vetoed, went down to Croom in 2006 by a 24-16 score in Tuscaloosa, Ala. That loss and the fact that Shula didn't realize he needed to make major staff changes got Shula fired and led to Nick Saban escaping the Miami Dolphins and returning to college football at Alabama.
Croom, one of the lowest-paid Division I-A coaches in America, got Saban, the highest-paid college coach in America, Saturday, 17-12, in Starkville, Miss. Croom's team is 6-4 and headed to its first bowl since 2000.
State is 3-3 in the SEC with all three wins over teams ranked in the Nov. 4 polls – Alabama, Kentucky and Auburn. The Bulldogs are at Arkansas (6-4, 2-4 SEC) Saturday before hosting Ole Miss (3-7, 0-6 SEC) on Friday, Nov. 23.
State has a great chance of finishing 8-4. If it wins a bowl game, Croom would be only the third State coach since 1980 to win nine or more games. Croom's defense has also played Kentucky, Auburn and Alabama much better than LSU did, holding those teams to 40 points compared to 85 by LSU, and that's not counting the three overtimes at Kentucky.
Heading into the home stretch, Croom leads the list of candidates to be the 2007 SEC Coach of the Year. There are others, but few had so much stacked against them as Croom when he took his present job. Here is a quick look at the others from 2 to 5:
2. Rich Brooks, Kentucky – Brooks, like Croom, has turned around one of the least respected programs in the SEC and one that had some recent probation. Kentucky did go 7-5 under Guy Morriss in 2002, which was the year before Brooks arrived.
Like Croom, Brooks struggled through his first three years before going 8-5 and making a bowl last season. And he's kept them there this year as the Wildcats are 7-3 and 3-3 SEC going into their final games at Georgia Saturday and at home against Tennessee on Nov. 24.
Brooks had Kentucky in the top 10 this season for the first time since the late 1970s. His quarterback could not be stopped by LSU's No. 1 defense in the nation. Brooks could be the first coach to take Kentucky to back-to-back bowls since Hal Mumme went to the Outback and Music City in 1998 and 1999.
3. Les Miles, LSU – Miles could win the national championship and will no doubt win some national coach of the year awards. He's done a very good job. This LSU team is No. 1 in the nation with its only loss coming on the road to a ranked Kentucky team in triple overtime. A closer look reveals, though, it does not always play smart and often plays sloppy. That's coaching, and it could come back to haunt the Tigers before this season is done.
4. Mark Richt, Georgia – Richt has his team finishing strong as the Bulldogs have knocked off two of the better SEC teams in recent weeks with wins over Auburn Saturday and over Florida on Oct. 20. This is the team and coach LSU fans do not want to play in the SEC championship game. Tennessee controls its own destiny for that game and does not look as dangerous as the Bulldogs.
5. Nick Saban, Alabama – Saban is the former favorite for coach of the year honors after signature victories over Arkansas and then Tennessee, just a day after losing two offensive line starters and a top back in a textbook scandal. The Tide may have left it on the field in a 41-34 loss to LSU on Nov. 3, however, as it looked dead against Mississippi State Saturday. An upset over Auburn could push Saban over the top.
It's still early, though. All this could change. But as for now, ring those cow bells.