MSU Alumni Association President Gary Blair

Gary Blair, the current president of the Mississippi State Alumni Association, talked with Gene's Page a few months ago about various issues that involve Mississippi State University as well as the search for a new football coach. Gary was a member of the coaching advisory committee. In this second part of a two-part interview, Gary goes through the search process from beginning to end.


(Step 1 - Coach Sherrill Announces His Retirement)
"When Coach Sherrill announced that he was going to retire, I had already been involved in some discussions, as the Alumni Association president, with the president of the Bulldog Club and president of the Mississippi State University Foundation as to what we would do to assist the athletic department in moving forward. We began work to secure assistance to help with the payment to Coach Sherrill that was due to him based on his contract."

(Step 2 - Taking Care of Former Coaches and Current Coaches)
"Everything we have done from the buyout of Coach Sherrill's contract and his assistant coaches to the hiring of Coach Croom and his assistants was done in a way where we made sure that the coaches that were let go were taken care of by honoring their contracts to also making sure that there was a commitment to not only Coach Croom but to his assistants. I don't know if Mississippi State has supplemented assistant coaches in the past, but we set aside money to help with the assistant coaches to make sure when Coach Croom came onboard, he knew that he was going to be able to go out and hire first-class, top-rated assistants. We made sure, as part of Coach Croom's package, that we were committed not only to him but to his assistant coaches. We told him that none of the assistant coaches were sacred as far as him having to keep any of them. He was allowed to pick and choose whatever assistants he felt like would fit his system."

(Step 3 - Coming Up With a List of Candidates)
"Larry (Templeton), from Day 1, said if somebody knows somebody, let us know. We had, literally, between 180 to 200 names on a list. Those came from various sources. They were nominated by alumni, names were given to us by former coaches, other people who were interested in Mississippi State contacted us and we also had coaches call us to ask to be considered.

"I was amazed at the number of people throughout the entire United States that had an interest in Mississippi State. It was a wide range. We had head coaches at top level BCS conferences that wanted Mississippi State's job. We had one coach that was willing to pay his own buyout clause if we could match his salary. But we couldn't match his salary. We had NFL assistant coaches. We had former head coaches. We had assistant coaches. We even had some junior college coaches and high school coaches on the list initially."

(Step 4 - Narrowing the List Down)
"We started narrowing the list down early on. When I say we, it was really mostly Larry and his staff. He went to work very quickly narrowing it down. We did abide by the Black Coaches Association criteria that they drew up for universities looking for coaches. But we did not allow that process to hindrance us in anyway as far as focusing in on the coaches that were African-American. We focused on the best coach for Mississippi State.

"The list went down to 25 very rapidly. That list was checked out by two different consulting firms that we hired that do this type things all the time. They were, basically, head hunters for athletic personnel. They did background checks on each coach.

"We discussed the list of 25 the Friday before the Tennessee game. We didn't talk much about them by name but more by their current positions and their backgrounds. We tried to avoid discussing names and more or less discuss the person. Larry told us what the consultants had to say about each coach. Things that were said ranged from Mississippi State can do better to this guy is a good fit for Mississippi State.

"Larry and the consulting firms started narrowing the list of 25 down even more. We then got down to a list of between 7 to 10. Those were coaches that the consulting firm felt like should be our first choices. The week after the Tennessee game, Larry began to pursue those coaches on a more one-on-one basis himself to try and talk to them. He started conducting airport interviews with them. He would call us and give us updates throughout the week as to how things were going.

"We talked again the Wednesday before the Ole Miss as to where we were with the process. At that time in the process we had one assistant coach that we had tried to talk to on three occasions, but, for whatever reasons, we were never able to schedule an interview with him."

(Step 5 - Down to Five Candidates)
"Larry told us that he had it, basically, down to five people. The final five were all candidates that could have all been head coaches at Mississippi State.

"Larry, who had already interviewed Coach Croom, came to us and told us that he and Dr. Lee felt like Coach Croom was the man who had stood out over the last one and half to two weeks among all the interviews. He was the man who kept coming to the top of the list.

"He asked our advice as to whether we wanted to put Coach Croom off again to try and wait on this other coach or go ahead and make an offer to Coach Croom. Larry said he felt like that Coach Croom was going to be the choice but when you have another guy out there that is a finalist, you, at least, want the opportunity to meet him. The entire committee voted 100% to not put him off longer by waiting on the other coach and to go ahead and make a job offer to Coach Croom.

"After that meeting, the advisory committee, like all Mississippi State people, started waiting."

(Step 6 - Coach Croom is Offered the Job)
"Larry talked to Coach Croom after we talked that day. This was the Wednesday prior to the Ole Miss game. The job was offered to Coach Croom then. The advisory committee had kind of envisioned that the ideal situation would be to have our new coach announced on national television on ESPN on Thanksgiving night. Larry did what he could to get that to happen, but Coach Croom had a game on the same day that we played Ole Miss. There were even rumors that a plane was sent to Green Bay to pick Coach Croom up and bring him to our game. But Coach Croom is a man of such integrity that he felt he owed it to his wife and family to discuss this with them and not get on that airplane and fly to Mississippi State. It is my understanding that is why he did not come to Starkville on Thursday after Green Bay played Detroit. That is, basically, what he told the advisory committee when he met with us. I don't think there was ever any doubt in his mind what he wanted to do but he felt like he owed it to his family to discuss it further with them. He talked to his daughter. He told us that his daughter called him Thanksgiving night and asked him why he would even consider not taking the job. He told us that his daughter, in all the jobs that he had over the years, had not once gotten involved. When he asked her why she was getting involved now, she said, 'I just feel like it is the right thing for you.'

"On Friday, Larry and Dr. Lee went up to meet with Coach Croom again. He did not accept the job then. But we were told to be prepared in Starkville any time over the Thanksgiving Holidays."

(Step 7 - Coach Croom Visits Starkville and Mississippi State)
"(Coach Croom) was flown in (by MSU) on Sunday. Larry, who woke up with a bad stomach virus, took him out and showed him around campus and around Starkville. He took him to his home and had lunch, then Larry took him back to the airport. Larry said there was press outside of his home while they were eating lunch.

"(During the tour) Coach Croom told him that (MSU) has facilities that are fine. He saw the (stadium) skyboxes, club level and the locker rooms. They also showed him the facilities at the Shira Fieldhouse.

"Larry told him about the plans that we have to build an indoor facility that was supposed to be 100 yards long. That's when Coach Croom told him that that is all well and good but with the artificial turf practice field that we have, we can practice on it when it is raining. The players need to get used to adverse conditions. What he really wants is a new locker room for the players. We have a locker room at the stadium that is second to none. It is better than most NFL locker rooms. But, when you go to the locker room at the fieldhouse, the place where the players spend most of their time, it is one of the worse that he had seen. He also said we need a better weight training facility. And that we also need a players' lounge, a place where the players can come so that they don't go out at night doing things they don't need to be doing. He wants one location where they can all be together."

(Step 8 - Coach Croom Accepts the Job Offer)
"We got a call on Monday that confirmed when (the committee members) should be in Starkville. I was called back sometime Monday and was told that he had accepted the job."

(Step 9 - Coach Croom Meets the Advisory Committee members)
"The first time I met him was when we had lunch in the (Dr. Lee's) office just before we went over to the (press) announcement. We, as a committee, knew when he walked into the door that he was the right man. Some of our committee members hugged him and thanked him for coming (to Mississippi State). We, as a committee, were not only delighted to have a man of his character and dignity, but also happy that the process was over and that we had hired our first choice.

"For lunch that day, we had grilled chicken caesar salad. I was sitting right next to Coach Croom and I don't think he ate a bit of his salad. Most of the lunch, he was talking in general about his coaching philosophy, his philosophy on discipline, his relationship with his family and with the alumni. He talked a good bit with (former MSU football player) Glen Young. A large part of what they talked about was the relationship the former (MS) players have with the Mississippi State football team. Glen admitted to Coach Croom that the former players are never really called on. Coach Croom said that was going to change. He wants the former players involved in the program. He wants them around the team and visiting with the team. (The University of) Alabama has a former players' association. He wants to get something like that going at Mississippi State.

"He talked to Dr. Arnett, the faculty rep, about getting the faculty involved. He talked to me about what we could do to get the alumni involved. He, basically, went around and talked to everybody that was on the committee.

"He also talked about being more accessible to not only alumni groups but Starkville and the surrounding area. That was one thing we wanted when we went out looking for a new coach. We wanted him to be able to coach football but we also wanted him to be a part of the community and be accessible to the community. And he is committed to doing that."

(Step 10 - The Croom Era Begins)
To be continued.....

Gene Swindoll is the publisher/owner of Gene's Page, the source for Mississippi State sports on sports network. You can contact him by email at

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