Bulldog Faithful Rally to Hear Croom in Jackson

Practices are weeks away; the season still farther down the calendar. So all Bulldog folk can do for now is wait, imagine...and even party a little. Such as the annual July get-together in Jackson, the Central Mississippi Extravaganza, regarded as the unofficial pre-season kickoff party.

Party? With several thousand of the faithful assembled (attendence was dramatically up from 2003) it felt more like a rally. Or maybe a tent revival...not the least because the coliseum's air conditioning wasn't up to the demands of keeping a few thousands heated-up State folk cooled down. Yes, they lent their ears to obligatory warm-up words from administrators about funding and freshman retention and team grade averages and such. Sharon Fanning took her turn as well with some shots at the absent Ron Polk, proving State has two head coaches who tell lousy jokes. Rick Stansbury came to sign autographs, and he and Meo brought the whole family--including July arrival Luke with brothers Isaac and Noah (you went to the New Testament this time, I quipped to Rick).

Stansbury left prior to the program to watch the high school all-star hoops game at Mississippi College, or more accurately Lanier High's Montae Ellis. He's committed to sign in November, but every new award and recognition and the two inches of added growth make it all the more likely Ellis will want to turn pro next summer. Most of the MSU varsity stayed after the coach left to take the stage and receive cheers for their SEC Championship.

But of course that's now history. Most of the throng came to hear the new man in town, and Sylvester Croom did not disappoint. I've observed Croom speaking several times since his hiring, and he gets better at it every time he grabs a microphone. This was his biggest audience to-date (well, save for the spring game) and his best performance yet, even though Croom claims he's tired of making the party rounds.

"I'm just a football coach, all this other stuff Larry says I've got to do it. I'm looking forward to practice. Y'all are looking to practice to play games, I'm looking forward to practice to get a rest!"

Maybe so. But be assured, this new head coach has learned how to work a crowd. And getting back to the revival theme, his rearing as a minister's son shows. True, this time of year almost any head football coach in the SEC would get a roused response just by reading out a roster or schedule. And any new football coach gets an especially warm welcome from summer fans, even those burned as often as Bulldog backers.

Still Croom knew exactly what to tell the faithful. Better, he believes it himself. Such as when he noted the presence of the basketball Bulldogs.

"I'm glad they came because they won the SEC Championship. Our players aren't here, they won't be until they win one."

You can imagine how well that went over, as did his comment about putting discipline back in the program and willingness to remove players from the team.

"If he's not dependable enough to go to class every day," said Croom without naming names, "how can we depend on him on third-and-one in the fourth quarter against Ole Miss?" Guess that means cell phones in the locker room are out, too.

There wasn't a whole lot of what we'd call "news" forthcoming, other than references to the weightroom expansion, additions to academic services, and possible renovation to a dormitory down the road...presumably for underclassman use. And Croom did expound on Larry Templeton's announcement that 50,000 maroon tee-shirts will be handed out at the home opener, reading "Maroon, the Only Color That Matters." Russell, the company now providing State football uniforms, is making this possible.

Everything else was the good old Bulldog Gospel with Rev. Croom presiding.

"I don't care how tough things are going," he said, "when I walk between those white lines I'm in heaven. It's as close as I get this side of the river, I love it."

He didn't have to deliver any hellfire-and-damnation sermon though...State fans have been through the first for the last three years already. Speaking of the latter, Croom hopes to have the NCAA ruling on State come before the start of practice. "So I don't have to talk about it any more!" Good luck, as MSU administrators are looking for the verdict in mid-August. Croom does think State made a strong presentation to the infractions committee, and that the five committee members gave all sides a fair hearing. A long one, too. "I sat there for 17 hours. I'm not accused of anything and at one point I'm ready to confess just to get out of there!

"But I told them I'm thankful for their objectivity and preparedness, And I assured them of one thing: I, and our football team, will never go back to Indianapolis."

Hallelujah for that.

As for where Mississippi State can go this first fall, Croom is candid. The team is in better shape--both physically and mentally--than when he took over.

"First of all, we look better, we're not as big and fat. A lot of guys talk about getting bigger, stronger, faster; we wanted to get smaller, stronger, faster.

"More important than all the physical things, the weightlifting and practices, I'm starting to see a change in attitude. I've been in losing programs and I've been in championship programs, so I know the difference. The first thing is attitude and we have definitely had a turnaround in our attitude."

That brought more cheers, which got even louder as Croom flatly stated, "We will not beat ourselves."

Which, when you get down to it, is all Bulldog fans really want to hear right now. It's also a measure of exactly where the program is that the first order of business must be rebuilding a team that won't beat itself, before it can beat other teams. Listening to the message behind the words, it's clear Croom is saying the job has just begun.

"A lot of people don't expect us to do anything this fall. Their opinion doesn't matter," he said. "All that matters for now is that the Bulldogs change their bodies, minds, and hearts. Not just the players, either.

"When we do win that SEC Championship I want you to remember this night," Croom told the crowd, wrapping up the night with, "We're going to win. Thank you."

Amen to that, brother.

David Murray is the Editor of the Dawgs Bite magazine and the featured writer for the Dawgs Bite: Powered by GenesPage.com website. You can contact him by email at dawgbite@ebicom.net.

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