Croom somewhat succeeded in this gameplan, at least to a larger extent than expected. Questioning still focused more on the person than the program, and when the two-hour round of interviews were finally done very little had been specifically asked about the 2004 Bulldogs. And in an ironic way that fact actually says as much about the state of State football as all the answers a coach could offer.
For that matter, most of what Croom had to say reflected an over-riding theme adopted the day he took over in Starkville. The priority was, is, and likely for a while remains changing Bulldog hearts and minds first; then other items such as gameplans, depth charts, and rosters.
"It's been exciting," Croom said Wednesday. "It's been a lot of hard work since I took the job. But I think we have come a long way with our players. They have embraced our concepts, they've embraced the attitude and work ethic that we want. We've still got a long way to go."
A very long way. The media's voting won't be tallied until Thursday morning, but if State is picked anywhere besides sixth in the Western Division it would have to count as the first major upset of this SEC season. Yet the league's only "rookie" head coach has no regrets about taking on a serious rebuilding job. Croom even dared hint at long-term success.
"I'm happy being part of the Bulldog family, I look forward to a long tenure there," he told the conference press corps, then "I hope one day in the future, and I'm sure it's going to take a while, but maybe we can get to Atlanta and be in that SEC Championship Game."
Croom was certainly treated like a winner in Birmingham, and swarmed by print, TV, radio, and web reporters at every turn. The historic angle was inevitable, but the coach did manage to get the message out of what he and the mostly-new staff are doing to get Mississippi State ready for 2004. And, maybe more importantly, beyond this first season. One which by any measure is shaping up as a challenge for staff and team.
"How good we'll be this year I have no real idea for you here," Croom said. "I've got to get a better picture of where our talent level is in the conference and how I compare. But I do know that we'll be competitive. Our players have worked hard and they will play hard. Hopefully we can get better and not beat ourselves. Play tough, physical football, finish every play, and be in the game as we get to the fourth quarter and have the character and strength to finish it out."
The reference to character was the real point Croom stressed in most responses regardless of the question. He spent more time talking about discipline, individual and collective, than anything else. The media, having watched State's three-season collapse, knew exactly what the coach meant. Of course there have been plenty of other unruly-athlete examples this summer that all understand the problem is larger than one program.
Still Croom is in charge of just one program, and he made it clear things are changing at State and, so far, for the better. "It may take a year and it may take two years, and things we ask them to do we will not compromise on."
About this year, Croom said his original Green Bay offense playbook was narrowed down to 25%, and then cut another 10% after evaluating spring results. "Now we've narrowed that down to do what I think we can run, and I think we can add some things to take advantage of our athletic ability and our quarterback."
Who is, as of now, Omarr Conner. Croom compared the sophomore favorably to Don Smith, who he coached briefly at Tampa Bay. He even said the youngster is a better athlete than Smith - which raised eyebrows from veteran media members - and noted how Conner showed both mental toughness and team leadership in spring camp. Besides that, his athletic gifts fit well into the pro-style offense Croom wants to run.
Other Bulldogs mentioned with leadership potential were David Stewart, Kyle York, Ronald Fields, and McKinley Scott. The bigger story here is that most of the roster has been willing to follow a lead, either from coach or teammate or both. Croom is encouraged with reports from the off-season program. "What I have heard this summer from our strength coach is we have really taken a step forward. We can't watch the workouts but the kids come in the office and they're bodies have changed. Jim (Nowell) has done a tremendous job. We have a running test coming up and he says 99% of them have already made their times. I want to see that for myself, though."
He is also hoping to see the final verdict from the NCAA infractions committee soon. It has been six weeks since the June hearing and Croom really wants to get this out of the way before game week. "But to say the least I'll be very excited when those sanctions come down, I won't have to answer questions about it any more. It will be a non-issue after that. I'm going to put that as far behind us as fast as we can."
And ultimately, Croom wants to put his personal story in the background and let the spotlight shine on his team. He clearly would rather talk about football and admitted some surprise that the fuss about his hiring continues to dominate story lines. "But it provides the opportunity to talk about our program and get to know the media," he noted.
"When we start playing games it will die down, there will be other stories and my hiring will be on the back-burner and we'll move on. Until that time I'll answer the same questions over and over and over again. If somebody keeps asking, somebody wants to know. That's part of the job."
It's just that Croom would rather get to the more immediate job of preparing for a new season. There are plenty of on-field questions to answer in preseason camp, and some answers might be a while coming. The head coach has told his staff he will not set any minimum number of wins as a standard. "I don't want to restrict our players," Croom said. "All I want them to do is give their absolute best."
Besides, he added, "I expect them to win them all, I don't know any other way to approach it. You take it one at a time and at the end of the season then we'll look back and be realistic about it. To say we hope to win six or five or something like that, then which one are we going to concede? I'm not going to concede anything."
David Murray is the Editor of Dawgs' Bite magazine and the featured writer for the Dawgs Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website. You can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.