So, Croom is willing to surprise his charges if necessary, such as going to campus classes on occasion himself. Including during summer school, as he did last week to the great regret of a not-to-be-named Bulldog. "I dropped in on a class last week, and it was funny," reported Croom, with a sly grin that said somebody didn't enjoy the joke. "One of my players walked in late and came through the side door, around the teacher. He didn't realize I was in the class until I raised my hand and asked a question. He looked at me and almost fell out of that chair."
The outcome was not reported either, though it's common knowledge missed classes usually result in a 5:00 a.m. trip to the track. The twist here is that Croom wasn't raising his hand just to get the teacher's attention. He had a real question. "It was health and nutrition class, we were talking about bulimia and anorexia. I was very interested in the weight-loss part." Not just that, but Croom was fascinated with how today's culture sees the 'ideal' physical figure. And, that once upon a time a man's size and girth were indications of wealth. "So if you look at me you'd think I'm quite wealthy. I couldn't resist asking, I hope she didn't mind."
"I'm going to continue to go to class. I believe firmly winning and losing are habits. More important, it translates into how successful they'll be when they graduate."
Ronald The Entertainer
At one point in the morning session, as media members and SEC staffers roamed the second-floor lobby and waited for the next round of interviews to start, somebody began playing with the grand piano. It was Ronald Fields, pecking out a smattering of lines from pop tunes. Asked how long he has played the piano, the defensive tackle grinned. "About 30 seconds! Nah, I don't play it often but I know a few songs."
Including, it turned out, the opening bars to 'Lean on Me.' Which might not be a bad theme for this season, he agreed. "Yeah, we have to lean on one another to get by."
Fields was able to entertain the house in other ways, too. Urged on by McKinley Scott, he gave a sample of his soon-to-be-famous imitation of Sylvester Croom. And indeed, the senior is able to drop his voice and sound uncannily like the head coach. "He knows," Fields said. "Sometimes we imitate him in a meeting room when he's there. He just laughs."
Hopefully Croom likes Fields' newest act. For benefit of a local TV camera and a few others, the tackle put on a stern look as if addressing the team. "Alright guys, I've got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is we might be on probation. The good news is I saved a load of money by switching my car insurance."
Which immediately cracked up the audience, who demanded Fields repeat it for friends. Croom should get a chance to do his own review soon. "He hasn't heard that one yet," Fields said, "It's something we just made up."
League rules, and house rules
Wednesday's session began with a report by SEC director of football officials Bobby Gaston reporting on new or adjusted rules in college football this year. The one drawing the most explanation was actually the most vague, which Gaston essentially called 'preventive officiating.' That is, an emphasis on sportsmanship to hopefully avoid aggravating tensions on the field and off it. Gaston himself sent a list of 21 acts seen in recent seasons on the field to be considered as areas of emphasis this year. And while the national committee didn't adopt the package these are items officials will be aware of.
They include acts such as spinning the ball after scoring, crossing arms towards the opponents, slashing a finger across the throat, and more. "It's getting away from us," Gaston said of the way showmanship has surpassed sportsmanship. "We've got too many people calling attention to themselves, when in the good old days the coach would have yanked them out of the game."
Whatever officials hope, Mississippi State players already understand they are going to be watched closely this year from their own sideline. A program that has regularly ranked at the top or bottom depending on viewpoint in SEC penalty yardage knows things are going to change. Asked what Croom would say if, say, a MSU receiver caught a touchdown pass and spun the ball in the end zone, McKinley Scott shook his head and said, "he'd probably make him run a couple of laps around the field right there."
Also, this year SEC officials will announce the number of the player responsible for penalties. Croom has no problem with this. "I'm used to it in the NFL. If you do the crime you do the time."
Speaking of the NFL, Croom was asked how he has to change the way he coaches pro players to work with presumably immature collegians. The big difference isn't the players, Croom said, it's the amount of teaching time available in the NFL that college rules don't allow. He paused, then added "As far as the maturity of college players and pro players, I don't see a lot of difference. Some kids never grow up!"
A new Mississippi State coach was not the only debut seen in Birmingham. For the first official time, the 2004 edition of a Bulldog football helmet was on display. It was a white shell with the maroon 'banner M' logo that the University wants to make the all-sports symbol. It has a one-inch wide maroon stripe and maroon facemask. Some fans noticed the new hat when tailback Jerious Norwood and a few offensive Dogs wore it in spring scrimmages.
A sports memorabilia company had a table display at the Wynfrey with all 12 SEC helmets and a league helmet. The new-style State hat was there, though it had a white facemask. Ronald Fields agrees that white hats have not been good for the Bulldogs the last three years, but the paint on the helmet is not the issue. "It's the people and the mindset they have under that helmet." But he added, it's a nice helmet. "It's always good to have something new. We've got a new uniform and a new helmet, new everything, so we start off fresh."
Athletic Director Larry Templeton confirmed the Bulldogs will be wearing a new style of uniform this season, made by Russell, but declined to be specific how it will look different. Croom wants to make a splash at the first home game in the new outfit. Russell will outfit some other sports while adidas will do others, particularly Olympic sports and basketball. All shoes will now be by adidas, including baseball's.
Russell is helping Mississippi State with some 50,000 maroon tee-shirts that will be distributed at the Scott Field gates for the September 4 season opener. "It's something we wanted to do and Russell wanted to participate in."
Templeton was certainly enjoying watching the new Bulldog coach work the SEC crowd. Maybe because it is an election year, the A.D. beamed to one reporter about Croom. "He could run for governor in the state of Mississippi today and win, and he hasn't played a game!"
Of course politics means fund-raising, and Mississippi State has just a month left to sell home season tickets. Templeton said this year's sales pace is ahead of 2003, "but we're not where we want to be. But we're on track to be where we were last year. The two biggest areas we're down are the general public and alumni - which don't buy until late - and two divisions of the Bulldog Club. But I think in those divisions we're now seeing the effects of the people who have moved to the skyboxes and the Club level, they've been keeping their seats. They've decided they don't want those seats." Templeton did not believe a seven-game slate and the added expense is affecting sales this summer.
The '04 ducats should be mailed about the same time as last year, though this 11-game schedule kicks off a year later. State not only is computerizing the entire ticket system, the University is printing its own tickets now.
When the NCAA voted in 12-game schedules the only years were to be 2002-03 and 2008. Some leagues are now pressing to have a permanent dozen games for the added home-game windfall. Templeton doesn't see a 12th game as adding that much more revenue in most places, but he does favor this idea. "Not from a financial reason but for the balance it can give you in doing some home-and-homes. I don't know that we're ever going to be where we can buy three games every year to come to Starkville. But at the same time you expose your program with trips to the Oregons, the BYUs, the Texas' as we've done in the past."
As far as upcoming schedules, Templeton confirmed State will play a two-game set with West Virginia starting in 2005. He also said the expected '05 home game with Houston might be delayed a year by mutual agreement to help Houston out of a situation. "We're still working on that, it gives us an opportunity that we might have another seven (home) game schedule in '06 or '07."
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.