Coach some football.
It's been a long, dry summer for this mostly-new State staff since the spring game. Not that Croom or his aides have resented the kind of off-season activities - alumni meetings, golf outings, Bulldog Club gatherings - that fans so enjoy. It's just that the entire staff would rather have been instructing and drilling their players and building on the first spring camp together.
Starting next week they can, after a few days of back-to-school acclimation. Two-a-days begin August 12.
There's more to Croom's pre-season eagerness than just wanting to get on a practice field. Camp might actually be less stressful than the alleged 'off' season, this first-year college head coach has discovered. Croom admits he had no notion just how intense the off-field pressures could be.
"I've sacrificed a lot of sleep," Croom says. "It's been very demanding. But it's something we have to get done this year."
This first year, he means. While veteran peers at rival programs made the usual golf-and-gab summer rounds, Croom and Co. were setting an entirely new direction for the Bulldog program. It's a long-term task requiring long hours. Odd hours, too, the way Croom describes it.
"I do my football work when I go home at night. I've developed a regimen, I go home about six in the afternoon, sleep for three hours, get up at nine and work to three in the morning. I can't get it done in the day." His daylight hours are booked for office tasks, meetings, season and recruiting planning, and endless requests from media and fans.
For that matter there won't be enough days in the first year to set everything in place. Croom has had to adjust more than his private schedule, too. "I have had to delegate far more than what I thought I would," he confessed. In fact, Croom now says that unlike his original plans, he now will turn far more of the offensive play-calling responsibilities to coordinator Woody McCorvey. The off-field schedule simply means the head coach won't have as much hands-on time with the offensive players has hed hoped.
But he's still in ultimate charge, of course. And as Croom recognized early on his biggest first-year task is not installing a gameplan. It's instilling a mindset. While he could not observe, say, summer strength and conditioning sessions, Croom was able to hear eyewitness reports of player efforts - and get the word back to any athletes who weren't, so to say, carrying their weight. He also read daily class attendance reports, and at times would show up unannounced at a class himself. "We've demanded they attend classes. Even if their professors say they've got three cuts I'm in charge of attendance, they have no cuts."
Croom has made some other moves, such as requiring most sophomores join the freshmen in living on campus. Players living off-campus have to provide the football office copies of their leases to assist in curfew checks. "That was not the case when I first got here," Croom added, not very necessarily.
"We've demanded some things off the field as well as on the field. We've made a lot of small changes, things that don't show up on the field." Or at least not in technical terms. The added demands and enforcement should ultimately show results on the playing field in a more organized, cohesive, and disciplined football team.
In fact, 'discipline' has become the by-word for Bulldog football this summer. But fans and media might also need to change what they think the word implies. The way Croom explains his philosophy, it becomes clear suspensions and extra running and curfews are just by-products, not the process itself.
"Discipline is not a bad word to me, it's simply taking pride and doing the little things right that you're expected to do without somebody standing over your shoulder all the time." Now there is a concept - when State players discipline themselves as athletes, students, and citizens, then they won't need a coach monitoring every misstep they take, every class they break, every drill they fake. Besides, this is more than just a philosophy. it is a very practical approach, too.
"No matter how much we do, as soon as they walk inside those white lines they're on their own," Croom said. "They have to take some pride and have discipline to get the job done on the field, we expect the same thing in their personal lives off the field."
A week from now the Bulldogs will be on the field to begin the allotted 29 practice dates (a two-a-day counts as just one date) leading up to the September 4 opener. And as eager as Croom and staff are to resume nuts-and-bolts instruction, the head coach still insists job-one is inside Bulldog helmets. Even, if necessary, at the expense of the playbook.
"It's a twofold challenge," Croom said. "I always remind coaches changing the attitude comes first, who we are, what our identity is going to be. We don't want the Xs-and-Os to get in the way of how we think about ourselves and doing the little things it helps to win. There will be times that if we have to cut back more we will."
Also, even with camp cranking up the State staff will continue parallel priorities. Recruiting, mostly. As of Monday morning four prospects had made verbal commitments to Mississippi State, all of them high school players. The latest commitment was reported today on this site.
Recruiting, speaking, monitoring, interviewing - there are more demands on his time than Croom has hours to fill. But with the calendar now reading August, the new head coach can finally do what he came to Starkville to do. Coach some Mississippi State football. No matter how many other items are on the agenda which don't involve a playbook. "I will get the job done whatever it takes," Croom said.
With camp fast approaching, Mississippi State's roster is also being finalized. State is still awaiting final determinations on the eligibility of a number of 2004 signees.
The University had not announced any non-qualifiers going into the first week of August, and likely will not until after Friday's reporting date. But there appear to be five rookie players whose status remains uncertain.
Linebacker Rory Johnson of Vicksburg, Miss. High School reportedly will not be able to qualify for freshman eligibility. He will instead attend Hinds Comm. College this year. The highest-profile prospect signed by State from within Mississippi this year, Johnson had been tentatively assigned #53 on the '04 roster.
Four other newcomers were still awaiting NCAA certification at the end of July. Three are from out-of-state. Birmingham, Ala., running back Brandon Thornton; Tuscaloosa, Ala., linebacker Titus Brown; and Tulsa, Ok., receiver Kenny McClellan have yet to get a favorable word from the NCAA's clearinghouse. Nor has Clarksdale, Miss., defensive back Fred Akines, who at one point was regarded as a probable non-qualifier. Now it appears the in-state product has a chance to be on the Bulldog roster next week after all.
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 email@example.com.