It's certainly difficult to imagine a situation going much more badly than this Mississippi State football season. And it's impossible to miss signs that Bulldog fans are indeed eyebrow-deep in the middle stages of the grief process. That's right, the middle. At the risk of deepening our mutual depression, we have to objectively note that Bulldog football is not even halfway through another process, the re-re-rebuilding of a program.
Again I don't recall the precise list and names of Stages, but there are three that clearly apply to what State has experienced since the clock struck midnight on December 31, 2000. They are: Denial, Anger, and Acceptance.
Guess which one a plurality of Bulldog boosters were experiencing at the moment? Yep. Raw, open anger. In some cases outright rage. That's what losing to Vanderbilt will do to a SEC fan base.
After filing the game story and participation chart last night I made a quick scan of the message boards…and wasn't surprised by the venting going on. Even some who have been cheerful, or at least hopeful, through three preceeding losses have really cut loose. Others ask what took ‘em so long to see the light. And there are still a few keeping a stiff upper lip, bless their Maroon hearts.
Understand that I don't recommend or dispute any of these responses. Each reaction is personal and inevitable as we watch Coach Sylvester Croom and team struggle from week through frustrating week. Though I'll note that the degree of anger displayed by many fans is an interesting comment on our Bulldog natures.
I mean that for all the decades of dashed hopes and unmet expectations, Mississippi State folk could always in some quiet corner of our psyche say ‘well, at least we're not like Vanderbilt.' As if that was some perverse badge of honor and proof that we were ‘better' than somebody. Call it Denial. Now that last faded shred of imagined dignity has been torn away, and the reaction—Anger--is frightening. Parenthetically, haven't you noticed a similar response related to the recent rise of Rebel baseball? We could always make fun of ‘them' until they started winning.
Actually, a lot of us have lived in Denial for over three seasons now, believing that State was one recruiting class or a coordinator change away from getting back to the Good Times. With the awful reality burning through even the most Maroon-tinted glasses now, years of repressed Anger have at last erupted. The message boards and, come the weekdays, radio waves are burning with the exposed emotions of State fans who finally understand that this program is nowhere close to SEC respectability.
Whether enough of us Accept current reality just yet is another matter.
I do know a tithe of fans have reached that stage, some as far back as '02. Not that they've enjoyed watching the slide any more than the rest of us. Nor does their example mean we should be content with what is shaping up as a Tulane-and-Ten year. The LAST think I'd want Mississippi State folk to say today, this month, this fall, is ‘oh well, that's just SEC life, maybe next year will be better.' That sort of Acceptance is just another form of Denial to my perfeshunal's mind.
Of all the things I like and respect about Croom, and the list is legion, one of the most admirable traits is his steady and so-far unwavering focus on The Plan. He knows what he wants to do and how he wants to do it, and the curious thing is that so many fans have missed it. Because The Plan is utterly obvious, there is no secret at all. For now, let's try not to confuse results with schemes. Put another way, the offense you saw—or heard—Saturday night is the same basic scheme Croom intends to run in 2005, '06, as long as he is the head coach here. No, he doesn't have the people to run it well here in 2004. There's not nearly enough blocking to spring Jerious Norwood free; not enough protection to provide time to throw downfield or receivers who can get that far past the line in three/four seconds anyway. Least of all when a weak-armed quarterback is doing the throwing.
Defensively, the hitting is actually getting better week-by-week but the tackling itself is still missing. Kicking game? What kicking game? And we could go on and on…
But won't, as checkout is at noon and I've got to hit the I-state outside my hotel window. What I'm saying again and not for the last time is Mississippi State does not have sufficient talent and muscle and, something easy to forget, experience in the schemes to win SEC games yet. Even against Vanderbilt. How we got here isn't a subject for now, other than to say this. I urge y'all to pull up a full-team roster of the 2004 Bulldogs,and tally the number of fifth-year seniors and fourth-year juniors. Those are the recruiting classes of 2000 and 2001, the players who are supposed to be leading the way to wins this year.
(Another aside: the fact that there aren't a lot of scholarship seniors AND a threat of reduced grants when the NCAA finally issues a ruling means that Croom might not be able to sign a full 25-man class this year. Unless, that is, there are some more departures this winter. I'll write more about this next week so we can compare notes.)
No, I'm not very encouraging this Sunday morning. But that's not the point today. Getting back to the original theme, a specialist tells me that the worst way to ‘help' is to short-circuit the grieving process. It can't be avoided, only experienced and hopefully survived.
I think if given the chance and the recruits Croom will not only survive but eventually (two, three years) thrive. He's making mistakes, true, and owns up to every one. What else should we expect of a first-time head coach? He's also learning the differences in the college game from his pro experience, and making hard decisions daily about personnel and plans. I see it at practices and hear it afterwards. See, Croom Accepted the situation when he signed on, even if a lot of us wanted to Deny the depths the program had reached. We can't do that any more, thus the Anger being vented today.
Yet the new head Dog has never Denied the difficulties or gotten Angry with the continued frustrations which he feels far more than any of us could. Croom has Accepted a situation and a challenge. Have enough of us Mississippi State folk also reached that point?