Bingo--or, eureka, if yer of more literate mind. That's it. We have indeed come to a point of pausing in this great, big, ongoing, and even-harder-than-anticipated project known as rebuilding (reviving? reinventing?) Bulldog football. Not much of a break, of course. In fact Coach Sylvester Croom barely had time to get back to Starkville after the Egg Bowl before flying out this morning to hit south/central Mississippi hard in recruiting, while at least one assistant hit the trail straight from Oxford. I only know this because he said so, and some staffers hinted at a few places the coach is headed today. Didn't want y'all to think I've lost all sense and become a recruiting-report addict. I haven't gone that far into fantasty football, yet.
I mention the unusual hastiness of '04 because, by all rights, we should collectively be worn-down by now. After all, the Bulldog nation has to some extent been going at this first year of a new era non-stop since Thanksgiving 2003. Fans and media alike should be exhausted after a dozen hectic months, ready to tune out or at least turn down the volume somewhat while cleaning up holiday leftovers. Not so. We want more games, more practices, more observing the job this staff is doing and more indicators of what is in store for State, as well as a better idea of the timeframe. Signing day and spring training can't get here soon enough, to my mind.
Oh, you thought I might spend this column discussing the game? Nah. Or, naht much. The better team played better, on their field, and won. That's it. OK, so that's sure to light a few fires, but it's sadly correct all the same. That was the sort of team Mississippi should have been all this season, but wasn't…and don't you reckon some Reb folk are asking some hard questions today, also? They have a more experienced and deeper roster, and played up to ability yesterday. It just happened to be in the Egg Bowl.
The Bulldogs did not play up to ability, certainly not in running the ball, and without a ground game State had no chance to win no matter how many turnovers were taken. Even with Jerious Norwood on his game, it still would have been an uphill battle, because the Rebs saw what Arkansas' wide-line was able to do and did it better. (By the way, if UA's Matt Jones had been really healthy, he'd have run for twice what Robert Lane did.) And when the Dogs were put in obvious throwing situations…let's just say that was not the Omarr Conner of the last month. He was openly angry in postgame, at himself. I liked that. The kid is growing up.
It's just that his and the entire team's growing pains are so, well, painful for everyone involved. However, I do wish some of the folk who assert that the Bulldogs weren't motivated Saturday, or didn't appreciate what the game meant, could have talked with players and coaches alike afterwards. Fans who claim Croom and team failed give the Egg Bowl proper importance have no idea, and are either willfully obtuse or (more charitably) so hurt over the loss that they've just gotta blame somebody.
I'll also guarantee that they don't understand something Croom did say yesterday. Let's see, where'd I leave that quote…here. "I don't put a lot of stock in all that rah-rah stuff. You line up, you play hard, you play well, you take pride in what you do. It wasn't any different than before the Florida game or the rest of them. We wanted to play well. We just didn't execute."
There. It's a 100% sure bet that a portion of the fan base will interpret that as Croom wants to treat the Egg Bowl as just another game. No, no, NO! I hear this coach saying he wants his teams to treat every game like the Egg Bowl! Don't you see? Whatever a fan might think or do, players ought not attach any more or less import to any game over another. The outside implications may and often will be different, but Croom knows something we have a harder time grasping. All wins are equally big, each loss just as harmful in the big picture. It's that NFL experience showing. As to the ‘rah-rah' idea, what gets a fan fired up for gametime is often as not a distraction to a player, and doesn't last past kickoff anyway. More to the point, all rah-rah is not created equal, giving the impression not all games are equally important.
What I'm getting at is, in Croom's thinking, when he has a Bulldog team that approaches every weekend as a must-win situation, he'll have a program ready to win in any situation. Which is also why last week he commented that if he had to tell a State player how big the Egg Bowl is, the kid ought not be playing anyway. Fans can pick and choose which games will matter to them; Bulldogs can't, not if Mississippi State is going to build a winner for the longer-haul. We've got to forevermore discard the decades-old concept that well, if we just beat ‘Ole Miss' the season was still a success of sorts. Yeah, I plead guilty to sharing that attitude meself, once upon a time. It was easier, and demanded less investment (emotional and fiscal alike).
Now, just when some are thinking I'm critiquing all poster-attitudes, an important point. After a football season in this new D.B. format, I've finally grasped the most valuable public service message boards can provide…something I also note that many official types don't yet see, and might never. This is an ideal way for all emotional shadings of State fans to briefly assemble, along a suitable thread, and vent without the necessity of following a party-line. Those in need of cheering each other up after a bad loss can do so; others who just must let the venom spew can do the same safely amongst themselves. I saw a lot of each last night after filing the game story, and y'know, I think both sides felt a bit better. It's when these two angles intersect that things can get, umm, intense. But hopefully at the end of the day, and the season, we're still aiming at the same goals even if our ultimate visions of what this program is ultimately capable of will always differ. Put another way, regardless of yesterday's outcome, which team's prospectus-track would you choose to invest in for the next few years?
So, getting back to the original theme that 2004 has raced by and we're all feeling incomplete. That's because the job is not only unfinished, it's barely begun. In my mind all along this first football season for Croom has in some sense been a necessary inconvenience, a final stage in a first full year to get a complete evaluation of what kind of team the coach has to work with. Oh, they instructed and coached to win, even if they knew they did not have a roster capable of executing enough of the playbook right now. Maybe the most impressive thing to me, having seen a few regimes in my day, is how firmly Croom stuck to his principles and concepts all the way through and never once gave in to the temptation of a quick or temporary fix. Did it cost him and the team? Surely. But Croom was willing to pay the price and field the criticism to, as he saw it, keep things moving in one ultimate direction without taking any detours. I suspect we'll see the same thing come signing day, when some otherwise worthy athletes are not offered scholarships because they don't exactly fit the program's prospectus, or the quota at those positions. In short, this head man is not panicked at the situation. Nor is he likely ever to be.
Let's not overlook some other facts that hampered State through 2004. The NCAA cloud is gone, and the lingering damage in scholarship terms is minimal. After a full year returning players—and there are some more who will trim themselves from the roster before summer, I'm predicting—know their coach and staff and how the game is going to be played from now on. That's stability we haven't had on campus for a few years, when the uncertainty of NCAA snooping and impending staff changes kept everyone queasy. Also, has anyone else noticed what did not happen this past season? We had no embarrassing off-field incidents to deal with. More stability.
And, more work ahead. Much more. I really, really appreciated something Croom said after the Arkansas game, when a reporter (not me, thanks) asked the coach if he was pleased how his team gave a good effort in defeat. Nope, he said. "I expect them to play hard now. We're going to play hard every time we go out, we've just got to get some more playmakers in our program. And we're going to get them." OK, so in one sense it is sad State had fallen so far that a new staff first had to re-teach a bunch of athletes just to play hard. But that has been solved, and effort ought not be an issue again. Now it's execution, something that can be taken care of with other teaching and more talent. Much more talent, such as a big-play wideout or two, some faster linebackers and safetys, and lots and lots of linemen on both sides of the ball. Not that I'm a recruiting addict, yet…
I despise losing Egg Bowls as much as any and more than most, as I have to work with the results year-round. But when I am fortunate enough to see something good happening at a foundational level, the complete commitment of one strong-willed man of character and vision, and a bunch of college-age fellows just—repeat, just--starting to grasp what they can do and can become, I can be patient. And get back to work for another year.