If outside recruiting reports hold true, Croom was only half-joking. Of the nearly-30 prospects Mississippi State is supposed to entertain over the coming weekend over half have publicly said they intend to ink with the Bulldog program on February 2. A portion of the other visitors are ultimately expected to choose State as well, while a handful more are deciding between State and SEC rivals.
Recruiting rules don't allow coaches to discuss visiting prospects, or any recruit whether committed or not. But Thursday afternoon Croom took time to meet with media representatives to talk about Mississippi State's outlook for this recruiting class. In fact, before everyone was seated for the last session of the day, Croom was asking and answering the first question—"How's recruiting going, that's what everybody wants to know!" At that point, things went on-the-record as Dawgs' Bite began…
Q: Well, how is it going?
Croom: Well, one thing I've learned about recruiting. It ain't over until it's over. And, don't trust anybody. It took me a while. This idea that your word is your bond, that means nothing.
You work at it all year, it really doesn't start for about another week-and-a-half now. Because right now everybody is jockeying for position. What they call those ‘solid commitments,' I don't look at them as commitments. I look at them as reservations. Until they actually enroll.
Q: Have you adjusted anything in the process lately because of what you've learned, the hard way?
Croom: Yeah. Our staff has done an excellent job of evaluating talent and getting numbers. What we tried was to get three or four times as many players as we think we need to sign. That's three or four times as many that when we start out we feel are good enough to play. We feel it will take that many to get to where we want. We want to sign 23 so we went up to almost 100 players starting out.
We went looking for 100 players we felt if we signed them would make us a better football team than we had last year, knowing if we walk out with those 23 guys that would be a good recruiting year. A few months ago I was worried that we were going to oversign. And it always works itself out. We've lost a couple of guys. I know our people in state worry about some guys going different places. But believe me, we will have 23 guys. We're going to sign more than 23. There are some that we know may have some issues academically, that have a chance to get eligible in the spring. But, in either case, we will have 23 eligible prospects we sign that will report to us in August, and they will be 23 good football players.
Q: Do you think you will be able to meet the main needs?
Croom: I feel good about the offensive line. And I feel good about where we in the defensive line as far as satisfying our needs. I'm still not totally confident at the wide receiver position yet, I think we've made some steps but from a numbers standpoint I want to get that squared away. We've got a couple of guys committed but I want to make sure, that was our most pressing need when we started in December. I feel good at this point with where we are but we've got some other receivers we're recruiting, just in case. We'll know more after this weekend.
Q: State has been linked with a number of national recruits, is that an encouraging sign?
Croom: Those are the kind of guys we want to recruit. We want to recruit at a national level and we sure hope we get some of those guys. But just as last year, there were some players whose names were not nationally known that turned out to be good football players for us. And there are going to be some in this class, too, that are going to be very, very good football players that are not as nationally known. I think our evaluation process is thorough enough to where we feel confident from an academic and athletic standpoint that these players will satisfy our needs. Anytime of course you get big-name guys it legitimizes what you're trying to do and helps you in the future. Particularly if you get a guy from another area, usually another guy will follow right behind.
Q: Along those lines, have you expanded recruiting into other geographic areas through this first year?
Croom: I had planned to expand our recruiting even moreso into Florida next year. That has changed now, we really want to get heavily into east Texas because of the proximity. It's easier for kids to get here, and there are a lot more people. Particularly in the Houston and Dallas metroplex areas, all up and down east Texas. The reality is Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas A&M can't get them all! The SEC is very attractive to them.
Q: There has been talk of recruiting players from Samoa, is that an emphasis now?
Croom: That's something we have done. One of our coaches (wide receiver Coach Guy Holliday) provides us with a very good connection to the Polynesian community, and there are some things we need to explore in that area. And we will be more into some areas on the West Coast because of connections there.
Q: But will you actually go recruit in Samoa?
Croom: Believe me, nobody is getting a free recruiting trip to Tahiti, I can tell you that!
Q: Have (high school) grades hampered you this year, and is there is a possibility of signing some kids that will go to junior college? Croom: Yes, to both. If grades were not a problem in this state, this year, recruiting would be over. It would be over, right now, we'd be done. Our 23 guys would be committed, we wouldn't have to bring anybody else in, we'd all go have a good time.
Q: Is there any hope it will be better next year?
Croom: Well, all we can do is make the high school coaches and educators aware that this cannot be delayed until the junior or senior year, it has to start in the eighth grade. Yeah, we've got a lot of great talent in this state and this was a very good year. But I can go down the list and name from five to ten players that can start in the SEC, definitely play as freshmen, who will not be going to SEC institutions in this state, this year. Think about it. When I was at Alabama we couldn't find ten SEC players in the state every year, and we've got at least ten in this state this year that will not enroll in the SEC. We've got a couple that could play for anybody. Anybody.
Q: How big is it that this weekend so many of your commitments are coming? One of them said he was going to be ‘Croom's Con Artist' (convincing uncommitted visitors).
Croom: (laughing) That's huge! We sort of planned it that way. It's very important, because first of all I'm not the best salesman in the world. Our coaches do a better job of that than I do. It's just the way I am, maybe I've got to adjust a little and elevate my salesman skills. But it does not bother me that a guy does not want to be here, because I figure there's a guy just as good that wants to be here and we'll get that guy. It's truly important to me that once a guy sees the facilities, once I go into his home, our coaches go into his home, he sees what he has to do academically, if he doesn't want to be here I don't want him here.
You can talk about facilities all you want and that's important. You've got to have good food, a good place to sleep, a good place to get your work done. If they've got to have gold faucets that's not going to happen at Mississippi State. If they've got to have a 110,000 seat stadium they shouldn't even waste our time and take the official visit. We're not getting one anytime soon. Ultimately, to me it comes down to the people you're going to be involved in, and if they trust me as a head coach more than the other guy, and if they want to be involved with our people. And truly, if they do not trust me and our philosophy, then they should not come to Mississippi State because at some point they're going to have to do some things simply because I ask them to do it. Those are the (type) guys I'm looking for, and if we have to go to all 50 states to find those guys, academically eligible and talented enough, and believe in the vision we have in this program, that's what we will do every single year.
Q: Of guys who committed elsewhere that you talked to, have they given any feedback to you?
Croom: Right now what coaches are using against us—particularly coaches who have been here in the past—is negative comments about our ability to win. We come back with well, Coach Sherrill had the program at a SEC championship level in 2000…most kids can't see any farther than yesterday. They may say negative things about our facilities, our food plan, we've changed all that. Our freshmen coming in are going to be living in brand-new dorms for the next couple of years. Look at the facilities going up, we're in the process of developing a new academic center. We're also formulating a plan to entirely redo our practice fields. So they will have top-notch facilities here.
The thing we have tried to do is try to recruit players who have some vision, who see Mississippi State as I saw Mississippi State when we were talking about the job. Not seeing it as it is, but seeing the potential it has. And if they don't have that vision they shouldn't be here.
Q: Can you talk about (offensive guard) Brad Weathers coming back?
Croom: That's in progress, there is still a lot of paperwork to do. We feel optimistic, but he has to come off a medical to an active scholarship. We have a spot but it has to be approved. We had three spots because a couple of guys who left had already graduated at the end of the semester, like Kyle York and Joe Judge.
Getting Weathers and (December signee) James Redmond really helps our offensive line, plus the guys we will have coming in as freshmen, and it was a huge plus moving Anthony Strauder to offensive guard. We've got a freshman offensive line committed to us…I shouldn't say that because now everybody will try to figure it out!
Q: How many visits will you use this January?
Croom: We've got 41 already committed, and four left. We're going to hold those and be very selective. I can't give an exact number coming in this weekend because there are still some things to work out. But most of them are committed. I've been in every house except for one or two of them, I already know them.
We've got some guys coming in this weekend that one way or the other are going to tell us Monday night they're in and out. Except for wide receiver it's going to be first-come, first-serve. I'm not waiting any longer. There are a couple of guys that committed to me that have sort of wavered and I've told them, Monday night, they're either in or out.
We're going to have 23 football players that are going to be here in August. We're not going to sign a bunch of guys that in June suddenly aren't coming because of academics.
Q: You sound as if you recruit like Coach Bryant did, he didn't pay attention to lists or rankings.
Croom: Coach Bryant looked for winners. See, players don't understand when they're being recruited, I assume they're going to conduct themselves when they get here pretty much as they do in the recruiting process. I figure when you recruit a guy for a year, he is what he is. If he can't make up his mind, can't stand tall, can't make a commitment, then he's going to be the same way when he gets here. If I can't trust his word in a 12-month recruiting process, what's going to change? Particularly a guy that's going to carry me along and not tell me the truth, he'll be the same way. When guys tell me they like us but somebody has better facilities, he's not looking at things from the mindset I want. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
And some guys want to go into ready-made situations. And some guys want to build something and have the personal satisfaction of knowing they were there and made it happen. Those are the guys that I'm looking for.
Q: The NCAA is considering penalizing schools for graduation rates, do you have any opinion on that?
Croom: That's just something else we have to deal with. I do not think it's wrong, it just makes our job tougher. But it puts us in a catch-22 again, where we've got to assess and predict as well as we can if the guy can stay in school. We had to do some of that with the progress rules, but now it's going to cost you scholarships. That's hitting where it hurts.
(Note: questions in this session were from Dawgs' Bite, the Clarion-Ledger, Columbus Commercial-Dispatch, and WFCA Radio. Most questions were shortened for this transcript.)