Neither Croom nor MSU ever announced the procedure, and this was the first time the coach took time to talk specific details. "I had a partial knee replacement," he explained, adding, "If the doctors had explained the procedure in detail before the surgery I probably wouldn't have had them do it!"
But of course he would have, because at long last Croom had to agree with the opinion of family and friends. "My wife, the doctors, everybody, they were in more pain watching me walk than I was," he said. Yet everyone who observed how Croom moved around the practice field last spring, fall, and now this 2005 camp; or how much he relied on the booster-provided golf cart figured that sooner or later the former college and pro offensive lineman would pay the typical price for his days playing in the trenches.
This spring Croom bowed to the inevitable. "Recently when it began preventing me from sleeping I knew I had to do something." Which meant letting the specialists of Columbus Sports Medicine, who have repaired damage to many a Bulldog over the last quarter-century, go to work on the big Dog. Two weeks later Croom agrees it was worth the down-time.
"I'm in less pain than I was before the surgery. It's still uncomfortable but it's better than before. I'm ahead of schedule in my rehab, I'm in Atlanta today to speak to an alumni meeting and on the plane ride over there were no ill effects."
Croom can joke about his operation. But he is serious about the overall health issue of getting into shape, having noticed the increasing number of college and pro coaches who are ending up in hospitals after or even before seasons. Coaching at any level is stressful, Croom said, but these days the intensity is even higher and something has to give. Too often it is a head man's own health as he steals personal time to pay a professional price. "We start out with great intensions and as soon as something goes wrong we get out of our routine," he admitted.
"My workout schedule that I used for years in pro ball was totally off-track. I haven't lifted for a year. But I'm going to get back into a normal routine. You have to set aside 45 minutes a day to do what's best for your body, otherwise we can't continue to enjoy what we do."
Croom did enjoy the recently-completed camp, first of all because the Bulldogs did get through an intense 15 days of work with minimal damage. Only a couple of players needed real surgery and their injuries won't affect off-season conditioning, much less fall availability.
"Everybody else came out good," Croom said, "and we took every opportunity to take advantage of contact in practices. We're healthy, we're not going into summer worried about anyone at all."
In fact the coach is pleasantly surprised that he was the only ‘major' casualty, because there were plenty of hitting-day opportunities for serious harm. It was a necessary gamble given what Croom and staff wanted to get done with the team at this stage of an ongoing rebuilding process.
"I thought we had an excellent spring. It was a very tough, physical spring and our players finished in a positive manner. I felt at the end of spring we were better at every position except offensive tackle."
That was the same evaluation Croom gave local media immediately after the Maroon-White game, and a couple of weeks reviewing results—while slowed a bit by rehabilitation—haven't changed the overall opinion. Naturally the staff had hoped to be much farther along in the process by this point after a year-and-a-half on campus. But all things considered, Croom believes an essential first stage is nearly finished.
"We've pretty much put a solid foundation in place that we wanted to do in our first year. We're going to be young, our depth will come from our freshmen. We had a good recruiting year, and those guys are going to have to play. But we are excited, we're looking forward to fall with great anticipation."
There is one atypical reason why the 2005 Bulldogs will be relying so heavily on incoming rookies, and it's not just because the recruited kids bring more of the skills, speed, and size State desperately needs. It is because the Mississippi State varsity roster is far thinner than most SEC programs.
By one count there have been 17 departures of scholarship personnel in the past year. "Thereabout," Croom agreed. And while some of those Dogs-gone were reserves and back-benchers, a portion returning and expected starters have also left campus.
"I expected it," Croom said, not the least bit perturbed by the question. Though he did want to point out that not all departures were for negative reasons. "I want to single out two of them. (Linebacker) Kenny Kern will finish his degree this summer, he left because he wanted to play his senior year and he wasn't projected in our top-three. (Defensive end) Marvin Byrdsong was for the same reason. I respect them for that, if a guy wants to get on the field I understand that. Beyond that most of the rest were for discipline reasons, or they just felt our philosophy wasn't what they wanted to do."
While Croom is disappointed some of the departed Dogs could not or would not meet the more demanding personal-discipline standards he has set for the program, there is no ill-will for anyone. In fact, the exodus should prove to be the long-term best for all involved. Individuals can, hopefully, find a situation that better suits either their abilities or their attitudes. And while the team could certainly have used the experience and skills many of the missing possessed, those talents weren't going to be of much help if the players were not working by the same on- and off-field plans as everyone else.
"And that's part of the process," Croom said. "When you change the ways of doing things, some guys were not recruited into that philosophy. It's a totally different situation than they were recruited into, so they choose to leave. And that's expected."
And now that the varsity roster has been streamlined, and positions opened up for incoming personnel that like their opportunities to contribute early, Croom also expects the Bulldog program to be on firmer footing for future success.
"The thing is, I know the guys that stayed through the course of this spring truly want to be here."
And when every Bulldog reports in August, they will find that their head coach has a new ‘spring' in his own step.