Asked about the knee Thursday, Croom mused "it was going pretty good until I took that step up over there" referring to the elevated stage he had to speak from…standing. "I had a little relapse about two weeks ago, a little tendonitis in the quadriceps tendon and I got scared, it popped a little bit then I couldn't do anything for about two weeks."
So the head coach is making as much use of the new Holliman Center training room as any player. "We've got this new thing called a hydro-works, a treadmill down in the water. It's one of the greatest things in training that I have ever seen." This from a coach who just came from the no-expense-spared NFL.
Boys Will Be Boys…
It's been an interesting summer for some SEC coaches, who have had to contend with various sorts and severities of discipline problems on their rosters. A few of these cases have ended up in courtrooms, but all contributed to image issues around the league. Mississippi State did not escape, though the recently-revealed arrests and fines of three Bulldogs (defensive ends Titus Brown and Michael Heard and defensive back De'Mon Glanton) in a July 8 incident at a Columbus nightspot will not result in any disciplinary actions by Croom.
Croom, who is proud of the otherwise-clean record his players have posted over this summer, might set high standards for his players off the field but he is also a realist about what active and aggressive young men will do. "Things are going to happen in college football," he said. "Any of you who have covered it for a long time know things have happened. There were things that happened when I was playing that went unreported, nobody ever found out, that was a whole lot worse. It's just different now."
Different in terms of 24-hour attention from traditional media as well as the new outlets of talk radio and on-line services and message boards. The scrutiny never stops in-season or out. "Nothing happens that's not reported," Croom said, "a common fight gets in the media." Though, it took two weeks for news of the three State players to get into the news. Croom, a former college player himself, knows some things will never change. "I mean you are going to have fights in college, there are always fraternities and players.
"As a head coach you don't condone it, you try to make them understand this is the society we live in. You try to teach them to have enough discipline to walk away." Literally teach, as State has initiated programs for anger management and conduct seminars from campus resource staff. "But things are going to happen," Croom admitted. What then? "You make a rule and when they do cross the line you discipline in a fair and just manner."
Croom has another idea he'd love the NCAA to allow, such as more organized drills for players with coaches during the off-seasons. Already individuals can go by their position coach's office most any time to talk, discuss schemes, review videos. State coaches also host players at homes frequently, something Croom intends to do when his house—a year in the building already—is finished.
"But I'd like to engage them in more instructional drills. Every other sport has them, why not football?"
Crunching The Numbers…
College coaches have more reason than ever to keep a disciplined ball squad. Dismissals of any sort, disciplinary or not, from now on will impact a program's Academic Progress Rate. And programs that fall short of the NCAA's arbitrary standards of graduation and retention will begin losing scholarships in a couple more years; up to 10% of the scholarship total in worst cases.
Croom is more aware of APR implications than most; since arriving in Starkville over twenty scholarship players—most inherited but at least two of his own signees—have left the team, either dismissed or on their own accord. That is a whole lot of APR points to lose, but not quite worst-case according to the coach. "Right now we're fortunate in that most of the players that left were eligible when they left." That means losing just one APR point instead of two. Still, those points add up.
"The way the rule is currently set up it does handicap coaches going into programs that are trying to instill a disciplined way, and players decide they don't want to be there," Croom said, adding that he and the MSU compliance staff have been running the numbers constantly and gauging how it might affect future recruiting class limits. "Hopefully we stabilize and don't lose any more."
Yet even if State is penalized grants for the roster losses of 2004-05, Croom is willing to pay the price now. "Hey, I figure realistically we might have some problems down the road. That is something I have to deal with. But I'm not going to compromise what I believe in to worry about losing a scholarship, bottom line. If we have to play with fifty guys and we have 50 guys that I believe in then we'll play with 50."
With practices a week away Croom figures to have "probably 75" scholarship players, instead of the 81 State is currently allowed after NCAA sanctions. So there is a lot of roster-rebuilding to do, maybe even more than Croom anticipated when he took over.
"It's something we just have to deal with," he said of the departed players, which included many starters and former prep all-stars. "And those players did not chose me as head coach, I knew some would not necessarily agree with our philosophy." In several cases it was just the playbook that did not agree with the personnel, not something personal between coach and player. Croom had no issues with players who left looking for a system that suited their skills, or who saw more playing time elsewhere immediately such as Kenny Kern and Aries Nelson.
"And we had one or two we wanted to change positions that I thought would help the team and give them the best chance to move on to the next level. We couldn't come to an agreement, they wanted to go somewhere else and play. I have no problem with guys wanting to go play the game, particularly as they get into their senior year."
Putting Pieces In Places…
The personnel moves Croom made in spring, and those he is considering this August, have not resulted in any further departures. And the coach expects any future shuffles to be accepted as well, because they will all be his players by then. "It's part of our philosophy in recruiting," he said.
The thing is, for all the adjustments Croom is not obsessed with personnel fitting a certain position's description. While he wants as much speed as possible, and as much size as practical, the coach is looking for something that doesn't necessarily show up in sprints and lifts. Put simply, Croom wants football players. "We like to recruit the best possible athletes and guys we feel can compete, then put the best eleven on the field regardless."
In fact, the football coach sounds a lot like a certain Bulldog baseball coach when he talks about his ideal roster. "We try to recruit as many two-position players as possible," Croom said. "I like to recruit (linemen) that can play tackle, guard, and center. We're not going to sign many guys that can play just one position, if you do you'd better be the best at that position."
And, have the best football attitude. Or as Croom calls them, be "winning players." He sees his primary job as securing personnel through recruiting, run them through the program, and then get them in their winning positions. This is a major reason why even true freshmen are expected to contribute immediately. "We're not good enough to waste a player. If that's the best we've got he's going to be out there."
"The key to that is recruit players that trust me to make those decisions. The bottom line comes down to do you trust me, because some time in your career I'm going to ask you to do something you don't understand and if you don't trust me we have got a problem."
Speaking Of Recruiting…
With fall rosters being finalized as final freshman clearances come in, Croom still laments how many elite athletes out of the Mississippi prep ranks will not qualify to play anywhere this year. This also impacts how he and the State staff will evaluate and court talent. "We have to recruit out of state a lot," Croom said.
He is also keeping APR and upgraded core-curriculum requirements in mind. "We try in mid-October to predict whether we can get those players in or not, and also our academic staff has to tell us not only can we get them in but can they graduate. If they can't give us 90% assurance we inform those players that we can't sign them. In our offer letter it's in there that the offer is based on academic performance. So we have to figure out how many people that we're going to recruit at each position and the academic requirements predicting those guys can get in."
And with so many local high schoolers not projecting to qualify, State is hitting the recruiting road…or airlanes. "We have to recruit far and wide to get enough players. Fortunately we've done well in Georgia, we're recruiting the Houston area, in Los Angeles, we have some good connections in California. We'll recruit all across the country for our kind of players."
Besides, Croom said, "We're recruiting against some tough people. There are going to be some years where we're not the most talented, but we're not going to write those seasons off and say we can't win. You don't have to have the great blue-chip players, find the guys that want to be in your program and believe in the way you want to do things, coach them up, and go out and win football games.
"We're going to find guys that want to win the Bulldog way. It might not be the right way but it's our way. If we get enough talent, and I believe we can, we're going to get it even if we have to go to Korea." Not that there have been any sightings in Seoul of State coaches…yet.
Not Instant At All…
There were two theme-stories to 2005 Media Days. First was the roster of new (or in the case of Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, re-new) coaches in the league. Having gone through the experience himself last July, though obviously magnified by his historic status, Croom was glad to let others deal with the welcome-to-the-SEC limelight.
The other top topic was the SEC's new instant replay policy, which director of officials Bobby Gaston discussed Wednesday at length and in great detail. The SEC also provided a sheet, front-and-back, explaining the technology, policies, and process. There will surely be confusion all season as fans and media alike get used to what can, and what cannot, be reviewed. In fact some reporters seemed more concerned that the review process would alter what they get to see on press box TVs. The best way to summarize what replay will not be was Gaston's report that the single most controversial SEC event of '04, the clock management at the end of the Florida-Tennessee game, would not be subject to review.
A short list of other no-review situations include: holding, offsides, false starts, or encroachment, pass interference, personal fouls of any sort, illegal blocks or formations, face mask, roughing a passer or kicker, and most notably fighting participants. As Gaston noted, the South Carolina-Clemson brawl review wasn't completed until the next Wednesday.
Essentially, reviewable situations involve: plays ‘governed' by the sideline, goal line, end zone, and end line; passing plays (complete/incomplete/intercepted, illegal touching, etc.); runner-down, forward progress for first down, touching of a kick, number of players on the field, and fourth-down try fumble plays. And, in conjunction with overturned plays, clock adjustments.
The three officials (a replay official, communicator, and technician) in the secure review booth have to make the calls, but cannot be contacted by anyone on the field. This is the Big Ten system installed last year, and not at all like the one used in the NFL.
Asked if he would like a pro-type system in college ball, where coaches can challenge a play, Croom was clear. "Nononono! You can't. The coach's challenge is fun because you get to make sure things get checked that you want to get checked. But I don't think it's feasible in college football. The thing that gets overlooked is the technology and the cost. In every stadium you would have to have enough camera angles that however is up there can see it in about eight to ten seconds."
Croom related that at Green Bay he did throw the red flag for challenges. "Even then I was hesitant quite often to make that call because you don't want to give up that timeout (if the call is upheld). You can't burn timeouts in the NFL because the clock keeps running in the last two minutes." There will be no such penalty in the college game, but no challenges can be made either. Croom can live with that. "I don't ever see that happening in college football." Though under review rules, two frustrating plays goal line/sideline plays in last year's Arkansas game would likely have turned out in State's favor with touchdowns.
There are four other rules adjustments for this season or ‘points of emphasis.' SEC officials now will flag any helmet-to-helmet tackling without considering whether it was intentional or not. Kick-block players cannot vault the line of scrimmage even if they land on their teammates. And on-field celebrating will be watched more closely. And the intentional-grounding zone, which had extended to the tight end, now is entirely tackle-to-tackle.