This hardly means the Bulldog coach is ignoring the impat Hurricane Katrina is already having on the Gulf Coast, and the threats to entire region as the storm works its way north...with th MSU campus right in the thick of the projected track. In fact, Croom's own thoughts are understandably on the coastal area. "My daughter and granddaughter are in Mobile," he noted, "definitely our thoughts are on people on the coast. I lived in New Orleans a while in the mid-70s and this thing could be devastating there." Croom has kept in touch with family in that area "every couple of hours" and knows 100mph winds were to hit the Mobile area around noon. "So far everything is going good," he said, cautiously. "For all those folk on the coast it's a scary deal."
At the same time Croom has another, larger family he can take care of right now. All Bulldogs are present and accounted for, and storm or not (the MSU campus let out at noon for a 24-hour break) they are going about the work of getting ready to play Murray State this Saturday at Scott Field.
In one small sense it is a foruntate situation the Bulldogs found themselves in to begin game week. Normal off-week routine last year had a late curfew for players, but the staff instituted a roll-check of 6:00 Sundays for this season after non-game weeekends to keep the kids off the roads in evenings. And just by chance yesterday called for a 6:00 academic team meeting. "That was set several weeks ago and I'm glad," Croom said. "We had time at the meeting to tell them when we'd practice."
Which turned out to be 6:00 a.m. Monday. The time was unusual but the work comparable enough to the usual Monday procedure. The difference was this time the Bulldgos had a morning workout, then went to lift weights, and will return to the Shira Complex in th afternoon to meet with coaches and review tapes. "Possibly we'll have a walk-thorugh, without a football," Croom added, "and some teaching so we can get as much preparation in for this game as we can." And while this is a most unusual storm the NCAA limits on total practice time still applies.
Tuesday plans will depend on how soon Katrina blows through and what the campus condition is afterwards. Croom has hopes to get in a full practice in the evening; if not there will be another walk-through session, somewhere. It's ironic now that a wet spring and summer downpours caused delays in construction of the Palmeiro Center, still unavailable until the end of September and the earliest. The Shira Complex indoor surface is just not large enough to have a true team practice or 11-on-11 drills.
"All we can do in Shira is a walk-through, we don't have room for (both) offense and defense," Croom explained. "It's not so bad working (on the) offense or defense, but now we ahve to work on other schemes, and all you can get is a walk-through." Still the staff and administration have some alternative ideas for game prep; one unit can work on the Shira field while the other meets for instruction, and vice-versa.
Or, the Sanderson Center offers enough area to have a unit practice. State is trying to arrange this as well. "If we ahve to do it tomorrow we'll send one unit, probably the defense, if it's available," Croom said. "The offense will stay and use Shira since they need the yard-line markers more than the defense does."
The good news is that since this is the opening game and portions of the past practice week could be spent on specific game matters there is not as much Monday-Tuesday teaching to do as it would be once the season is underway. "The gameplan is pretty much already done," Croom said. "It just limits the physical preparation. It's set, what we're going to do, and really our gameplan is not about plays, it's more about formations, where we're goin to put certain people, where we'll attack people. We'll put in very few plays during the week."
By the same token preparing for Murray State has complications. The State staff has some clear notions about the Racers, their personnel--particularly those who began college careers as Bulldogs before leaving and ending up at another MSU. This Racer offense should be one of the best in Division I-AA, and the name State fans know best is Nick Turner. The former Bulldog halfback was one of the 'Three Horsemen' of Murray State who combined for almost 2,400 yards rushing last year. Another familiar name, Ken Topps, is now the quarterback. Sixth-year coach Joe Pannunzio is a former aide at Mississippi and Auburn, and offensive assistant Bobby Hall spent years coaching high school, junior college, and indoor football in north Mississippi. These coaches know a good bit about Bulldog football.
Murray State's challenge is replacing 19 seniors from a 7-4 squad, particularly on the lines of scrimmage. But those new faces cause some issues in scouting the Racers for State. "It's difficult the first game of the year when you play a team you don't know the personnel, you don't see the people who have taken places on film. What we concentrate on is making sure we've got all our bases covered. both teams are in somewhat of a guessing situation for the first ball game."
Something no State fan has to guess about is how the Bulldogs will approach this inter-Divisional contest. Naturally I-A programs expect to whip I-AA squads with a nice parting paycheck for the privilege. But Mississippi State knows better after a bitter 2004 experience.
"The fact that they are I-AA has nothing to do with the game," Croom said. "We played a Maine team that was one of the better teams we played, so we've been down that road. We go in with a great deal of respect for Murray State."
Nor will the coach allow this battle of MSU's to become a personal matter for any players seeing old friends as new foes. In particular Croom would rather not re-open old books on Turner's departure in 2004, two months after the new coach arrived. "It's history. Nick has gone on and done well up there, he's having a good career. I'm happy for him and I hope his career continues to improve. I don't see any need to go into that situation again." Nor does he care to speculate on the kind of backfield State would have had Turner stuck around to pair up with classmate and fellow PARADE All-American Jerious Norwood.
Still Turner, the first player to leave as a result of the coaching transition, is a symbol of sorts of what the new staff felt had to be done to turn the Mississippi State program around. And the head coach is sincerely pleased--"Of course!" he said when asked--that Turner and others have landed on their cleats.
"The thing I try to get across to our players, any decision I make, or when I get on to them in practice, it's never personal. A player on our team has to worry when I quit talking to them, because I've given up! That's happened very rarely. It disappoints me any time I have to take some sort of disciplinary action, it's painful. You always wonder if I could have done something different to reach that person and what his life is going to be like down the road."
Now is no time to be looking down any road. State is busy enough trying to get practice plans set for this week, and getting a team polished for play on the weekeend. At least in that regard this August has gone much more smoothly than Croom's first year on campus. "The second year you know your players, where they fit in the schemes, you know your coaches. So you really focus more on the chemistry of the team and the development of the individuals than the peripheral things. Last year it was more of an organizational deal."
As he added, "It's a lot better this yer as far as focusing on football." This still doesn't mean the coach will be pinned down for any forecast on how 2005 will play out. He is unlikely to ever turn prognosticator.
"Every year we start off hoping we can win every game, that's the way we'll approach it all the way to the end of the season. If you don't win one you get ready to try to win the next one. That's why I don't like predicting. I don't know any other way to approach it, because if you start conceding games I don't know which ones you say you won't win!"
Croom will only say there is a game to be played this weekend, whatever the weather. Still if the coach's thoughts frequently turn to family riding out the storm today it's understandable. There is also the matter of how Katrina and the waves might impact the Green Wave, as in the September 17 date with Tulane in a Superdome reporting damage today. Obviously it's too early to predict what will happen three weekends from now.
"I haven't talked with Larry (Templeton) yet about that, but I'm sure he's in discussions with them about that. Whatever is decided that's what we'll do at the time. I'm just trying to get ready for Murray State. Even practices, if it comes to it we may have to miss practice and I'd definitely hate to do that."