Croom: Dogs Still Playing Names, Not Games

It was scheduled as the standard game-week press conference, for discussion of Mississippi State's upcoming contest with West Virginia, matchups both general and specific, the health of gimpy Bulldogs, and other typical topics. But midway through it turned into a ‘state of State' discussion. And Coach Sylvester Croom had some things to say.

Following is an edited transcript of Croom's comments in this area along with responses to direct questions. It began with the coach's thoughts on why the Bulldogs have had such trouble beginning games well this season.

"I wish I totally had an answer for that. Maybe our football team needs a psychologist because from a football standpoint everything that I know to do we're doing that. As far as practices, how we travel, our routine Friday night, all those things right up to gametime. I've even had conversations with players about that.

"It keeps going back to what they tell me, and what I surmised as well and wanted to hear from them. It's that there still is a little bit of the history of our program still haunts them to some degree. And that's what has to change. The idea that it hasn't been… We practice well, we anticipate going in and winning, but the historical aspect weighs heavy on their minds. And this comes from them. In practice we're doing what the coaches say, we're having fun, but on gameday, as one player put it, we play the name instead of the game. Maybe I do need to get a sports psychologist to talk to them about that."

Q: How is this season impacting the committed recruits? "There are a couple of issues involved. First of all, when we recruited players we told them we where in the rebuilding process. And that part of the reason some of them committed, they know they will have a great opportunity to come in and play and be a part of turning this thing around. As long as they feel the program is going forward I think our commitments will hold, that's my conversations with these players. I get texts from these guys every week, or when I talk to them ‘Coach good luck in the game, we're excited where we are, it's our program.' That's what I get from our prospects.

"Yeah, there are some I understand from our coaches that say different things that come out in the media. But when I talk to them I don't get that. I keep talking to them; yes, we're in the building process, this is what happened, this is where you fit in to where we're trying to go. I think a lot of them still picture themselves in that mode. Now, if that continues, if we don't get better and a negative cloud begins to surround our program, that could possibly change."

Q: How does he defend the team's performances so far? "How do I defend it? I see the effort we give, that our players continue to battle throughout the course of the game. I really anticipated us playing a lot closer game and getting ourselves in position against LSU to have a chance to win in the fourth quarter. That's what I anticipated, but we got off to such a horrendous start we got totally out of our running game because we had to throw the football.

"But when I look back from where we were when we first got here, the talent level has definitely increased. It's still not where it needs to be to compete with the LSU's of the world, but we have several good football players who are being redshirted. We're playing some guys that are very young, and that's why as frustrated as I become I look at those guys.

"In the building process you have to play young players, and this is the tough part about it. You go recruit guys and quite often you have to play some of them too fast. A lot faster than you would anticipate. Last year we didn't get a chance to redshirt many players. We've redshirted a bunch of players this year. I had a guy within the program we probably should have redshirted every freshman we had, in retrospect I wish I could have done that. But then again we really would have had some holes last year in some spots.

"Our talent level has definitely improved. But what happens is it puts us in a position as we build to have to play some young players sometimes. And you're going to have mistakes when that happens."

(About the building process) "This process takes a while. I know it's frustrating, I get a lot of criticism for our won-loss record. And it tears my gut in two because I'm not used to losing. It bothers me to a great, great extent. But I also knew when I came here this was going to take a process and it wasn't going to be an overnight process. If you do the things the right way, if you try to build a program built on character, on doing things the right way, it was going to take some severe changes. We had over 30 players leave this program while on probation. Now I may have some criticism for that, but the commitment was made to do it the right way. What that meant is guys going to class, guys staying out of trouble in the streets, having the decency and manners to respect people.

"That's part of it. If we didn't have character we wouldn't have come back and beat UAB. If we didn't have character we wouldn't have continued to fight in the fourth quarter against a LSU team that obviously at this point has more talent. But, I still expected us to be more competitive in that game just because of the character we have.

"Now, do we have confidence? No, we do not have confidence. And the only way to get confidence is at some point trusting what you believe in and going out and winning against a good football team like LSU. Two years ago we beat Florida, it was exciting, but I wasn't particularly excited because I knew we were not a good football team yet. These guys are hanging together and have gotten better in practice every week. We've gotten better from a talent standpoint, no question our character as a football team ahs gotten better.

"And I must say this, too. I don't let a lot of things bother me but I did get criticized for one statement, that I worry too much about the character of the players. When I stop worrying about the character of the players I coach, when I stop worrying about their lives, about them as people, what kind of people they're going to be 10, 15 years from now…that's when I'll quit coaching."

(About changing the team's mindset) "This came form some of our older players, and this is a concern I have. One thing that really brought it home to me was the play (Saturday) of an Arnil Stallworth and a Tony Burks. It mattered not that it was LSU.

"To some degree the historical aspect has been there (for all playes), they read all about it all the time. The thing I point out to them is when I was playing Miami, Florida State, VPI were in this situation. At some point a group of players and coaches decided it was going to change, and they trusted what was being asked of them and they did that. And they made a change. Two years ago West Virginia was in the same situation, they decided to make a change. Part of it is just hanging in there, being disciplined, playing with intensity. And having the mindset we're going to change it this week, today. Then going out and getting it done.

"That's the only way I know to get it changed. At some point you've got to step up and win that game that turns it around."

Q: So will you hire a sports psychologist? "We'll see how it goes. I want to talk to some other people about that. I know I've used every method available to me. I think a lot of it is getting them to verbalize that and understand this is what we're dealing with. And getting some of our young players just to execute.

"These (senior) guys have gone through a lot over the last few years, they haven't won a lot of games. The challenge I have posed to them is that their legacy is they are the ones that turned it around. And they've got seven games left to do that. I still like this team, I like the people on it, and I especially like our senior class. These guys work, they play hard. They've been through that history part of it and I know they want to change it. They're trying to do things to change it, but still we've go to get our young guys in there and make sure they're not affected adversely by our history as a program.

"My reaction to the situation is critical as anything. I don't enjoy the situation we're in losing, because it's very frustrating to me. I know personally I have invested a lot of myself and my life in trying to build this program, I'm totally committed to that. I know when I signed on I put everything, my whole being, into doing this. And I do it every day. Everything I've learned about this game in 30 years and everything I've learned about people I put into this program each and every day.

"Walking across (the field) to shake that coach's hand after the game is a gut-wrenching experience for me. Even though it's the polite thing to do, the class thing to do, it's the hardest thing I've done since I've been here. Because I'm used to winning.

"But I know it's part of the process we have to do through. And as well as I have tried to explain it to our fans to understand the situation, it's very difficult to do. So what I focus is keeping my attention on the people where it really matters. Keeping them positive keeping them playing as hard as they possibly can play. And hoping soon we'll get to that point where we truly believe."

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