"I Expect To Be In A Bowl Game"

Coach Sylvester Croom doesn't downplay the struggles of his first three seasons, or the challenges ahead in year-four. But neither is the Mississippi State coach taking a low-key approach to the opportunities he sees for the 2007 Bulldogs. "Now is the time to judge our program," Croom said Thursday at SEC Media Day. "Now is the time for us to go have fun."

It hasn't been a lot of fun for the coach since arriving in December 2004. Or for the players who have yet to enjoy sustained success. Nor for Bulldog fans who must think back to the previous century for their program's last winning season. Yet at this year's edition of the annual press-best in Birmingham, Croom's natural optimism was on display, and un-reserved.

"We're excited about our potential for improving this season," he told literally hundreds of print reporters…and then repeated in other interview areas to radio, television, and internet outlets. "We thought we made significant strides last year, with the influx of our freshmen and junior college players plus returning most of our guys from last year we're really excited about the possibilities of what we can become at some point during the season."

That, and more, was what Croom said in the formal interviews. But earlier Thursday morning he held another, less structured and more easy-going talk with a smaller media group. Three, to be specific, as he talked with the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, the Clarion Ledger, and Dawgs' Bite. They were joined by two more most interested observers and sometime-participants in senior defensive end Titus Brown and junior quarterback Mike Henig, who were speaking for their teammates at Media Day. They also got to hear—and later enlarge upon--their coach's comments which follow…and include Croom's statement "I would expect us to be in a bowl game, somewhere." Both veterans liked the sound of that.

The attitude change evident among players this summer: "I think that's because we know each other and we're on the same page. That's a lot of it. I really do think there's a sense of oneness, definitely with the coaching staff and players. And that's huge, because that's the area that's often overlooked, the overall relationship between the coaches and the players."

"I know myself I've probably been in the dressing room and the player's lounge more the last two months than I have in three years. I've always considered that dressing room as the players' home. And to be very honest in the past I haven't always felt welcome in there. I think that's because of the big shift on this team."

"We have genuine leadership. I think we've got 13 guys that are seniors, they're all solid people, they do the things we ask them to do, they go to school and work hard. But, we've got leadership throughout our team. I think it's 23 juniors and all those guys have played. And some of our younger guys, even our freshmen, those guys have shown potential leadership qualities already, just the way they've handled their business since they've been here."

"So we're moving in the direction we set out to go when we started this journey three years ago. I think we've got a chance now to make some significant strides this year."

Taking three years to reach this point: "When you go from assistant to coordinator, coordinator to head coach, no matter how much you prepare there are always elements you're not ready for. It's a huge, huge difference and nobody understands that until you actually sit in that chair. Particularly when you come into a situation we came into here."

"For me this will be the first time since I've been here that I can really go back and coach football.This summer I reflected over the things, the facilities, the new locker room, new meeting room, new weightroom, now we get a new academic facility. You're trying to build a program but at the same time you have to deal with those things. Getting the players back on campus, the housing situation. There are a lot of things the last three years that don't show up on the football just to get a program in a position where we can compete. The behind-the-scenes stuff, I had to deal with all that on a daily basis. And still at some point we have practice fields to be done, to bring up to SEC level."

(Coordinator) Ellis (Johnson) has pretty much handled the defense, and now that the offensive staff really understands what we're doing now I going to coach football, I'm going to be involved with the players and probably a little less with the schemes on the offense and let those guys do it. Because it's pretty well set anyway."

His forecast for the season: "I guess people have got us last in the conference, I never read it or know where we are because it doesn't matter any way."

Is there added pressure for 2007: "Am I feeling any pressure this year, this fourth season? Yeah, I do feel pressure. The same pressure I felt in the ninth grade when Tuscaloosa Junior High played Eastwood. The same pressure. It's the same when you're a competitor whether junior high level or National Football League. And that pressure comes from within. The pressure that people think comes from without, that ain't pressure."

Does he hear the criticism: "Yeah, that but ain't pressure. What's the worst thing that could happen? We have a bad season, they fire me? If that's the worst thing that happens in my life I've got it made."

Is it really possible to compete without pressure?: "No. Let me tell you something, if you get comfortable and don't feel pressure you better watch out."

"This is the only job I'd get up at 5:30 in the morning and go do. I'd be like our players, I'd want to sleep to 9:00. But this job? When I look at the first 15 years, coaching and having great success and living paycheck-to-paycheck it didn't bother me. I adjusted to the lifestyle and kept doing it because it was what I liked doing. That's what I'm trying to get our players to understand, go find something you like doing."

"I've never thought about getting out of coaching. But there were some times it wasn't fun and really those times it was the people you were working with it wasn't any fun. The lowest point was after the Tulane game. That Sunday morning with a ‘For Sale' sign in my yard. It wasn't the fact the sign was there, it was the fact somebody came in my yard. Because if had woke up that morning and saw that, I'd probably be in jail today. Say what you want to, but don't come in my yard. At that point I was so angry. That was probably about the same time I made a couple of statements…but I was so angry. that's a man protecting his own home to me, and I didn't tell my wife for a long time."

What did she say then?: "She was mad because I hadn't told her before! You can't win!"

"But that was the toughest part. And though we played poorly, we lost our quarterback and though we played poorly defensively a lot of that was we weren't scoring points and the defense lost confidence. No excuse, even with that we still should have won."

"But I haven't got upset with the fans because they haven't understood, because I don't expect fans to understand. I've felt it was my job to try to explain as best as possible, but I learned a long time ago…particularly when I was a coordinator at Detroit, even with all the information you (media) put out there very few people have any idea what it was behind the scenes and what it takes to build a program and what you have to go through to win. I also understand our society, everything is rush-rush-rush. Patience is dead as a virtue. Everything has to happen now. Tom Landry would never be Tom Landry if he was starting now, Chuck Noll. It took those guys years to build their programs."

"I'm very fortunate because our administration and athletic director understood. All those things we talked about, the timetable and what was going to have to be done and all we had to go through, that was on the table from the beginning. They have been patient and very supportive. Dr. (Charles) Lee and Larry (Templeton), then Dr. (Robert) Foglesong came in and picked up right where Dr. Lee left off."

What one thing would you want the fans to understand? "What I want them to understand is that we are on schedule. We spent a year to almost two years basically laying a foundation. And before the wins and losses, you have got to get the atmosphere right. We're having success right now recruiting, we're attracting come good players. That freshman class coming in, I usually say wait four-five years, I don't have any question about these guys. We're limited on our scholarships for next year, but we've already had a lot of interest from some guys. I think it's because of the kind of people we have in the program. Our players are the guys getting the recruiting done for us. Our coaches are working awful hard but the kids that are coming is because of the talent we've got. When we first got here we had a tough time because of probation and we had to change the image."

"It has been a building process and we're on track. This year will tell, and this year should tell how far we've come. I wish we had more experience on defense but I do like our talent. The great thing is we have pretty much all our starters back, so we have a stretch this year and next year where we have a chance to make a move. A big move."

"I really believe at some point in the course of the season we're going to be a really good team. that's assuming our guys healthy, and I sure it's on August 30. But I really believe we're going to be a good football team before the season is over. We got close last year. And I expect us to make that one more play this year where we'll win the close games."

"I told the players I'm going to have fun this year. Because the last three years have truly been work. I told my wife when we took the job that for three years I was going to have to go almost 24 hours a day to get us in position where we'd have a chance to compete. But after that I had to go back to coaching football."

"I had to approach this like I was building my own business. I said I had to start from scratch and get this thing exactly in the philosophy and mode I believe in, and go as hard as I could for three years to get the people in the program. It's taken us three years to get the people in place and all the support systems in place where we can compete. Now is the time to judge our program. Now is the time for us to go have fun."

"I'm going to try to make sure nothing gets in the way of our coaches and players enjoying our season and journey. That's what makes it all worthwhile."

And if it doesn't work this year? "And that's always a possibility, even with the best-laid plans there are just things out of your control. If that happens, hey, I'm extremely thankful I had a chance to do it my way. Very few people get that opportunity. And if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. I don't see that happening, I have great faith in what we're doing because it's been proven they'll work. I haven't tried to re-invent the wheel or try anything new, because the things we do here I've copied from other places that have worked."

His relationship with the president: "Good. It was an adjustment for me because I had a very close relationship with Dr. Lee, he was a large reason I came here because I really was excited about his vision. Dr. Foglesong is a lot more outgoing and more involved in the day-to-day activity of the University. But I think he has a lot of the same views for our University and state. I have to set the plan and our players and coaches have to buy into that; Doc has been in a leadership position for a long time so he understands that. Anytime you're the guy out front everybody wants to know that you know where you're going! I think he has a vision and a plan to get us there and he's been very supportive of the program. Our philosophies mesh as far as the role the football team plays in University life. It's just been good."

His involvement in the athletic director search: "It's not going to affect me at all. I'm going to miss Larry Templeton a great deal because he had faith to bring me here, he's done a great job, he's been very supportive. And every time I look at those facilities I'm going to always be appreciative of him getting those, because without them we wouldn't have a chance. And he did a lot of that. I'm focused on the football team!"

Is the topic of his race not so much an issue with media now? "It's gone the way I wanted. It's become a non-issue. Of course in a historical perspective it's always going to come up. But day-to-day it's not an issue. It hasn't been an issue with our fans, they've been great. It hasn't been an issue recruiting. I'm glad the way it's worked out and the focus is on coaching."

"The significance of my race is, I was talking to one of our managers about his career opportunities and when would he graduate. He said he's in sports management, then he paused and said ‘Coach, I think I might want to sit where you sit one day.' It did take me back a little bit, because when I was growing up that thought never crossed my mind. Never. Even when I got in coaching it was a little bit waaaaay back in a corner there. But in this conference?"

"It is a significant thing for a minority to see people that look like them in positions of authority. Professional positions. It is important because it gives them a goal other than what they see from day to day in some of their neighborhoods."

What headline does he expect to see come December? "If I could write the headline? I somewhat hate to answer that because you know me, I'm an eternal optimist. We can be a good football team, and I would expect us to be in a bowl game somewhere. But, if things go well, they've got a little game over there in Atlanta. With a break here or there…hey, I'm just an optimist! I know we haven't had a winning season and haven't had a bowl game and everybody thinks we're crazy. But nobody else is going to work any harder than we work, so that's what we're shooting for."

"I look at what our basketball team did. Look at our baseball team, our women's basketball team. Absolutely nothing was expected from them this (past) year."

"Arkansas was in the Championship Game last year and the year before they won four games. That's the one thing that's changed in football, last year means absolutely nothing. Except what you learn from it."

Why Henig and Brown were chosen for Media Days: "I had a tougher decision this year. Mike is the leader of our offense, Titus is the leader of our defense. The fact they came in when we started this deal and been through he whole process, I think they understand more than anybody else how we started and what the whole philosophy of what we're trying to get done and where we're trying to go. I thought they could articulate it, probably better than me because they've physically been through everything. These three years haven't been easy. But all those guys who stayed, all had the option. That door was swinging and a lot of guys were going through it. Guys like Dezmond Sherrod, Jason Husband, guys who were here when we got here, I've got a great deal of respect for them. We didn't recruit them and they didn't know what it was going to be like. They never talked about transferring, the thought of quitting never came up. So I'm very proud of them."

It's been a long time without any off-field arrests or incidents: (laughing) "This is the best summer I've had since I've been here! And it is going to happen again, because kids make mistakes. I know that's the reality. It's like I've got 130 sons out there, things are going to happen. But I'm extremely proud of these guys. It's what you always worry about because things happen, things start out innocently and all of a sudden turn bad, a guy makes a bad decision, and all of a sudden we've got a problem."

"There's no question we've got better leadership because these guys (pointing to Brown and Henig) are handling them. I guarantee there are some things that happened, it's just the way it is, but somebody probably spoke up and said let's get out of here, let's not do that. That's one reason I feel so positive about this season. I know the chemistry is there and they've bought into to what we're doing. And they believe in each other."

Gene's Page Top Stories