Outside The Helmet, Oct 12th

Bully BarkLine, the radio show that covers Mississippi State athletics exclusively and airs every Tuesday night 7-8 at The Little Dooey in Starkville, has a feature called 'Outside The Helmet' which was created and is produced each week by Bully BarkLine insider and guest host Melissa Tomlinson. This past Tuesday, Melissa and I talked with MSU head football coach Sylvester Croom.

Melissa: During the first few years, as you were building your football program, people questioned whether you should stick with the plan you were using to build it. Now you are actually seeing your plan come to fruition. But how difficult was it to stick by that plan as you went through the lean years?
Sylvester Croom - "That has been one of the difficult parts about it. When I talk to younger coaches and leadership conferences I ( tell them) one of the most important things is if you are going to be the leader you have to have a plan. One of the things I laid out specifically to our coaches and players from Day 1 - and even to Larry Templeton and (former MSU president) Dr. Lee - I told them if I was going to come I had a clear vision where I was going to, what kind of program I wanted to be a part of, what we wanted to build and how we were going to do it. And one of the most important things, if you are a leader - and I learned this from (late Alabama football) Coach (Bear) Bryant - you better have a plan and you had better be able to articulate the plan to the people who are going on this journey with you. And you better believe in your plan so much that you are not willing to compromise.

"Now, I get criticized for being stubborn, and I won't change and all those type things. And I really took offense to that early because I sometimes wondered why I was being criticized because I had a plan. And if you have a genuine plan and believe in your plan why change? Instability is the worst thing that could happen in any organization. (What do you think it's like) when people get up every morning and they don't know what to expect, they don't know how their leader is going to be that day, they don't know what to expect of them every day. Every day we walk in this office, every coach, every secretary, every player, every manager knows exactly what is expected of them. They don't have to wonder because it is laid out to them. It was laid out for them from Day 1. It is written on paper in a manual. They don't even have to ask me what to do. All they have to do is open the book and read it."

Melissa: How did you keep your players going mentally over the course of the past three years?
Croom - "I constantly talk to our players. In fact, I talk to our players about football very little. It's about mental toughness. I probably talk about the mind and how you think and your attitude. That's really the key to success in life. It's not about your mental or physical skills. Of course, no matter what endeavor you get into you do need a certain amount of that. But the real key to success is your attitude about things. (And) through that process it helps them to be better people.

"First of all, we talked about a plan, but my number one thing wasn't necessarily to build a championship program. My number one plan was to build championship people. That was the number one thing. And in the process win football games."

Melissa: And your players really believe that. We've heard that over and over from your players, Coach wants us to be great men and be able to go out into society and contribute...
Croom - "To me, all the time that I spend and all the things that I have to do, if you don't get that done it's all a waste of time. When I'm dead and gone nobody is going to care about my football record. But my works and what I believe in will live on in those players. Because I know what my Dad did and what Coach Bryant did lives in me. I tell them all the time I'm not here to make money, I'm not here to get my name in the newspaper - I could care less if I did another interview - I'm simply here to do one thing, pass on what I got from Coach Bryant, from my Daddy, from my Granddaddy to them. That's all that it's about to me, that's all it's about. And in the process do what I get paid to do, win some ballgames. But when that other ever gets to be a cloudy issue with it, it's real simple, I'm out. It's just that simple. I would die for those kids. I'm not going to die for a football game."

Gene: And if you hadn't chosen coaching what other profession would you have chosen?
Croom - "I would be teaching. But coaching is teaching."

Gene: If you had been a teacher what would you have taught? And why?
Croom - "History. You can't move forward in the future unless you understand your past."

Gene: What has been your happiest moment while coaching at Mississippi State?
Croom - "My happiest moment? (He took a few moments to think about this question). Really, even when things are tough I enjoy life. I have a great wife, my daughter is healthy, I have a great grand baby that I love to death, my mom and brother are healthy, and so many of my players have brought me such joy. There are so many things my players have said and done that have brought me joy.

Gene: Is there any one player that brings special memories to you?
Croom - " I have a special relationship with Jerious Norwood. I love the guy to death. I guess one of my happiest times was the first preseason game I saw him play on tv and the success he had. I was so happy for him because I know what he went through to do that.

"I'm also happy for Titus (Brown) because I thought Titus was one that we had lost. I joke with him now that I thought he had gone over to the dark side. I really did."

Gene: What do you mean by the dark side?
Croom - "I call it the dark side when they do things that I don't want to be typical of our players and our program.

"It took Titus a long time to buy into playing defensive end. It took him a long time to buy into going to class, and doing all those little things. And at one point I almost gave up on him. Then, he turned ... he went back to being the Titus that he was when he first got here - fun and having a good time, but at the same time taking care of his business. And I think a lot of that happened when his Dad passed. That was a tough time for him."

Gene: Did you try to help him during that time by talking to him?
Croom - "I talked to him a lot because I know how hard (becomes emotional) it was when I lost my Dad and I knew what he was going to go through."

Gene: How difficult is it to be a father-figure to all these guys, all 105 of them? Based on talking to the kids, they see you as that type man.
Croom - "The hard part about it is the same as it is with your own kids. And I found out about this early on with my own daughter. Even though they may not respond immediately to what I say, they hear every thing that I say. So, I have to be careful what I say and how I say it."

Gene: Isn't that a heavy burden?
Croom - "Yeah, it's hard. But it's hard for any parent who takes on that responsibility. It's hard being a parent."

Gene: But you have 105 guys that you deal with.
Croom - "So, it's 105 times harder. That's the reality of it. Yeah, it's harder. But there are 105 times more joy when they do good. That's why when you asked me the question what is the happiest time, even during the worst day one of those kids may say something that changes it all. Even in the worst of times, one of them may say something, say thank you or do something great. One of the kids may come in who is flunking a course and say 'Coach, I made an A.' And you see the look in his eyes and know that is a great accomplishment for him. That makes me feel good. When they do well, I feel good."

Gene: I can see it in your eyes and hear it in your voice, there is nothing but sincerity in both.
Croom - "People on the outside think I'm harsh to the players. But what people don't realize is the players don't want to be lied to. They don't want to be coddled. All they want is for you to tell them the truth, and be consistent."

Melissa: Derek Pegues said that you are a guy who will never beat around the bush and that is why a lot of players look up to you and respect you.
Croom - "I'm as hard on Derek as I probably am on anybody. I'm hard on him because I expect a lot out of him. And yet he's a guy I never thought would be here. I quit recruiting Derek. I thought, 'I'm not wasting my time.' I thought he was going to Ole Miss. Then, I got a phone call one day and he told me, 'Coach, I'm going to Mississippi State.' And I said, 'Derek, don't play with me. Are you serious?' That was exactly what I told him. Then he said, 'Coach, I'm coming.' And when he said that it was over. There was no more 'you have to call me and write me.' I went to his home visit and he shook my hand and said, 'Coach, I've got a date.' I stood there and talked to his mom and I left. When he gave me his word it was over. So, I have high expectations for him."

Gene: What is your strongest personality trait and what trait would you like to improve?
Croom - "I think my strongest personality trait is probably the same (in both cases) - I try to be as honest and direct as possible. And I think sometimes I'm too honest and too direct. When you asked me a question I assume you want to know the truth."

Gene: What is the favorite part of your job?
Croom - "The players. I am at a point now where the players have become even more of an obsession for me. And that's all I really care about, and winning of course because I'm a competitive person. The rest of the job is strictly a job. The players and the game is my passion. Even when I retire I'm still going to do it for free."

Gene: Describe yourself as a coach.
Croom - "As a coach, I like to think I'm a hardnose, tough, no nonsense coach that loves his players."

Gene: That's exactly how your players describe you.
Croom - "My goal is if I could get half as much out of my players as people as my Dad and Coach Bryant got out of me, then I have succeeded, I win. I don't expect to be as good as Dad and Coach Bryant was, I just want to be half as good."

Gene: What were the traits in Coach Bryant that you liked?
Croom - "He was a hardnose, disciplined guy who had high expectations for everybody around him and he would not settle for any less than your best."

Gene: Did he make you the man you are today?
Croom - "My Dad laid the groundwork, he taught me the values. And Coach Bryant made me put them into practice. The football field was the proving ground for all the values that I had been taught at home."

Melissa: I heard Bo Jackson speak one time about how going into college there is a different mentality. How difficult is to recruit a superstar on the football field in high school and bring him in and mold him into a team player?
Croom - "It's not hard with the players. It's harder with the parents because the way recruiting is right now, you have to create the impression of how much you need that player, and you do need him that much. There is a chance they will participate as freshmen, but the reality of it is very few of them are going to play at a high level in this conference. That's just the reality of it is. Just like very few rookies in the NFL play at a high level. They get caught up in the hype of recruiting. But the real grind, the day to day work, and the transition academically, socially and athletically going from high school to college is such a new experience. And none of them, players or parents, are totally prepared for it. So, they have to make the adjustment.

"So, first of all we are very honest with them in the recruiting process. And I often talk to them about that trust. And this is one thing I am very emphatic about, if you don't trust me as a person then don't send your child here because somewhere during the four years I am going to ask them to do something that you aren't going to understand, he is not going to understand and I may not even understand why I'm asking, but my gut feeling is I should do this thing and I'm going to do it. And he's going to have to trust me.

"It's all about trust."

Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by email at swindoll@genespage.com.

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