Croom said South Carolina had contacted him for permission to speak with Johnson, though no interview has been scheduled. "I just told Ellis to keep me abreast on that," Croom said. Johnson, who turns 56 this Sunday, has been Croom's defensive coordinator all four seasons, coming to State after three years as head coach at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. An alumnus of The Citadel, Johnson has also coached at Clemson and East Carolina along the way.
"It's home, it's my wife's home, it's another great SEC program, another great head coach," Johnson said. "For many of those personal reasons and other reasons I'm certainly going to express my interest. I can't say anything else about where it is." And should Johnson get the job, which has a number of other reported candidates, Johnson said it would be up to Croom and SC Coach Steve Spurrier if he was to coach State's defense one final time in the Liberty Bowl.
"I'd make that decision after we've talked," Croom said. "I'm sure he'd want to do that anyway."
Croom would prefer Johnson be coaching the Dog defense for years to come, along with all members of the current State staff. In fact staff retention is as much an objective for the head coach as getting ready for the bowl game. Not that Croom is surprised to have competitors and peers courting his coaches now.
"Because we've got the best staff I've been around in a long time, and other people know that. They know the job these guys have done here, not only from teaching and coaching standpoint but a recruiting standpoint as well. Our coaches have made it very clear to me they like it here and they want to be here. But with the escalation of salaries in this conference if we don't keep up we're going to lose them."
Thus Croom's comments during the 2007 season about the need to upgrade pay for Mississippi State assistants. "It's the #1 priority," he said today. "With the job changes now and the escalation of salaries around the conference, if we don't keep up we'll be quite vulnerable to losing many members of our staff." Not that Croom has had any other official contacts for permission to speak to State aides. "But I hear rumors that I don't like."
Croom said he and athletic director Larry Templeton have been discussing this subject for months. "Larry has been well-aware of this. We talked about this before the season started and we knew if we had a good season these type of things would happen. He's well-aware of what I feel we need to do in order to keep our coaching staff intact.
"It's obvious to me that if it doesn't get done we're going to lose our coaching staff and there's no way to maintain any degree of continuity particularly in the area of recruiting. You can't have continuity in recruiting and in teaching your systems if you don't maintain your staff. And that's the reason salaries are going up, is everybody wants to keep their own people." Asked today how recently he and Templeton have discussed the topic again, Croom would only say the talks have been ongoing and the A.D. is well-aware. "But there are other things that involved at this point," the coach said, without specifying what they could be. Templeton is retiring June 30, 2008.
So after paying the price of success with four building seasons, Mississippi State might be paying another sort of fee for a winning record and bowl bid. It's not unexpected Croom said, and I always have plan A, B, and C," he said about staffing changes.
"But I hope we don't get past plan A, that's to keep what we've got."
GET BACK TO WORK: Meanwhile back on the practice fields the Bulldogs weren't quite as sharp as they had been the first five days of their bowl preparations. "A little sluggish today," Croom said. "I thought we were sluggish about practices." That might have been a by-product of changing the practice pace, as after four days of full-pads and a Sunday walk-through the Dogs worked in shells Monday. That's also the plan for the rest of bowl camp as Croom will limit contact from now to gameday…unless he thinks some hitting is needed to sharpen focus.
Halfback Anthony Dixon agreed that there wasn't quite as much intensity Monday as in the first five days. But that might have been inevitable under the circumstances. "Just being out here, that's the only fun of it. The rest of it has been straight grind-time, it's been like starting over. We haven't hit four days in a row like that in a long time. But we're trying to bring it back together."
Actually the head coach thought today that the Bulldogs are getting a bit ahead of themselves thinking about both the brief holiday break just ahead, and spending all next week in Memphis. Croom isn't trying to be a spoil-sport, "But we've still got to get some work done. I want them to have fun but this is a business trip and we've got a lot of work to do. We still haven't played our best football yet and we're going to have to play our best to win this game. We're going to get our work done before the fun starts."
There are two more days to get that work done. Mississippi State will work in shells again Tuesday and Wednesday, and for the same amount of practice time. "Then we'll let them go home."
INJURY UPDATE: Only a couple of Dogs were limited Monday, such as LB Gabe O'Neal (shoulder) and TE Jason Husband (knee). DT LaMarcus Williams is shaking off the ankle sprain of last week. And DE Titus Brown has yet to practice, as he re-habs the knee cleaned up during the exam-time break.
"It's coming along well," said Brown. "I'm probably about 75% with my knee." In fact, the knee isn't his current top headache…or back-ache. Brown said he was hit by back spasms over the weekend while lifting weights. "It came out of nowhere, I was squatting and felt a little pull or something." Then Sunday he warmed up and tried to get some real work done. "I just thought I could be the same old Titus Brown, go all-out. And my body said no! It was very excruciating pain for my back, my legs, everything."
But it will take a heckuva hurt to keep Brown out of his last college game. "Man, I'm going to do whatever possible to play because I think I owe it to these guys and these coaches these fans to go out there and do my job. If it's still attached I think I can use it!"
The only advantage to being hurt is that the old Dog doesn't have to participate in end-of-practice gassers. Then again, "That's what I need to be doing that running, to compete with this fast and good running back we'll see."