When Croom says it's been a grind he isn't exaggerating. In this two-week, 15-event stretch the coach, A.D., as well as Alumni Association and Bulldog Club staffers are piling up the miles by land and air. Most of the stops of course have been in the home state, but the Road Dogs have already visited Hoover and Mobile to the east; and the last stop Thursday evening is in Houston, Texas. Still Byrne sees getting MSU's message out in a direct manner as crucial to both firming up existing ties and hopefully establishing new ones.
And, he adds, making it as personal as possible on both ends of the relationship. Because, Byrne said, "For Mississippi State to be as good as we can be we need all to do their part. And to do that we're going communicate so that all are going to know what direction we're going."
Promoted from Bulldog Club head to athletic director in February, Byrne has used the Road Dogs tour to get amongst as much of the fan base as available. Response has been positive at all stops, to the point Abraham already calls him a MSU ‘alumnus' adding, seriously "We're going to get a class ring" after Byrne completes a master's program.
For his part Byrne claims to have just two jokes, or rather one joke told two ways. If so, it wasn't utilized or needed Tuesday night in Tupelo as the next A.D. had the attention. Gave a lot, too, shaking six hands even before getting to the Hall door and scores more therein. After 11 such events there was still no report on whether the elbow was iced on the flight back to campus.
Byrne reprises the same five points of emphasis in his plan for running Bulldog sports. Bulldog athletes are to be scholars; the athletic program must remain in good NCAA standing; players, coaches, and staff are to work and play with class; the athletic department must be fiscally responsible.
And, fifth, "To compete for championships." Which means assistance from folk in the seats or at home, preferably the first. Because Byrne has three ways Mississippi State folk can prove their support. "By purchasing season tickets, by joining the Bulldog Club. And by convincing friends and family to do the same." Because while corporate sponsorships and marketing deals will provide other necessary revenue streams, the core remains season ticket holders and booster club memberships. There is good news on that front.
"We had 969 new Bulldog Club members last year. We are on-pace to add 1,200 this year."
Byrne addressed what he called a couple of ‘hot button' issues of the moment. Yes, Mississippi State is working on a new replay board system for Scott Field and there are still hopes of having one in place for the 2008 season. "There are a couple of hurdles" though, he added. And since the latest jumbotron and ribbon board systems are multi-year projects, the ‘08 priority is not to just throw together something for the moment. "But to do it right and not be kicking ourselves next year." As to talk of expanding or bowling in Davis Wade Stadium, "Time will tell."
The other issue of the moment of course is the search for Ron Polk's successor. "It's early," Byrne said. "We have a lot of time." Meaning the A.D. is not pressured into rushing this either and is willing to wait until after the College World Series to present State's new skipper. And while Polk publicly promotes assistant and former Diamond Dog Tommy Raffo for the job, Byrne is diplomatic but clear. This will be a wide-ranging search. "We need to take the time to find the right person."
Along that line Byrne, who came to State just two years ago himself, is clear that the right person is running Bulldog football. And word is getting around. "I was at the Fiesta Bowl, wearing my Mississippi State shirt. For everyone that said ‘go Dogs!' and there were several, more also said ‘Sylvester Croom'."
If Byrne is about to become an alumnus, Croom has made a transition of his own. "When I drive across that state line, that's not home," the Tuscaloosa native said. "Home is Starkville." But even after the successful 2007 season with eight wins, four SEC victories, and a Liberty Bowl triumph, State's coach believes the Bulldogs are on a pace to make themselves temporarily at home somewhere across another state line.
"We're at an important time. We've restored the pride. Now this is not a resting place. And our goal is a lot farther to the east. In Atlanta. We're a lot closer than we were four years ago. We have a chance to be in the hunt for the championship."
As for Croom's spring concerns, most have been settled. The move of guard J. C. Brignone and development of redshirt D.J. Looney have settled the offensive center position. And the loss of three tight ends, all of whom are signing free agent NFL deals this week, was eased by the work of Brandon Henderson and Marcus Green in camp along with winter transfer and true freshman Nelson Hurst. "Right now he should be getting ready for his senior prom, instead he is competing for that position."
Everyone's favorite position of discussion got an encouraging report. "Wes Carroll, we know we can depend on him," Croom said of his soph quarterback. "He's not flashy, he gets the job done. But we need to have backups." That's not news in Bulldog Country of course, given the frequency with which MSU triggermen have gone down in the last four years. Including the successful 2008 season where rookie Carroll ultimately emerged as an unexpected starter in a season he never was supposed to play at all.
Still, "The last five games we only had one healthy quarterback," noted Croom. "I held my breath a lot of times." So in spring developing not just backups but real alternates to Carroll took priority. Croom said juco walk-on Tyson Lee emerged as the second signal-caller. As for his listed and likely generous 5-11 height, well…
"Between January to the end of spring he grew!" Croom quipped. At the same time redshirt Chris Relf matured in his own game, so "We plan to play both quarterbacks and maybe three." Intentionally, Croom means. He is also telling folk this month that the offense will look different in another aspect. Croom is predicting a more explosive attack that puts up more of the sort of points fans have begged for. It's possible because now the veteran Bulldogs know how to win, and have more tools to play with in a new season.
"To beat LSU and Auburn and other SEC teams you have to score. And it's not plays," he added. "It's the explosiveness of the people. The emergence of Robert Elliot and the move of Wade Bonner, those are a different type of running backs. We always want to run first, because we want to be a tough, hard-nosed football team first. But they can create some explosiveness." So can a group of wideouts able to, as the coach wants, take a five-yard catch and turn it into a 80-yard touchdown play. One such option in the passing game is spring freshman O'Neal Wilder, currently running with State's ranked track team. Track speed isn't automatically football speed, but Croom forsees a fast adjustment by the lanky rookie.
"He can be one of the fastest guys ever to put on a maroon uniform," Croom said. And for those who don't think State has shown a real passing game so far, the coach doesn't point to, say, the stat-happy loss at Arkansas. He said review of the Egg and Liberty bowls showed situations where wideouts had one-on-one matchups that would have been touchdowns if not for a single safety getting in the way. That is being worked on for this season to eliminate the last line of opposing defense so such big plays can be made.
Defensively with nine starters back the unit is in good shape overall, save at end where nobody has replaced Titus Brown at left. Though Croom thinks Jimmie Holmes could develop into that sort of player as a senior. He confirmed speculations that with lingering questions about both end spots the linebackers will be used to pressure passers more, at least until some of the incoming defensive linemen find their niches and put some speed back in the front.
"Last year we needed defensive linemen," Croom said, commenting on how the state suddenly produced a good crop. "This year we need wide receivers," and lo and behold there are several prize pass-catchers for the recruiting. "So, we're getting some help!" A host of defensive backs inked in February will have jobs open next spring; for now the safety spots are owned by a superb pack of fast seniors. And it was how Coach Charlie Harbison used these d-backs that assured his promotion to coordinator this year.
Great young linebacker depth will also pay off in kicking coverage. Croom says punter Blake McAdams did what was needed in 2007 simply by keeping the ball up almost five seconds, long enough for coverage to arrive. As a senior he'll go more for distance. Redshirted rookie kicker Eric Richards has "a big leg" and after getting over a broken foot just needs to discipline that limb. "He wants to kick every ball out of the field."
Even in a setting for celebrating, Croom wasn't evading any less-cheerful issues. Such as team discipline and the loss of two starters at the end of spring when OT Michael Brown and DE Quinton Wesley were dismissed by the University for a campus firearm offense. It still hurts Croom that Brown, who had never done anything badly wrong in his experience, was involved in the incident. But "He made a bad choice where you get no second chance," the coach added. For the first time publicly Croom also linked three more players currently suspended from school and the football team—CB Anthony Johnson, DL Rodney Prince, and LB Jamon Hughes—to that incident. For two of these their situations are pending a summer court decision.
"We'll know later on if the University allows them to come back," Croom said, referring to Johnson and Prince. If they can rejoin the team both will sit the 2008 season as a penalty. Hughes, already facing fall suspension for a pre-spring incident, will not come back. Croom confirmed he is transferring from State.
Discipline is one of Croom's favorite words. He said spring showed the "attitude is right and the work ethic is better." But then it should be better, he added, and after winning eight games and a bowl trophy in '07 the Bulldogs have to "work even harder to exceed what we did last year." The same applies to Mississippi State fans as well. They earned the coach's credit for playing a part in home-field wins over Alabama and Ole Miss.
"And at the Liberty Bowl when I walked out on the field it gave me chill bumps," he said of the capacity State crowd, asking fans to make that S.O.P. at Scott Field. "If it gives us chill bumps, it's got to scare those other guys!"