An edited transcript of Croom's comments in the Mississippi Coliseum follows:
Coach Sylvester Croom: Four years ago when we came here you accepted me into the Bulldog family and have stood by and supported us even when you didn't quite understand what I was doing sometimes. And you have helped us to get the facilities and get all the things necessary to help the program get in place. Finally we got some benefits that we got to enjoy last year, especially our last four regular-season games and culminating in the greatest crowd I think I've ever been a part of, at Memphis in the Liberty Bowl. And I have to say how much we thank you, our players and our team.
We lost a great deal of senior leadership. Guys like Jason Husband, Dezmond Sherrod, Royce Blackledge, Titus Brown, Avery Hannibal. They were totally committed to getting us to the bowl game and they got that done. The success of our football team this year depends on leadership of our senior players.
We had four goals when we started last year: win the conference championship, go to any bowl game, beat Ole Miss, and beat Alabama. We accomplished all of those goals except one, and to be honest with you I knew going into the season we were not yet ready, not quite capable of competing well enough to win the conference title. Now we're in 2008, things are a little different. Our goals: win the conference championship, go to a B.C.S. bowl game, beat Ole Miss, and beat Alabama. For the first time when we go into a season each and every one of those goals are realistic expectations. For the first time we go into a season, our players, our coaches, are totally committed, willing to make the sacrifices, and if we get a little break and stay healthy we have a legitimate chance of achieving each and every one of those goals.
As before I make no promises, but that is my expectation. If our seniors give us the leadership, if our other players pay attention to the details, and do all the things necessary, we have a legitimate chance. We know we can go to Auburn and win now; we know we can go to Tuscaloosa and win now. We know we can beat anybody in this conference now if we just play. We're very fortunate that in the SEC West now there's not a clear-cut, dominant team on our side. Anybody has a chance to win the conference championship. We need some breaks, but the bottom line is we have the talent—enough of it—to where if you just want it bad enough…
The first thing we need to do is maintain the identity that we had, that those seniors established over the course of the last four years. When our maroon jerseys hit the field there is an expectation from the opponent, from you, from everybody, that we play hard, we play fast, that we play physical, that we don't make dumb mistakes. And that we thoroughly out-hit the opposition for sixty minutes and we never quit regardless of the situation. That is an expectation; that is what Mississippi State football is all about.
The first thing we have to do is understand how we got to where we are. Now, we know how to handle adversity because we have had our share of it! How we handle success now is going to be key to what we do this year. The first thing, again, is make sure our players understand how we got to where we are. The next thing and the real key this is focusing on the details; doing all those little things, the details in our offense, defense, in our schemes. Making sure we go to class and do all the little things off the field because I'm still a strong believer winning is a habit. You win on the field and you win off the field; you win off the field and you win on the field. You don't turn it on and off.
One of the things I'm most proud about, besides accomplishing three of those goals we had, is we did maintain the highest GPA in the history of the program, a 2.72 overall GPA. And proving that our state you can win football games and be sound academically as well.
Our talent level has improved. This time last year I had huge questions about our secondary; I don't have those questions, we have four safeties who can play. I had huge questions about our corners, I don't have those questions now, we've got four experienced corners that can play. Our linebacker corps is the best we've ever had. Our defensive front, despite the loss of Titus Brown, if everybody plays as good as they can we'll be a very good defensive front. We don't have the dominant pass-rusher coming back but we have two outside linebackers in Dominic Douglas and K.J. Wright who are as good as any I've been around and we'll get that pass rush from them and some of those freshmen we have coming in.
You notice I always start with defense. My old coach used to say if they can't score they can't win, he's right about that. We're always going to have a good defense. I'm very excited about the potential for us being a very good defensive team. Our kicking game is much improved, because we do have more talent and we will have great depth. And with the addition of Eric Richards coming back off the injury last year our kickers will be even better than they were last year.
I'm excited about where we could be on offense. We go into the season with two quarterbacks that I feel very strongly can win, in Wes Carroll and Tyson Lee. We have a third quarterback in Chris Relf who without question is the most talented of the three but he is still very young and inexperienced because he only played a year in high school at quarterback. But he will be an excellent talent.
We have very good players in the offensive line despite the loss of Mike Brown. We'll move Derek Sherrod to the left side and move Mike Melichar to the right side and our offensive line will be as strong if not stronger than it was last year. We've got to find some depth at the left tackle position, other than that we're pretty well-set on offense. If our fullback Eric Hoskins comes back completely from nerve damage we'll be strong with he and Brandon Hart at the fullback position. Of course if A.D. (Anthony Dixon) plays as well as he can I expect him to be one of the top four or five backs in the entire country.
So all in all I think we've got the talent. And we have more speed on offense with Co-Eric Riley stepping forward and some young guys like O'Neal Wilder, now considered one of the fastest guys in the world—so that should make him one of the fastest in Starkville too! And with the addition of guys like Wade Bonner and Robert Elliot who were redshirted last year, guys who can give us some creativity in space.
We've got some freshmen coming in like Delmon Robinson, Arceto Clark, Charlie Bailey, guys who our quarterbacks tell us have looked outstanding in their summer workouts. We haven't seen them because of course it's against NCAA rules, and I'm not going to attack the NCAA! Even though Ron (Polk) has retired I'm going to leave that up to him.
But the reports we've got from our summer about the changes in our body-types…Ben Pollard is one of the best strength coaches in the country and I know we'll be in tip-top shape. I know our talent level has improved, we have some freshmen coming in who are going to really add to what we've done. And I'm very excited about the possibilities.
Then on August 2 we get down to business. In fact we're going to miss two practices because I couldn't stand to start practicing in July, it seems too long. We'll start practicing 6:00 on Sunday morning (August 3) and I can assure you it will be business as usual. We'll get after it, it will probably be the toughest two-a-day practices that we've ever had because we have higher expectations than we have ever had.
I was asked about the pressure from winning last season and the expectation level of the fans. Hey, I like expectations. I've been to the Super Bowl, I played in national championship games, I've been in SEC championship games. That's what I came to Mississippi State for.
I am really blessed to be a part of the Bulldog family. And at Mississippi State family is not just a word. You're representing a lot of special people, people who really, genuinely care about each other and about them as players. And about them as people. The great thing about the relationships we have established on our campus, it doesn't just end with the awarding of the diploma. It's really just beginning.
When we ask for help in our facilities it's important that we do those things, because we have to compete with the other schools in the conference. Whether it's a new track, a new practice field, a new stadium, a new engineering building. Or as Sharon (Fanning) wants, new tee-shirts! Whatever it is, we need those things.
But what I truly believe is when a prospect is trying to decide what he is going to do in college is pretty simple. It's not real complicated. You're deciding the people you're going to spend the rest of your life with. Because ten years from now when they graduate, as nice as those buildings and as nice as those facilities are, when their kids get sick with cancer like I saw at the hospital this year, those bricks won't make a phone call or come visit the hospital.