"I Want Our Brand To Be Respected"

Staff and players alike have proclaimed their desire to get the new season started. So the Southeastern Conference did Mississippi State a favor of sorts, booking the Bulldogs for the opening session at 2008 Media Days. But before his first-day turn with the complete press corps, Coach Sylvester Croom took time to chat with the usual suspects...err, a trio of Bulldog beat-reporters.

Prior to the scheduled press/internet conference in the Wynfrey Hotel ballroom, Croom sat down with writers from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the Northeast Miss. Daily Journal, and Dawgs' Bite. Mid-way a ESPN/Louisville Courier Journal columnist joined for a couple of questions about game operations. But mostly the discussion dealt with how Mississippi State builds on the break-through of last season and sustains or hopefully upgrades further.

The full transcript of that talk follows, save for Croom's comments about the status of his golf game and how he managed to lose 18 balls on his first day on the links in June and needed six balls to clear one water hazard. He's played much better this month, though for Croom the golf season is about to end again.

Croom's main media conference was transcribed by the SEC for their website.

"Well, you know the program has gotten a little respect now in the conference. That's been one of the hardest things, I know for me personally, to deal with over the past few years. It's the negative perceptions, that we weren't really a SEC-quality football program. I know it's been tough on our coaches and our players both, regardless of whether or not you're a champion this game always comes down to respect. Respect from your peers, from the guys you compete against. Even if you're not the champ you want to be respected. That hasn't been the case, where this year it is. So that's the first thing.

"The other thing is that you come into this year with our own expectation level higher. You're still as nervous about the season as you always are, that feeling doesn't change. But we do feel like that if we play as good as we can play, which I feel like each of the past seasons we have probably maxed-out on our ability, if we continue to do that then we've got a chance to be a good football team somewhere down the road."

Q: Are you personally getting more respect as a coach?

"That's not it. It's the entire program. I never worry about me, I've been coaching thirty years and I know I'm a good football coach and I don't need anybody to tell me that. It's the program, everything is about the program. When that Mississippi State logo goes up, when that jersey goes out there, I want it to be respected because I'm a part of it. It's not about me personally, if I have to wait for somebody else to validate that I'm a head coach I would have thrown the towel in a long time ago. I played for the best, I played against the best, I coached with and against the best, you don't coach in the NFL 17 years and not know you're a good football coach. You can call it ego or whatever you want to call it but you're talking about the best in the world, and to compete at that level for 17 years I know I'm a good football coach."

Q: Has winning changed your approach to coaching or life in general?

"No, not really. I got a new contract! And that doesn't change my lifestyle, the only thing is it makes me feel more secure that I can have a good life when I do quit coaching."

Q: And that you will pay more taxes.

"That's right, I'm making a greater contribution to reducing the national debt! But other than that nothing changes. My lifestyle and things I like to do, that's not going to change. I might make a trip to California one day and go play Torrey Pines, which I didn't do while I was out there!

"But more than anything else, I just feel we took another step in the process. And that's the way I look at it. I'm thankful the coaches voted me SEC Coach of the Year, to me that was a recognition for our program. I didn't do anything differently last year than I did the year before, I probably did less coaching last year than I did the year before. Maybe that was the difference, I don't know! But the program is moving forward and that's what it is all about. I want our brand, that MState, to be respected. I want our state to be respected. It goes to me even all the way down to our high school coaches. The better we do, the better every aspect of athletics in the entire state of Mississippi is going to be looked at. To me, that's our mission."

Q: Coaches have said during a winning season they don't get to enjoy it because they're so focused. Have you been able to look back and enjoy what last meant?

"You know, for me it's the 24-hour rule. Same thing when the season is over. The biggest thing I guess for me is I was able this year to really go on vacation, and vacation. Other than that, nothing changed. As soon as the season was over with I was getting ready for spring practice. As soon as spring practice is getting over with my mind starts on what do we need to do as a team to get ready for training camp; what do we have to do for recruiting, to get ourselves in position we can really be one of the premier teams. It just never ends. But the best thing about this year is that I was able to really enjoy vacation for the first time since I've been at State."

Q: Why was that?

"We didn't have as many problems to deal with. And that was the first time in June when I first got a chance to just sit down and relax and reflect on last season. I went to Green Bay and just totally relaxed, went out a lot of evenings and just played golf, nobody but me. I love it up there, it's cool and very peaceful. I can do what I want to do and be very relaxed about it. And that was the first time I really just had a chance to reflect on last year, where we were, what we got accomplished, now what do we need to do as we move forward from here."

Q: What do you need to do?

"Here's a couple of things. What I tried to do was look at our team, and think about the success we had last year and what my thought process was at this time last year. There were a lot of things last year that I was worried about that I don't have to worry about this year. I know we've got talent in every position to win in the Southeastern Conference. Now the other teams have improved as well.

"But, last year I didn't know how the move of Derek Pegues was going to work, we didn't know what was going to be our secondary. We didn't have a backup to Gabe O'Neal and were worried if he was going to be healthy enough to hold up the entire season. We didn't have a weak-side linebacker, Dominic Douglas was an unknown entity at that time. Mike Henig was our only quarterback coming back, and we really didn't know what we had behind that. We didn't know who our receivers were other than Tony Burks, and other than Anthony Dixon we didn't have another real running back. We had questions at fullback, we had questions in the kicking game and had totally revamped the kicking game, we didn't know what our kickers were going to do.

"Well, we don't have those questions now. The only thing I felt positive about going into last year was we had excellent leadership of our 13 seniors. This year is just the reverse: I don't have any questions about our talent but I've got questions about the leadership we're going to get this year. So it's just the opposite. If I had to take my druthers, I'd take it this way because we know we've got talent. We've got some depth pretty much everywhere except at left tackle right now. And I know the leadership is going to come to the fore because we're going to put them in situations where it's going to have to come. And a lot of that is going to come in the first two weeks of practice. We're going to develop the intangible qualities. I'm really thinking a lot of that has been done already with Ben Pollard in the off-season program, but we're going to find out as soon as we start practicing. That's the biggest question that I have going into the season."

Q: You said last week in Jackson this would be the ‘toughest two-a-days yet' at State. Is that because you are coming off a winning season and want to keep them grounded, or is it necessary to take the next step?

"Because we want to move forward. And to move forward we have to improve. The first thing again is the intangible qualities. We know we have enough ability and talent. We have more size and more speed, we're stronger than we've ever been. We've got more depth than we've ever had.

"And we've still got some holes. I feel like our offensive line is as athletic as it's ever been, we upgraded with J. C. Brignone at center in talent. But Royce Blackledge was a rock. He played half of last season when he couldn't raise one of his shoulders past parallel, finally it just wore out on him at the end of the season. But the guy showed up and played and practiced every week. Will we get that kind of leadership from J.C., is he able to handle making the calls and all of those things? Physically as far as blocking a guy I have no question he can be better than Royce, but those other questions we have… Derek Sherrod played almost 300 snaps and graded close to 80% as a pure freshman at right tackle. And he probably played more than the starter did. Can he make the move to left tackle? I know athletically he can, but it is a little different. To be honest with you he's a better athlete than Mike Brown is, but will he produce as much? That's a question. Will Eric Hoskins' shoulder hold up? Those are the things we've got to put together.

"But my point is the ability is there. And in the two-a-days, we have to come together and be as tight-knit a football team with one mind, one heartbeat, one spirit, and we've got to do that early. There can be no selfishness. The team has to come first, any personal agendas have to be set aside. And the only way I know to do that is to put them in a situation where whatever it is, it shows up to everybody out there on the field right from the two-a-days. We will go through the fire during these two-a-days and find out who is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to take the next step."

Q: Looking at this conference, is there anybody who is not a good head coach?

"No. You don't get these jobs in the Southeastern Conference unless you've got something on the ball. Every coach in this conference is a good head coach, I've got the greatest respect for each and every one of them. And it's truly an honor to be in this group and an honor to walk out there and compete against these guys every week. I respect the job that each and every one of them has done. Because at each of the institutions everybody has his problems and things they've got to deal with. We deal with them in our own way and still go out and compete and try to get the job done."

Q: With the attention and the salaries, how well are people going to handle when their seasons don't turn out that well?

"That's the thing in this conference. At the end of the day a couple of guys are going to be real happy and the rest are not going to be quite as happy. That's what makes it so intense and so intriguing and so exciting for everybody. Coaches, players, and fans.

"It's just something that we have to live with. That's the business aspect of it. That's why you're so blessed to have this opportunity because you're not going to be here all the time. The guys who have been around and guys like Philip (Fulmer) and Steve (Spurrier), how they do it I don't know; to last this long as they have done and perform so well year-in and year-out, those guys are true hall of fame coaches."

Q: All summer every player interviewed has spoken of playing for the SEC Championship, winning the championship. How much of that has come from you and how much of it is the players themselves?

"I don't know. I mean, we've been talking about it ever since we first got here. Even the first year, we put it up there: our goal is to win the SEC Championship. That's what it was then, that's what it always will be. It doesn't necessarily mean you're going to win it! But I guess every team from a coaching standpoint is to get everyone on your team to be the best they can possibly be. And to me, the only way to achieve the best you can do is try to be the best.

"So the goal has to be to win the conference championship. If we're good enough we get it done. If we don't at least we maximize and get as close as we possibly can. As we go into this season this is the first time we have a chance. Now how good a chance I don't know, but we have a chance. And I don't care if it's just a millimeter of a chance, I don't want to get to the end of the season and say boy if we had done a little bit more of this it would have happened. Every step of the way I want them thinking about having a chance to get in the SEC (Championship Game) and having a chance to win that championship. So that we don't miss out on our own opportunity. If we get to the end of the year and played as good as we can play and we didn't make it hey, it is what it is."

Q: On a slight tangent here, how much conversation goes on between staff in games?

"I don't like a lot of chatter on the headset. I surely don't like it when the coordinators are talking to have anybody else talking. Some guys like to watch the game, talk and commentate on the game. We've got Jack Cristil in the booth, we don't need any of that!"

Q: Have you ever had to tell anybody to stop?

"Yeah, I told them to shut up! Shut up on the headset, if you want to talk turn it off."

Q: Can you tell us some memorable conversations you've had?

"Not here!"

Q: But you did have an argument with Woody McCorvey last year in the Auburn game (before the winning drive), you wanted to put Josh Riddell back on the field and he wanted Wes.

"Well, it wasn't an argument. There are not any arguments because if I decide to do something it's going to get done. But I ask for opinions. Woody voiced his opinion on that and I went with it. Hey, I trust my coaches. And most of the time these things have been talked about during the course of the week. I say if this comes up, have an idea what you want to do and see if it's the way I'm thinking if it gets to that point. There's not a lot of time to debate out there. In the heat of the decisions you use you've talked about all week and go with it and see what happens."

Q: Three days left in spring left tackle was your most solid position, now is it your biggest question mark?

"Yes, it really is. With two days left in spring I had three guys there, if we have something happen to Mike Brown and we flip Derek Sherrod over and keep playing. But losing Mike Brown, believe me it created a hole. The great thing about it though is if it happened a year or two years ago it would have been devastating, it would have destroyed us, we wouldn't have had any chance to have an offensive line.

"As disappointing as it is, I'm so thankful that we've evolved to the point where my first thought isn't OK, let's go cut my head off! But (now) kick Sherrod over, Mark Melichar has to come through at right tackle, Quentin Saulsberry has to come through as backup on the right side and Philip Freeman or Chris Spencer has to come through at (backup) left tackle. If that doesn't happen, then Melichar goes over to left tackle and Quentin Saulsberry has to be the starter at right tackle. The thing about it is, that's a whole long way from Mike Gates having to start (at right tackle) as pure freshman against LSU. A long way, a high school tight end. Gates, Dunning, and Calvin Wilson started against LSU as freshmen; that's a long way.

Q: You said before spring ball this was not a ‘make or break year' for the offense. Do you still hold to that?

"Hey, winning games is what it's all about. I know everybody gets all into stats and everything. We're going to do on offense what it takes to win. The best thing that we've done, we've had a very strong defensive football team; we had some questions on offense. We haven't had any stability at the quarterback position due to injury, we haven't had explosive speed since Jerious Norwood left, he was the only guy we've had in our offense that had long-range explosive speed. We've got more speed now.

"So I'm not concerned at all about the offense being able to put points on the board this year. I fully expect us to. And it starts with the fact your offensive line is going to be strong and we've got quarterbacks that can play. Wes has been out there, we've got three guys now that we feel like we can play with. We've got four receivers, we've got some young guys who we think can play with more speed. I think that's the whole thing, why we've got explosive speed on offense."

Q: For this event most coaches bring a senior or junior all-star. What does it say about the program and about Wes that you brought a sophomore, a low-stats guy who started half a season?

"Wes is a winner. Hey, think about it: he's won more games as a starting quarterback since the year 2000 than any other quarterback we've had. So that says a lot to me.

"The bottom line in all this is winning games. That's the bottom line. Last year we found a way to win eight games with the talent that we had. Now, we've got to find a way to maximize the talent that we do have and win games. Because we don't complain about what don't have. We line up and play with what we've got and we find a way to win with what we have. We have more bullets in our gun than we've had in the past. So we expect to come out firing."

Q: In spring you said you and assistants would go to other schools and look at offenses. Did you do that?

"We took a couple of trips!" (Will you tell us where?) "Nope! We're not going to discuss where. We took some trips!"

Q: So we're going to see a brand-new scheme this year, right?

"Maybe you will, maybe you won't!"

Q: Is that common with coaches now?

"Not as much. Because we don't have time. That was the benefit of us practicing early in the spring, we had more time to do that that some people. I think everybody tries to do it a little bit but it's not as common as it used to be. When I first started coaching people did it all the time.

"But we went out and visited on both sides of the ball. I think the defense went to about three different places. And we broke our staff up offensively, we had some guys going one place and a couple of guys go to other places. So we ended up going to about four places on offense. There are some things from each group that…we're still going to run our base offense. But there are some elements and some things that complement what we're doing very well."

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