Lee, the only Bulldog player available to media Saturday, spoke the emotions of an entire team at losing the coach they all signed-on with. A 21-38 record for five mostly-frustrating seasons is the most significant factor in any evaluation. But the player looked at other aspects of the job Croom has done.
"Even people outside Mississippi State's program realize Coach Croom is more than just a coach, and you don't find that in athletics today a lot of times. When you lose somebody like that it's tough." The Bulldogs will have an official Monday team meeting to have the situation explained in full. Athletics director Greg Byrne has put assistant—and former MSU head coach—Rockey Felker in temporary charge while the administration gets into a coaching search. The rest of the assistant staff remains on contract and will continue their normal winter-month duties.
One player who won't be present Monday is wide receiver Brandon McRae, who suffered a badly broken leg Friday and had surgery that same afternoon. McRae, released from intensive care today, will have follow-up procedures to prevent infections. Lee has visited his teammate and said this latest development has hurt McRae anew.
"Because B-Mac and a lot of guys on the team realized Coach Croom wanted what was best for them as people. I think that's one of the biggest things Coach Croom offers. He wants wins and he wants us to be successful on the field, but he wants us to be even more successful off the field."
At the same time Lee understands Croom wants his players to be more successful on the field than they were in 2008. And with final exams coming up this week, there isn't much time for the Bulldogs to hurt about their season and coach. "A lot of stuff is going on and you think about a lot," Lee said. "But the only thing you can control is what goes on with you and the players around you. We still have our coaches here and we still have each other, and just rally around each other and let each other know we still have to stick and stay strong together."
As well as get strong together when the off-season programs begin. Players will be given strength and conditioning instructions for the holiday weeks as well as the coming spring semester. Because, while the administration looks for a coach the players have to keep working. Lee agrees with this.
"Just really get ready for next year. No matter who the coach is, when it comes to the off-season it's about how you prepare anyway. We have a few weeks left of school, finish that up strong and come back in January and begin our off-season program. So whether it's Coach Croom or anyone else it's really a matter of how we approach the off-season and our work ethic and the things we want out of next year.
"If it were to happen, which I don't like that it did happen, I guess maybe now is better. I don't think there's ever really a good time for something like to happen. And personally for me, with a guy like Coach Croom. But for the program and not just me as a program but for us as a team, the more time you have with it is better."
But there is another critical task continuing in the weeks to come. Mid-year junior college prospects can begin signing letters-of-intent on December 17; high school recruits must wait until the first Wednesday of February, but a few can enroll for the spring semester. And there are signed 2008 players who delayed enrollment to this coming semester to be re-recruited as well. Felker, the staff recruiting coordinator, will keep in contact with MSU's many public commitments and others being courted, and staff members can begin home visits next week. Even Byrne has been certified now to contact recruits by phone, to assure commitments the grants Croom promised them will be honored and to keep them notified of the search's progress.
Lee, who himself was an invited walk-on last January and won his scholarship as well as the starting job, knows what he would tell prospects right now. "Go where you feel led to go. If you feel Mississippi State is the place you want to be, come. I feel like Coach Croom has done a great job with the things he's built in this program, and those things will continue to stand no matter who the coach is. So we say if you want those things to be a part of your life and it be a part of the person you become, please come."
As for his next head coach, Lee has some clear ideas what this team and this program requires. "I would ask for somebody with a passion about football, who is passionate about people, and really who cares about you outside of football. I really would. Because when you have a guy who cares for you outside of football, the football takes care of itself.
"Technical issues come into play, but I think any good coach who has good schemes, a lot of people have that. But looking past that, the person they are is what builds a program most."
For one more day, though, Lee can let himself hurt about how the 2008 season turned out for himself, his teammates, and most of all his head coach. Lee recalled how hard Croom took the spring events when a trio of Dogs were dismissed from school and others suspended for this fall after a campus gun incident. That image will stick with Lee, as summarizing the task Croom was attempting at Mississippi State.
"We always talk about Coach Croom as a person, and he wants what is best for everybody. When we make decisions that can eventually hurt us it hurts him because he wants nothing more than to make you a better person."