Make no mistake here. The events of November 29, 2008 must be seen as for Mississippi State's greater good. To many of us, much the way invasive surgery is for the good. And don't think what began outside the Oxford locker room and culminated the next morning in Coach Sylvester Croom's announced resignation came without pain, tears, even a little bleeding. Almost like an operation where the anesthesia isn't provided until after the cutting is done.
I confess to being one of those hurting today. Not as much as Friday night, when the chances of regime change which all the previous week I'd spotted at 60-40 against suddenly were 50-50 at best. Best for Coach Croom, I mean. It's a truism that single games shouldn't force decisions, either way, that ought to be based on what Greg Byrne yesterday referred to as the ‘body of work.' But when that single game is an utter stomping, in all aspects, by an arch-rival that is clearly better but not 45 points better, well, decisions take on another sort of force.
By the way, let's add that the final margin of defeat was indisputably influenced by the awful injury to Brandon McRae before halftime. A whole bunch of Bulldogs suddenly didn't feel like playing football, as I daresay some Rebels agreed. But the home team had momentum and motivation to get them re-started. State was going through the motions from then on and I can't really blame them. That was a bad break, in both senses, that we can't conceive of a good twist to.
Otherwise, though, the howd'yaknow strikes uncomfortably close to MSU-home these days. Take the transition from 2007 to '08. We all sure thought last season was pretty great stuff. Victories at last, several in dramatic fashion, and a happy holidays. Good, right? Yeah, up until the end of spring camp and the first of many bad breaks that perhaps did not entirely cause but assuredly contributed to lost chances, lost games, and a lost season. Bad, right?
Well obviously so for Coach Croom, a man of so many good personal qualities that even some—not all but some—of the most vicious critics allowed at least a degree of private respect for. And who the rest of us openly admired. Sure, he often made sweeping statements that came back to haunt, especially by those M.V.Cs. But to me, my own self, Croom delivered on one promise: that we would never be embarrassed by his teams. I wasn't, ever. Aggravated, even upset, at some of the losses along the way, but then I'm a lifetime Bulldog and you either learn to live with such or find another program. Or start drinking heavily, which I haven't yet tried but that the tensions of this just-past season nearly pushed me towards.
No, I can and do say without hesitation or qualification: Croom's teams and players made me proud to have a degree from this University. They represent us well, save the only place that seems to matter nowadays. And for the life of me, I can't grasp why fans—not just MSU but all—seem to take defeat in football as a completely personal affront; as if those coaches and players are insulting them The Fan with any defeat. Just don't get it.
But, as Croom himself said last week, perspective is what it is. He was talking specifically about the Egg Bowl, but it wasn't hard to interpret and expand that comment more generally to the state of his program. Thus where the inside perspective sees the progress, and the struggles and reasons for them, the view from outside can be and was different. Different enough that some wanted heads rolling in the streets of Starkville Friday evening, to assuage the anger over the rivalry rout. Hopefully a metaphorical Saturday axing was sufficient.
One needn't have been in the biz three decades (literally, this was my 30th season working Bulldog football in some capacity) to know what the coaches would say about 2008. They point to the three either-way games, two of which would have gone State's way had a placekick been made. Entirely true, and the other turned on two fumbles on kicking plays. That was the difference from 4-8 to 7-5 or, at worst, 6-6.
Yet that debate just deflects us from the core situation, the utter lack of improvement on offense over five years. Though I only count three of ‘em; the first two seasons to me were tossaway, once the degree of internal rebuilding and outright replacing became blindingly clear. Though there are them that chose to remain blinded it's worth noting. Still to this old-ering Dog in his first two, and after an incredible run of quarterback injuries 2006 to some extent, were when Sylvester Croom did exactly what he was hired first and foremost to do. Clean up and shape up Mississippi State football. I'll understand if others prefer not to see it that way though.
And I was even emotionally prepared to start writing off '07 when two quarterbacks again went down. Of course we know what happened and how the rest of the year, that State won unexpected games in inconceivable ways and everybody was happy, or at least relieved. Hmm, that good/bad concept certainly applied to the 2007 quarterback situation, eh?
But it also applied to this whole '08, as what seemed good last year turned out to be bad. The offense got overly ambitious, the Dogs stumbled out of the gate and never really recovered confidence, and a season where State should have been no worse than break-even went wrong. I use the Kentucky game again as the ultimate example; that field goal which clanked awry I guarantee (well, believe) would have bounced good in '07 somehow. And State is no worse than 5-7, still not pleasing but probably enough wins to keep the natives from calling for blood.
Which brings us back to the good/bad angle again; would winning another game or two in such fashion have continued to cover for the fundamental weakness on offense? Maybe, maybe not. In which case good might not have been for good. Or had State put in a much more competitive afternoon in Oxford, would the change have come? If so, it wouldn't have been immediately; and if this all-important recruit class is to be kept intact or at all, it was good to make the best of a bad situation immediately. Though for me the timing couldn't be worse, as I have a magazine deadline (the January dated issue) next Sunday and needed to spend this week filling in the remaining dozen blank pages instead of monitoring a coaching search. Basketball coverage, sorry, it just got shoved into the background until next Saturday…and by golly, having had yesterday ruined by the news-break and missing most of the big rivalry games, I'm watching the SEC Championship Game. I've earned that privilege.
Until somebody talks we won't know what would have salvaged the situation for a good man who took on a tough job and, while succeeding in the first order of business, could not put enough Ws in the books—because his teams couldn't put enough points on the board. Those two facts are inextricably linked. While we should never expect Mississippi State to be an offensive powerhouse (I'm convinced there's a line somewhere in Scripture about it) goodness knows Bulldog teams ought to be capable of more than a touchdown or two, or more likely a touchdown and two fields goals, per game. Oh, and if you missed it, State was the only SEC school in 2008 not to score a non-offensive touchdown; no returns of kicks or picks got to an end zone. Another way the good breaks of '07 turned bad this time around.
Something else we can only speculate on now is whether Croom was going to make the offensive shifts he had been hinting and in a few cases openly talking about. Of getting away from a classic I-set and making more flexible formations the base. Things certainly seemed headed that way, but to do it right would mean taking the painful step of changing some staff members and responsibilities. I'm not sure he could have made himself do that even with a career on the line. In which case the athletics director would have to decide what mattered more, one man's loyalty to his aides or his responsibility to the program. Much as, which we discussed a few weeks ago, the question of at what point Mississippi State's obligation (moral I mean, not fiscal) to a man who risked his career on an unpromising situation to do a dirty job, and did so, end and the requirement for wins begin. As I wrote at the time, five years seemed to be the accepted timeframe. And so it proved.
I've never denied my high regard for Sylvester Croom, nor will I now. I won't be so bold as to say we were good friends, though I'd be proud if he thought it so. Still by working with him on the call-in show for three years, along with casual and off-record talks around the practice fields, I learned to appreciate the strengths he brought—and moreso, the stresses he felt—in what he'd taken on as a personal challenge to be more than a football coach. That's why the handful of folk who still claim he ‘ran off the best players' inherited from the prior regime frustrate me (Coach learned the hard way not to listen too closely to outside sniping). Because I saw how much it personally hurt him to lose any player, even those who betrayed his trust.
Those things hurt him far more than a defeat…which in a professional context might have also been his failing. It takes a thicker skin to make the tough, even brutal, decisions necessary to win in SEC football. People are going to be hurt along the way and an active conscience can get in the way, sorta like a halfback who thinks too much instead of just slamming ahead and at least not losing yards.
Yet all this considered, this wasn't really a weakness in Croom. It actually was a strength as more and more players arrived who didn't merely ‘buy into' his ideas of what a program should be; they gave their hearts and souls to Bulldog football. A harder case mightn't have attracted this caliber of personalities to Starkville; yet now that they are here, and have been seasoned in what it means to be a Bulldog, an even more demanding and certainly more proficient offensive taskmaster should be exactly what they need. And are ready for. When State's administrators talk about the foundation Croom built, they are exactly correct. It's just that somebody else will have the job of building the, well, building upon and with the parts Croom assembled…as well as those who committed to one coach and hopefully will give his successor the same chance.
Now. Who should that be? What is, and should, Byrne looking for? I suspect it's a pretty short list based on the rather unique situation—and to some minds, opportunity—Mississippi State is.
It was a tough weekend for the programs that are our closest counterparts and also contend with doctor/lawyer schools possessing superior support, funding, political clout, media glitz, etc. You know, peers such as Auburn and Texas A&M. At least Clemson smote the snobs of their state (no, I don't count Georgia Tech in our club) so we cow colleges weren't entirely shut out.
Yet that roll-call reminds what State is, what it yet can be, and what it shouldn't try to be. Just as we cannot catch the arch-rival in the glamour standings, nor should Bulldog football attempt to be a pro-style running or pocket-passing program. It's worth noting that said rival has dropped that approach, too, and with obvious success. Bunch of big bodies up front simply bulling ahead, and small fast guys scooting for the gaps while the defense is forced to play on its heels…and leave single coverage downfield that can only hold up for so long. We now know it doesn't take a Darren McFadden to make this work, either.
And yes, definitely, having been to every Bulldog practice but maybe two this year, I could envision putting some Bulldog bodies in such a scheme. Wouldn't work as well, yet, as how Ole Miss did it this year with their superior experience on the line and a much stronger passer to keep the front un-stacked…and even then the Dogs couldn't cover, but defense isn't our issue of the hour or even winter. Though I'll say this. The night before the game, I got in a friendly argument with a MSU assistant coach who lives four doors down from me. Agreeing with him that State had no true pass-rusher in the down-front this fall, I disagreed about the playing-it-safe approach we took in just about every game…except Arkansas, where more than just the front was sent. Sure, it would have been an easy way to give up more plays by rushing more guys. But it also would have produced more chances to make big stops and turnovers, not to mention made the other offenses at least think a little bit more. Instead most opponents could play straight-ahead.
And heaven knows their defenses knew they could do the same with almost no fear of getting beaten enough to lose. I'm not saying State's line did not have their '08 issues, but as the year went on blocking got better. Only it was often impossible to tell because opponents could rush at will, that the Dog offense wasn't going to make them pay for full-time aggression. Put another way, the Bulldogs didn't play the game ‘downhill' often or well. Sure, personnel and its experience—individual and collective alike—were legitimate factors.
But…so was the mindset. While the actual play calling gradually became more college-like, the thought processes behind it were still NFL-cautious. I'm not saying it was without reason, mind. Coaches aren't stupid no matter what a fan furious about having spent $30 for a ticket, not to mention gas, parking, and something legal to drink, is sure to say when on 3rd-and-2 the halfback is stuffed at right tackle. They know what their players can do either consistently or occasionally.
The counterpoint though is that on a team already overmatched and not yet internally certain of themselves, it's no worse strategy to attempt forcing the action rather than playing it safe. Yes, you might get beat just as badly; or as that assistant neighbor said, taking chances gets coaches fired. But in this case so did not taking chances.
Yet even this is a side-issue. The true thrust here is something I said at practice back in October when our closest SEC kin fired its touted new coordinator and junked his flashy system. Talking to a State staff, I said Auburn tried to quit being Auburn. From what little I saw of Texas A&M this year, the Aggies with their NFL-trained coach were trying to be something else, too. Programs that are built, by both necessity and nature (i.e., the natural recruiting base) on fast and hard-tackling defenses, consistent kicking, and productive running, tried to become…sexy. Which worked about as well as if I tried something to hide a hairline retreating far faster than any globally-warmed glacier.
Now maybe those programs in time might acquire the players to do that sort of stuff. State almost assuredly can't. And shouldn't. But what Mississippi State can always procure—that means recruit—are hard-headed, tough-hearted players who like getting down and dirty, and prefer physically whipping and/or out-running a foe to out-scheming and out-smarting them.
I'm convinced Croom realized a couple years ago that his pro-style notions weren't going to work, not consistently, over the long haul because just assembling, developing, and keeping all the pieces in places long enough wasn't going to happen either. As often as it's been discussed, the fact remains that losing Mike Brown wrecked this line's chances of being SEC-good in September. But this wasn't the first time State lost a key blocker. Remember Richard Burch? His selfishness crippled Bulldog blocking not just one fall but rippled on through ensuing seasons. Mike Gates wouldn't have had to play as a true freshman and would be back in '09. Calvin Wilson wouldn't have been forced into action on a bad knee, lost confidence and transferred.
Not a bit of that can be blamed on coaching per se of course. What can be faulted is failure to recognize such things can and will happen and must be allowed for. When losing one player devastates an entire offense, then the offense is just too vulnerable already…because who is to say they wouldn't have been lost to injuries?
There is another what-if Croom recalled last week, his recruiting visit to the Alabama home of Pat White. On the last call-in show Croom mused about how things might had been different if White had inked with State instead of going to West Virginia. I acknowledge that point, yet would counter with this—White was being courted as a defensive back. Given what State wanted to run at that time, would they have changed—and I mean entirely changed—the offense from NFL-style to what White has excelled in; a ride-and-read-and-run option scheme? Maybe, because at one practice Croom and I talked about the option and he mused how he would love to run a wishbone a la his Alabama playing days. But by then of course we were committed, if for no other reason than his choice of coordinator and time already invested in west coast themes.
Ironic, then, how this season-past we saw—not often, but enough—plays in games that pointed to the aforementioned shift in scheme. There was even more of it practiced but never played, if you care to know. And had Chris Relf come to college with one more year of real quarterback experience under his prep belt, maybe we'd have seen a real change in '08. Relf certainly fits the bill of a physical runner to and outside the tackles who goes forward, not sideways. Still got a lot to prove about his passing though. Wes Carroll could handle this sort of attack, too, while Tyson Lee runs best on the rollout, bootleg, and scramble, not attacking the edges.
Guess it's obvious where I'd wish the new coach to point offensively. Much as I despised my trip and treatment by people there, I'm intrigued by West Virginia's 2005-07 offense. Guess the State staff was too because Michigan is one place they visited over the summer. Don't misunderstand, it isn't nearly as simple as I'm going to make it sound here; no modern college offense can be truly simple given how sophisticated and fast defenses are. Saying one scheme is simpler is like saying a NASCAR V-8 is simpler than the eight-pots run at Indy. It's all relative, as Mrs. Einstein yelled at Albert once too often.
But the thrust, literally, of that sort of ‘spread' (another short title covering a broad range of attacks) is five big, nasty fellows who attack their single opponent until the whistle stops, with an even nastier fullback crushing one or two supporting defenders; and a clever quarterback as quick of wit as of foot who doesn't just make decisions on the move but puts them into instant action for better or worse. And, a running back who doesn't waste time dancing. Do that well, and all other aspects fall into place.
No, it's not a perfect system. Maybe not the best choice here ultimately. But it seems to suit what a Mississippi State coach can recruit any year, every year. Maybe there aren't a lot of Sleepy Robinsons or Don Smiths out there, but I promise there are fellow with 95% of that ability who can be taught properly…perhaps even by Rockey Felker himself. Hopefully he is one who'll survive another regime change, along with a couple of his current staff-mates. No, I won't offer any other names either way, though I will add that the new boss must and likely will pick his aide based on their recruiting prowess first. Get enough talent and coaching is a heckuva lot easier.
And honestly, that was what Croom originally intended. The man never mean, at least initially, to be so involved in actual field coaching. He really meant to be the face of this program, to set the themes for assistants and staffers and players, to recruit the personnel and people, and let them take care of their own responsibilities. But again, he short-circuited that from the very start making McCorvey the coordinator…a post from which he could not thence be removed. Maybe after this season McCorvey would have stepped aside—to coordinate recruiting and take that load off a field-coach?—and eased the burden on his boss. We'll never know that now, or if State would have been able to attract a good new coordinator under uncertain circumstances anyway. Most likely there would have been a staff promotion, which might not have been a bad call if the offense really was going to a spread-type philosophy. After all, this run-spread thing is really just a mondernization of the old Houston ‘veer' we saw State run in Tyler's early years, the difference being the quarterback is in the shotgun and runs at an angle instead of down-the-line.
Well. All that is moot now anyway. Given Byrne's background and connections literally all across the country, Mississippi State should attract much more interest this time around. Especially with the NCAA issues out of the way, sounder financial footing, and good facilities. No, not what they have at Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge or even Oxford, but sufficient for MSU's needs. And, its prime clientele. State no longer has to apologize for anything facility-wise.
At the same time, State isn't to everyone's tastes. Nor the state of Mississippi for that matter. That's OK. There should—ought to—be enough prime-time talents with blue-collar attitudes out there who would be right at home in this old cow college. That is, as long as what Bulldogs do fits their attitudes and aptitudes alike. On defense that's never been a problem. Offense is a much tougher matter, and I can't say there is any 100%-certain system that is ideal for a place like State. I simply offer the sort of offenses Felker, Bond, Smith, Robinson ran—and passed—as the most likely for consistent success. And I stress the ‘passed' part because now a run-read-throw play is practically a handoff; just done overhand and over a bit longer distance, and to athletes who make the first defender miss and…after that it's all up to them. Which, by the way, I think State now has guys that fit such as Clark, Robinson, Bailey, Davis, et.al. Young receivers who are more running backs already isolated on a defender rather than classic ‘ends.' Instead of a wild hog or rebel, here's a whole pack of Dogs ready to run wild.
Wow, this has gone a heckuva lot longer than I ever intended. For those who've endured, my thanks and sympathies both. So I'll stop, and get to work on a magazine piece. Sheesh, how to do a football player feature with a guy who doesn't know who his coach will be? Thanks a lot, Scout publishing, for moving up the December deadline. That's a bad break for me.
Or how do I know, as it allows an extra week over the holidays to rest? That's good…right?