Croom Defies the Odds

This was a week that reminded us that race is still a topic in collegiate and professional football. The same week that Sylvester Croom is named the first black coach in SEC history, we learn that star football players are the subject of virulent hate mail. In an exclusive, hard-hitting essay, Bill Huber looks at the situation...

Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 by becoming the first black to play in the major leagues.

The Civil Rights movement, and the end of such idiotic things as "separate but equal" and drinking fountains and bathrooms for "colored" people, wasn't far behind. The football schools in the South finally integrated after taking their lumps on the playing field. In 1970, the all-white Alabama juggernaut was crushed at home 42-21 when it couldn't stop Southern California's African-American fullback, Sam Cunningham. Years later, Alabama assistant coach Jerry Claiborne said: "Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King had accomplished in 20 years."

Stuck in a time warp, however, are the athletic departments of institutions of, ahem, higher learning.

That Packers running backs coach Sylvester Croom was hired as head football coach at Mississippi State is a great thing. For one, Croom deserves the opportunity. While the pressure was on Mississippi State to employ a minority, Croom is hardly a token hiring. Anyone can coach Ahman Green to 1,000-yard seasons, but it takes good coaching to get a 96-yard effort out of an undrafted free-agent rookie such as Tony Fisher. That's what Fisher did — on 25 carries — in a late-season victory against Minnesota last season when Green and Najeh Davenport were out with injuries. While Croom celebrates his big day, it no doubt will dawn on him at some point that he's coaching at downtrodden Mississippi State and not history-rich Alabama. That job went to Mike Shula, not Croom, earlier this year. Shula is a former Crimson Tide quarterback — Croom was an All-America center with the Tide — whose claim to coaching fame is being offensive coordinator on some punchless Tampa Bay Buccaneers teams. Oh, yeah, he's white and his last name is Shula.

Meanwhile, former Packers linebackers coach Bo Pelini is taking over on an interim basis at powerhouse Nebraska and is the favorite to get the job on a full-time basis. While Pelini cobbled together a stout defense in his first season as Nebraska's coordinator, his résumé is hardly better than Croom's. Maybe they were just spouting the company line, but the returning Packers linebackers during training camp said Mark Duffner was an upgrade over Pelini. And while the Packers' run defense isn't great this year, it's vastly improved from a year ago.

The point is, the only logical conclusion is racism is alive and well on the college scene. Croom, with an impeccable coaching track record, is counting his lucky stars to be the head coach of an inferior program facing NCAA sanctions due to rules violations committed by the previous regime. Meanwhile, Shula has grabbed one of the country's 10 best jobs and Pelini is in position to land another of the top 10 gigs.

"This is huge because so much is invested in football in the South," Charles Wilson, the director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, told the New York Times. "Mississippi was a flash point for the civil rights movement and people used to say if you can break through in Mississippi, you can break through in the rest of the South. His hiring could be a landmark for the South because others could follow."

It's not often I agree with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the famed civil-rights leader. Too often he cries racism where it doesn't exist, which just harms his cause in the long run. In Jackson's world, anything bad that happens to a black person at the hands of a white person is racism. For proof, look no further than his outrage over Ron Wolf's firing of Ray Rhodes after that 8-8 debacle. But Jackson was right to applaud this one small victory for minority coaches while pointing out that black coaches are losing the war.

"So while this is a breakthrough, we're really way behind our potential," Jackson said. "But I think Mississippi State, its president and its athletic director deserve congratulations and I extend that to them."

Entering this season, there were four black coaches among 117 Division I-A collegiate football teams. Not 34. Not even 24. Four. The hiring of Croom means the number of black coaches is up 20 percent, to five.

Said the Black Coaches Association on its Web site: "The deplorable numbers remain a major issue."

It would be inappropriate to say Shula and Pelini are not qualified to run two of the country's elite football programs. But it's not inappropriate to say it's unfathomable to believe there wasn't a single black coach more qualified for those jobs, or any of the other 15 or so that open at the end of each season.

"Things do change. And that's what my dad always told me," Croom said. "If you try to do things the right way and put your faith in God they will change."

No matter how much faith Croom has, it won't matter until more schools tune out their rich, white boosters and start hiring based on knowledge and character rather than skin color. And it won't matter until the belligerent white racists out there either get struck by lightning or undergo lobotomies.

The FBI confirms a Palm Beach Post report in which the feds are investigating a string of hate-mail letters sent to prominent black men, including a half-dozen star football players such as Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett and NFL players Jason Taylor of Miami and Steve McNair of Tennessee.

According to an FBI agent quoted in the New York Times, the black men were threatened with being shot, castrated or set on fire for dating white women. Maybe I'm just naive, but if Croom beats the odds and is a success at Mississippi State, maybe, just maybe, the door will open for more black football coaches. And if those coaches are successful, too, it will show that blacks indeed have the intelligence to be successful coaches (Duh!).

And that will shoot one more hole in the flawed logic of the racists and bring this nation closer together.

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