Reynard: Sylvester Croom sparked change at MSU

Former MSU football Head Coach Sylvester Croom hoists the Golden Egg after winning the Egg Bowl surrounded by a cheering team in a photo from The Reveille in 2005.

As the first Black football coach in the Southeastern Conference, Sylvester Croom was a clear place of study for Mississippi State University's Black history.

From 2004-2008, the MSU football team was coached by Croom. He was named SEC coach of the year in 2007 and continued to break racial barriers throughout his career. While the MSU football team's record may not necessarily tell the type of person he was, others will.   

Prior to his time at MSU, Sylvester Croom had a decorated football career. As a Tuscaloosa, Alabama, native, he spent lots of time alongside Paul "Bear" Bryant, former football head coach at the University of Alabama.  

Croom also tried his hand in the NFL as both a player and coach for some time. Now retired, he serves as the vice president of operations for the Senior Bowl and was recently inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.  

Sylvester Croom has also done a lot in the community to work for civil rights issues and much needed change. In an interview with Saturday Down South, he backed MSU running back, Kylin Hill, who was pushing for the state to change the Mississippi flag.  

Former MSU defensive back Keith Fitzhugh made several impactful statements about Coach Croom in a phone interview with The Reflector. During his time at MSU, the Hampton, Georgia, native was studying sports communication.  

He was Croom's first recruit as MSU head coach, and he is very proud and passionate about the chance to be part of his team over his years in the MSU football program. When asked about Coach Croom on the field, Fitzhugh spoke proudly of the coach who so greatly impacted him.  

"[He was] a great leader, very aggressive and intense," Fitzhugh said. "He always wanted the best out of you. And he was all about overcoming adversity within his program."   

Fitzhugh also spoke on how Croom encouraged unity through his coaching style. 

"He never allowed anyone to be a selfish person," Fitzhugh said. "Everyone was a team, a unit, and he encouraged unity through looking like a family." 

Fitzhugh said Croom's culture of unity extended even to the players' attire. 

"We all wore the same socks, pulled up all the way to our knees," the former defensive back shared. "No matter how hot it was outside."  

The former MSU football player struggled for a moment to come up with one word that captures Coach Croom.  

"Leader," Fitzhugh finally stated.  

After examining Sylvester Croom's life as an everyday person and coach, there is no doubt he was just that: a leader. 

Black leadership history is often left out of the narrative when talking about sports. As sports fans and media, there tends to be more focus on the athletes, rather than the coaching and administrative staff.  

Coaching diversity is an issue not just within the Southeastern Conference but across all American sports. There is a large imbalance between the number of leaders and players of color. According to an article in The New York Times in December of 2020, while a majority of players in the NFL are Black, the opposite can be said for Black coaches in the league: they are clearly in the minority. 

Sylvester Croom serves as a much-needed reminder of the types of characteristics the MSU community should possess. Whether inside or outside of MSU athletics, having leadership qualities is a huge necessity in life. In light of his successes both on and off the field, former Bulldog Head Coach Croom distinctly illustrates the type of human being who should be celebrated during Black History Month.  

Croom broke barriers as a Black man in the Southeastern Conference and made history right here in Starkville, Mississippi.  In an interview with The Washington Post in 2004, newly appointed Head Coach Sylvester Croom showed he was well aware of his impact when arriving at MSU.  

"There's much more at stake here than football," Croom said. "I think it will have a positive impact on race relations."

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