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The Road Ahead Sylvester Croom's arrival at Mississippi State just starts another journey

Mississippi State's hiring of Sylvester Croom as the first black
head football coach in the 71-year history of the SEC was a proud
moment for an institution and a state that share a shameful
racial legacy. In 1963 the school's basketball team had to sneak
out of Starkville to play the integrated Loyola of Chicago team
in the first round of the NCAA tournament, in defiance of a
court's injunction and the segregationist attitudes of many
Mississippians. "People will see how much progress has been made
here in terms of race relations," Croom says, of the heightened
attention the school is expected to receive. "All the images that
are conjured up when Mississippi is mentioned--people will see
things differently, that what is imagined is not reality."

Among the conference's first black scholarship players, as a
center at Alabama from 1972 to '74, Croom, 49, paid his dues over
28 seasons as a college and pro assistant, the last three as
running backs coach for the Packers. While he has been welcomed
warmly by the Bulldogs' faithful, he is embarking on a difficult
path. Mississippi State has gone 8-27 over the last three years
and because of recruiting violations under coach Jackie Sherrill
could face NCAA sanctions. While Croom's hiring should make the
school more attractive to players of every race, he has been in
the NFL and out of the recruiting game since '86. He inherits a
program in need of an overhaul, and if Croom, who got a
four-year, $3.2 million deal, doesn't succeed, history shows he's
not likely to get another chance. According to the doctoral
dissertation of San Jose State coach Fitz Hill, none of the 15
Division I-A black football coaches that have been fired has been
rehired at the same level.

Croom is one of five black head coaches among the 117 Division
I-A programs. "He'll be under the microscope, even if he doesn't
want to be," says Floyd Keith, executive director of the Black
Coaches Association, who says many black coaches feel added
pressure because they tend to be evaluated collectively, unlike
their white counterparts. "There's no doubt," Croom says. "I felt
that pressure when I was offensive coordinator in Detroit [from
1997 to 2000]. Most of us minorities in those leadership
positions have felt that same pressure. This time, despite the
fact that my job has some historical significance, I am not going
to get caught in that trap." Nor should he; the task at hand is
challenge enough.

--Daniel G. Habib

COLOR PHOTO: ROGELIO SOLIS/AP (CROOM) POINT MAN Can Croom get the Bulldogs off and running?