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Sylvester Croom Ready for Next Change

Posted Mar 22, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Coaching just isn’t the right career path for those who can’t handle change.

At different moments of Sylvester Croom’s life, he’s been a resistor of seemingly small changes and a facilitator of a major one.

Croom is preparing for his first season as Titans running backs coach, and Tennessee is his eighth NFL employer. He spent last season navigating an injury-riddled Jacksonville backfield through a tough season after three years in St. Louis.

Somewhere along the way he learned to take the hassle of finding new homes, grocers, cleaners and barbers because he was able to observe the positives of working with people who made significant impacts on him in as little as one year or the better part of a decade.

“I don’t know why, but my nature, I’ve never really liked change. I’ve had to learn, and my wife is a lot more flexible,” Croom said. “I’ve learned from her to be a lot more flexible and a lot more accepting of change because the only thing certain in life is that things will change and you have to get used to that and adjust to it, and really, a lot of great opportunities come through change.”

Croom grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., earned three varsity letters at Alabama and was starting center on the Crimson Tide’s 1973 national championship squad. After one year of playing for New Orleans, he returned to Tuscaloosa as a graduate assistant in 1976 and coached linebackers (1977-86) at his alma mater before joining Alabama head coach Ray Perkins in their move to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Sylvester Croom became the first African-American head football coach in the Southeastern Conference. He coached five seasons (2004-08) at Mississippi State before returning to the NFL.

After four seasons with Tampa Bay, one in Indianapolis, five in San Diego, four in Detroit and three in Green Bay, Croom became the first African-American head football coach in the Southeastern Conference when he was hired at Mississippi State. Croom downplayed the historical significance at the time but he’s realized the ripple effect in the past few years.

“I’ve met coaches, I’ve been traveling around the country and people, high school coaches, particularly minority coaches because it gave a lot of black coaches and people that wanted to get into coaching and even people outside of the coaching profession, you know, it was a positive for them,” Croom said. “I didn’t realize what a huge hurdle having a black coach in the SEC was. It was a huge deal, probably, I guess because it was me, I thought, ‘Hey, I just want to be coaching Mississippi State,’ but it did have a huge impact. (SEC) Commissioner (Mike) Slive even told me he felt like it was the most significant event in his tenure in the Southeastern Conference, and I said, ‘Wow.’ I told him that if I had an SEC championship, that would make it truly significant (laughs).”

Croom said he appreciated the opportunity from the school’s administrators even if his tenure stopped after five seasons (2004-08) into the 10-year plan he envisioned for building a program that could continually win. Croom, who had been a leading candidate for the Alabama job that Mike Shula got in 2003, hesitated to accept the job at Mississippi State because of the challenges, but said he was proud of the progress his players made on the field, in the classroom and in their preparations for life beyond football.

“I’m very glad I took the job because being a head coach in the SEC is a phenomenal thing,” Croom said. “Except for the NFL, you’re in the most competitive athletic conference of any kind. They talk about ACC basketball, hey, I don’t know that much about basketball, but I know if it gets any tougher than SEC football, then God be with them. That’s as tough as it gets, other than this league.”

And what would have happened if he had gotten the job at Alabama?

“We would have won the national championship because that’s what you do at Alabama,” Croom said. “You win national championships (laughs). That’s just what they do. We would have won a national championship. There ain’t a question in my mind about that.”

Because Croom played and coached for Paul Bryant at Alabama, the influence of the “Bear” has been widely attributed, but Croom said there are others who have made significant impact on his career. In addition to his parents and teammates, Croom said working nine seasons for former Chargers and Lions coach Bobby Ross, and working with the late Milt Jackson for that one season in Indianapolis and with offensive line coach Larry Beightol his first two seasons in Tampa Bay were important in building his coaching philosophy.

“(Ross has) had a huge impact on my life,” Croom said. “When I got to be a head coach I was always accused of trying to be like Coach Bryant, but they don’t know that most of what I model, I model a lot of the things I did after Coach Ross because I had a tremendous amount of respect for him and I still do.”

Of Jackson, Croom said: “He had a huge impact on me as far as my approach to studying the game, taught me a lot about the passing game and how to be a pro coach, how to approach this business and have the right attitude about it and deal with the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the good and the bad of being in the NFL business. I learned a lot from him in that one season.”

Croom said Beightol, who was offensive line coach of the Houston Oilers in 1995, is “one of the best that’s ever been through this league.”

“He taught me a lot about offensive line play at this level, and I was always communicating with him how the running backs tie into that,” said Croom, adding that he and Beightol held joint meetings between offensive linemen and running backs and that he will likely do the same with Tennessee offensive line coach Bruce Matthews.

The purpose is so the running back can “hear what (offensive linemen) have to go through and what they’re trying to get accomplished.”

“That’s where it starts, with the five guys up front and the tight ends. That’s where the run game starts, and the running back has to understand on every play what those guys are trying to get and how he can make their jobs easier. That’s in the running game and also the passing game. The thing we want to do is make the job of the big guys as easy as possible because the easier you make their job, the more productive the running back is going to be.”

Croom has already coached two of the seven players in NFL history who have had more than 2,000 yards in a season — Eric Dickerson and Barry Sanders — and is looking forward to the opportunity to coach Chris Johnson and other running backs this season.

Croom said he developed an affinity for Nashville on his trips through the area and likes its relative closeness to Tuscaloosa, but admitted coaching Johnson “was a big part” of him wanting to join Tennessee’s staff.

“I’ve never coached a guy with that kind of speed,” Croom said. “Barry was fast but not as fast as CJ.”

The Titans have added free agent Shonn Greene to their backfield to provide a change-of-pace and style this month. Croom believes the combination will boost productivity for both players and keep them fresh throughout the season.

Croom is shifting back to resisting change when it comes to the overall game of Johnson but said he does want to fine tune some details.

“There’s nobody in this league as explosive as Chris Johnson is with the football,” Croom said. “We don’t want to reduce him, and I’ve explained this to CJ: when he does things right, I don’t think there’s anybody better. I want him to play his best consistently and that’s the key word, consistency. We’re not going to change what he’s doing. We want him to do what he’s doing better and do it consistently.”

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