LAS VEGAS — Sylvester Croom had a Hall of Fame career as an offensive lineman at Alabama, and was among the first Black players to become a star and team leader under coach Bear Bryant.
Three decades later, Croom became the Southeastern Conference’s first Black head football coach with Mississippi State. That was 2004. Since then, there have only been four others and currently there are no Black head football coaches in the SEC.
During this season’s still spinning hiring cycle, there have been 16 major college football head coaching vacancies filled. Colorado with Deion Sanders is the only school to hire a Black coach.
“No, there’s definitely not enough progress,” Croom told The Associated Press on Tuesday after a news conference with the new College Football Hall of Fame class.
“It’s almost 20 years now, and the fact that we still have to have these conversations is disappointing and it’s frustrating. But at the same time, we still have to shed light on the situation as it is and find ways to change it because a lot of good people are being denied opportunities to coach and to lead and to motivate other people. We want to get the best people. …. And doors should not be closed to them simply because of the color of their skin,” he said.
Croom was one of 18 former players being inducted into the Hall of Fame by the National Football Foundation on Tuesday night at its awards dinner.
Former Colorado star Rashaan Salaam, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1994, was inducted posthumously and represented by his mother, Khalada Salaam-Alaji.
Rashaan Salaam took his own life in 2017.
“He has received so many accolades and this really caps it off,” she said.
The rest of the class included: LaVar Arrington of Penn State; Champ Bailey of Georgia; Michael Crabtree of Texas Tech; Mike Doss of Ohio State; Chuck Ealey of Toledo; Kevin Faulk of LSU; Moe Gardner of Illinois; Boomer Grigsby of Illinois State; Mike Hass of Oregon State; Marvin Jones of Florida State; Andrew Luck of Stanford; Mark Messner of Michigan; Terry Miller of Oklahoma State; Dennis Thomas of Alcorn State; Zach Wiegert of Nebraska; and Roy Williams of Oklahoma.
The coaches inducted were John Luckhardt who was a head coach for nearly 30 years at Washington & Jefferson and California University of Pennsylvania; Billy Jack Murphy of Memphis; and Gary Pinkel, who led Toledo and Missouri.
Croom, 68, coached five years at Mississippi State, taking over a program that was headed toward NCAA sanctions at the time. The Tuscaloosa, Alabama, native went 21-38 and had one winning season.
Larry Templeton, the former Mississippi State athletic director who hired Croom, said he didn’t know Croom until he interviewed him but he had gotten glowing recommendations. Templeton said he was looking for a coach with unimpeachable integrity and Croom, who had spent years as an NFL assistant, met that criteria.
Templeton said he believes athletic directors and university presidents have become so risk averse when it comes to hiring a football coach, it limits their searches.
“They’re wanting a proven commodity,” Templeton said.
The latest FBS school to fill a head coaching vacancy was UNLV, which on Tuesday announced it had hired Arkansas defensive coordinator and former Missouri head coach Barry Odom, who is white.
Croom pointed to the NFL, which has also struggled with lack of minority head coaches but has put policies in place to at least try to address the issue.
“There has to be a continued dialogue from conference commissioners,” Croom said. “I definitely think my hiring at Mississippi State was a result of a push by Commissioner (Mike) Slive to make changes and his talking not only to athletic directors, but to presidents and boards of trustees. I think that originated from him.”
Croom said he has been impressed from afar with the job Sanders did at Jackson State and is dismayed by the criticism Coach Prime has gotten for seemingly using the historically Black school in Mississippi as a stepping stone to a bigger job.
Sanders spent three season at Jackson State, winning Southwestern Athletic Conference titles this year and last.
“He’s earned this opportunity and I think his success has helped Jackson State, has helped the HBCU community, on and off the football field,” Croom said.
Croom was among the first Black players recruited to play at Alabama by Bryant. That change helped re-ignite the Crimson Tide.
From 1972-74, Croom played center on teams that finished in the top-10 every year and won three SEC championships. He was a team captain his senior year.
“The key to it was Coach Bryant,” Croom said with a smile, “because we were afraid to lose.”