According to Mississippi State's athletic department, Sylvester Croom was the best fit for the Bulldogs football program. The color of his skin had nothing to do with his hire.
The fact that he's the Southeastern Conference's first black head football coach didn't matter in the athletic office. And it didn't matter to the new coach. "Let me first of all say I never imagined, I knew there would be some cameras here," he joked at the beginning of his introductory news conference. "But I didn't realize it was going to be like this."
Croom can look at people like Katie Booth and say thank you. Her civil rights battles alongside Martin Luther King Junior paved the way for African Americans to excel in Mississippi. "I'll say this," Booth said as she sat in her Gulfport living room. "The athletic field was the one field we were very sure of."
Booth never tries to look at a person's skin color. She bases her decisions on somebody's qualifications. So while the 96 year old Gulfport woman believes the hiring of Mississippi State's first black football coach is a significant milestone in race relations -- to her, it's not as important as his experience on the sidelines. "They'll be glad," she said. "They will want to win a game."
One of the questions being posed by the media is whether Croom's hiring washes away years of race relations heartache. Here's one opinion from Gulfport car detailing owner Willie Holt. "I think it washes away a lot of years of anger and mistreatment in the minority community," Holt said. "But at the same time, I think that they hired the best candidate that was available for the job."
So did Gulfport High School Athletic Director Prince Jones. "Oh this is an extremely big break for him, blacks, Mississippi, everybody," Jones said.
Jones knows how important a break can be. His track teams won 11 high school championships after Gulfport gave him a chance to coach. "If Sylvester goes in there and wins," Jones said, "it's going to open the doors for a lot of other coaches, no doubt about it."
Croom understands the pressure being placed on him because of the color of his skin. He downplayed it during the news conference. Croom told the media this job wasn't about cultural heritage. And it wasn't about him. It was about his players, and bringing the Mississippi State football program back to prominence.