Sylvester Croom is sitting in the front seat of the Mississippi State football team bus, watching the pasture land roll by, the fields given over to cotton and hay and hardwoods and now and again a lonesome stand of pine, trees stretching 60 feet into the late autumn sky.
It is an impoverished and often sad corner of the poorest state in America, and the football team is everything to people here, so when Croom and his players step off the bus and onto the college campus a few hours before kickoff of last Saturday's game, the cowbell-clanging crowd heads toward them.
"The place has changed a great deal," Bulldogs Coach Sylvester Croom said of Mississippi. "I don't know how many people outside here understand that. But they're about to find out."
(Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
"Let's go DAAAWWWWGGSS!"
"We love you, Coach Croom!"
And then it begins. A smattering of applause that builds and grows into a cacophony in the sticky heat, spilling past the tailgate parties, the bourbon and beer and Dr Pepper sloshing out of plastic cups, the smell of barbecue ribs in the air, and now there is a gauntlet of thousands of fans lining the route to the stadium, a crowd of predominantly white Mississippians applauding the first black football coach in the SEC -- one of those indelible moments that define a place and a time, particularly when that place has one of the most difficult racial histories in America.
"There's much more at stake here than football," Croom says the next morning, tooling down Highway 12, Starkville's main drag, in his Chevrolet Tahoe. "The fact that I'm African American, that I'm the State football coach -- well, I think it will have a positive impact on race relations in the state of Mississippi, and how the rest of the country views Mississippi. The place has changed a great deal. I don't know how many people outside here understand that. But they're about to find out."
A national television audience will get a poignant look at Croom, Starkville and their hardscrabble football team this Saturday, when State drives 90 miles east to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide in one of the most intriguing confrontations in college football this year.
The Tide could have hired Croom -- a 50-year-old Tuscaloosa native, an all-American center at 'Bama who was a favorite of the Crimson Tide's legendary coach Bear Bryant -- with a word last year. Instead, they snubbed the highly respected 17-year NFL assistant and hired Mike Shula, a white coach with talent but far fewer coaching credentials.
Mississippi State snapped up Croom from the Green Bay Packers in December, making history, headlines and setting up this week's emotional showdown. Shula even took Croom's name off a team award for a commitment to excellence this spring, restoring it only after fan outrage. No matter what anybody on either side says, the State-Bama game will have racial overtones for years to come, and in the way that race plays out in the Deep South, you don't have to say it out loud for everybody to know.
"This is a very personal game for me," Croom said. "I'm not going to lie about it. I'm not mad or upset about what happened. But I thought that job was mine."
When he reminded his players in the locker room after last Saturday's game that Alabama was next, they erupted in a deafening roar.
"Everybody knows what this game is about," said Quinton Culberson, one of State's star linebackers. "The Alabama game is always intense, but man, with Coach Croom . . . " he smiles, the thought trailing off, unfinished.