Down in Starkville, Miss. today, there's going to be a news conference to announce that Sylvester Croom has been hired as the new head football coach at Mississippi State University. Croom played under Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama in the early 70s. He was an assistant at Alabama from 1977-86, and since then, he's been an assistant coach with five different NFL franchises. He's also an African-American.

This is the first time that a black man will coach in the Southeastern Conference. The SEC is, in some ways, the beating heart of the South, especially during football season. The battles between schools like Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia is a secular religion, a stunning example of sport's ablility to captivate, inspire, and thrill us.

But the history of the schools in the SEC also includes much shame. Autherine Lucy being chased off the campus at Alabama. James Meredith registering for classes at Old Miss, with 5,000 federal troops there to protect him. George Wallace blocking the door at Alabama's Foster Auditorium to prevent two black students from registering.

As I write this, I'm listening to the Drive-By Truckers, who have been writing and recording some pretty damn great music about life in the South. I was thinking about a lyric in their song, "The Three Great Alabama Icons"

Racism is a worldwide problem and it has been since the beginning of recorded history, and it ain't just white and black. But thanks to George Wallace, it's always a little more convenient to play it with a Southern accent.

There's a lot of truth in that statement, I think. The South, and Southerners, are convenient targets of scorn and ridicule. Getting back to the issue that started me down this road, it's not as if black coaches have made great strides elsewhere. There were only four black head coaches in NCAA Division I-A football this past season, out of 117.

That's outrageous. The fact that no black man had been a head coach in the SEC until today is shameful. But when Sylvester Croom walks onto the field steps on the field in Starkville on Sept. 4 next year, and the Bulldogs charge out to take on Tulane, one more small step will have been taken away from Wallace's legacy.

AuthorMark McClusky