Jim Croom South 

Black and white in the SEC

Black and white in the SEC

Though Bobby Johnson hasn’t officially weighed in on the subject, you have to imagine that the Vanderbilt football coach is a big fan of Vanderbilt men’s tennis. That program, as this season’s results have demonstrated, could provide role models for Johnson’s struggling pupils in pads.

Last weekend, the racketeers achieved something no Vanderbilt men’s team in any major sport has managed since 1993. They advanced to the final 16 competing for a national title. On Saturday, the sixth-ranked Commodores smoked Tennessee Tech, then rallied the next day to overcome Pepperdine. This weekend, they’ll face Texas A&M with an opportunity to reach the round of eight. But they’ve already gone further in the NCAA Tournament than any of their predecessors.

It helps to have the nation’s top-rated player, as the Commodores do in Bobby Reynolds. But success was by no means assured for this team, which, like so many of its counterparts in other men’s sports, has been a bottom-feeder for years.

Look at the 2002 worksheet for Ken Flach’s team, and you’ll see a pattern that has been repeated over and over in Vanderbilt football. They often played close against the top teams but never won a cigar. They could find some way to lose.

The pattern becomes a mind-set. At the first sign of trouble, losing teams begin thinking, “Here we go again,” and there they go.

True to their old form, the ’Dores opened SEC play this year by dropping a match at Arkansas they coulda/shoulda won. But somehow they broke the pattern this spring. They shut out Tennessee and Georgia, two of last year’s Final Four (they hadn’t beaten the latter since Bjorn Borg and Ilie Nastase were household names); then they did the same to second-ranked Florida in the SEC Tournament.

Tennis is at the fore of a mini-renaissance in spring sports at Vanderbilt. The women’s team also advanced to the Sweet 16, where they’re becoming regulars. Two years ago, they were the first Vanderbilt team in any sport to play for a national championship.

Meanwhile, Vandy’s men’s golf team—which also boasts a No. 1 in the nation, Brandt Snedeker—qualified for the NCAA Regionals for the first time. The school’s perennially underachieving baseball team now stands at a more than respectable third place in the SEC East—and, after series wins over LSU and Auburn, has shown it can play with anyone.

All of this progress must provide some comfort to Johnson, who has labored to change the long losing mind-set in football. Conventional wisdom among the Media Geniuses is that his challenge is more than herculean, since even the gods didn’t have the cruel audacity to include turning around Vandy’s football program among the 12 labors required of Hercules.

The Geniuses hold that Vandy footballers are inferior to their blue-chip SEC rivals (otherwise, they wouldn’t play for Vandy) and that only by playing almost flawlessly do they even have a chance to win. They’ve promoted this notion so long that it has become accepted as fact. But I’ve never quite bought it. Going all the way back to Watson Brown, the Commodores have played too many good teams too closely for the old assumption to be true.

It’s not that a couple of Top 10 recruiting classes wouldn’t be powerful tonic for what ails them—and not that, even then, would they threaten to send Tennessee, Florida and Georgia under the porch with the little dogs. But, more than anything, it’s that “here we go again” attitude that has kept the Commodores from savoring at least a few winning seasons, maybe more, over the past two decades.

That’s why Vandy’s men’s tennis team bears watching, and the baseball squad, too. If they can overcome a history of futility, perhaps there’s hope in football, too. And for a program where tickets are getting harder to sell than an income tax in Tennessee, hope is a precious resource indeed.

Crimson, white and black

You can always get the straight information from the secretary, even when—especially when—you get nothing but weasel words from the executive.

That’s why a New York Times story last Sunday took the rare step of quoting a receptionist in a story about Mike Price and the legacy of Bear Bryant. Price, the secretary explained, just didn’t understand that being the head football coach at the University of Alabama makes you the most famous person in the whole country. This Birmingham woman, who I am sure meant no disrespect to Michael Jordan or President Bush, much less Donald Rumsfeld, may not know a lot about what folks in the Upper 48 are thinking, but she flat-out nailed the mind-set of Crimson Tide fans.

This disparity in how the Alabama football program is viewed was particularly evident in the varying ways the media played the story of Mike Shula’s accession to the throne of the Bear last week. Where much of Red Elephant country was still reeling from the reports of Price’s tawdry behavior, many of the media commentators from elsewhere pointed to what, in their eyes, looked like a different moral failure: In hiring Shula, Alabama had passed over an African American candidate whose qualifications arguably were stronger.

Outside of Alabama, more than a few eyebrows arched upward when Shula, who had never been a head coach at any level, received the job over Sylvester Croom. There were many similarities between the two, but Croom had the superior résumé. Both, for example, were NFL assistants, but Croom, the running back coach for the Green Bay Packers, had coached much longer. Both played at Alabama, but Croom, a Tuscaloosa native, was an All-American on a national championship team under Bryant.

But there was also the one big difference. Croom is black.

There has never been a black head football coach at the University of Alabama—or in the entire Southeastern Conference.

Let me say right now I have no idea which candidate would have made the better head coach. Given the candidates’ on-paper qualifications, however, and the history of universities that decline to entrust their states’ most visible offices with an occupant of color, Tide fans should not be surprised that the national media sees the hiring choice as based on race and not merit.

From the outside looking in, that’s not an unreasonable interpretation, even if it’s inaccurate. A coach’s most valuable attributes are the intangible ones—leadership, personality, ability to motivate—that don’t show on a résumé. Still, it’s worth considering that, were Croom white and Shula black, a lot of white folks in Alabama would be railing that Croom had been aced out of the job by affirmative action.

Were I an SEC athletic director, I hope I’d have ciphered out that hiring a well-qualified black head coach—and spare me the letters protesting there aren’t enough to go around—might serve my school’s self-interest. You’d think at least one SEC athletic director might have reasoned that having a coach who has more in common with the majority of his players than just a passion for football might provide a slight recruiting edge in a league where even the teensiest edge looms huge.

We are making progress, though. Black candidates now receive serious consideration for head coaching positions in the SEC. So guys like Croom should be patient. In another 50 years, their grandsons may have a chance.

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