Even so, head coach Sylvester Croom put principle ahead of points recently, dismissing his team's best offensive lineman because of an incident that landed him on the police blotter.
Left tackle Mike Brown, a 6-3, 300-pound senior from Atlanta, was arrested four months ago on a weapons charge. Eyewitness accounts suggest that a fellow with considerable animosity toward Brown pulled a gun, menacingly loaded a bullet into it and glared at Brown in a convenience store on March 27. When the man's vehicle showed up at a dormitory parking lot hours later, Brown sensed that trouble was about to erupt. Removing a handgun from his vehicle, he fired a shot into the air. The strategy prompted the visitor to drive away but prompted police to arrest Brown for discharging a weapon on campus.
The player apparently was trying to avert a confrontation, not start one. Still, Croom decided to dismiss him from the team. Booting the best blocker off a team desperate for offensive firepower requires fortitude, but Croom has shown that throughout his stint in Starkville.
Inheriting a program four years ago that had been left in disarray by Jackie Sherrill, Croom immediately took steps to restore order and discipline. He dismissed several malcontents and set standards that prompted several more to leave on their own. Left with a patchwork lineup, he went 3-8 overall (2-6 SEC) in 2004, 3-8 (1-7) in 2005 and 3-9 (1-7) in 2006.
Carrying a three-year record of 9-25 overall and 4-20 in league play, Croom appeared to be on the way out last fall, especially when his Bulldogs opened the 2007 season with a 45-0 home loss to LSU.
The Dogs bounced back to bite homestanding Auburn 19-14 two weeks later, however, on their way to an 8-5 record (4-4 SEC) that included a Liberty Bowl defeat of Central Florida.
That taste of success has Mississippi State fans expecting bigger and better things in '08. Meeting those expectations got a bit harder when Croom elected to dismiss Mike Brown but it's an action he believes was needed to send a message to his team.
“The entire situation ... I hope we've learned from that,” the coach said during SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. “Mike Brown is an excellent person.... In the spur of the moment he made a bad decision.”
Croom conceded that he and his University of Alabama teammates did things during their college careers that would be considered “horrifying” by today's standards. But the spotlight wasn't quite as intense in the 1970s as it is today.
“Because of all these tubes (U-Tube) we have on the Internet,” Croom said, “the public has so much access to what goes on so much quicker that a guy in a split second can change the entire course of his life by a decision that he makes.”
Mike Brown is a perfect example, and Croom is making an example of him for the other Bulldogs.
“What we really try to do is educate our players to make the right decision,” Croom said. “They're going to make mistakes. What we try to do at our program is hopefully try to keep them from making a mistake they're going to have to live with the rest of their lives.”
Croom's unflinching dedication to discipline did not begin with Mike Brown and it won't end with Mike Brown. The Bulldog boss has sent a bunch of players packing during his tenure. That strategy probably cost him some victories in Years 1, 2 and 3 but it began paying dividends in Year 4.
“I think Coach Croom was definitely due for (that) year,” quarterback Wesley Carroll said. “Obviously, he wasn't successful on the field (early) but those first three years built up to last year, and that's why we were successful – because of Coach Croom and his whole philosophy.”
Essentially, Croom's philosophy is this: Do it right or do it somewhere else. Perhaps that can carry the 2008 Dogs to another winning season, even without Mike Brown.
Carroll thinks the Bulldogs can surpass last year's 8-5 record if they continue to meet their head man's high standards.
“We feel we are capable of doing that,” he said, “as long as we continue to progress and these leaders on the team continue to lead and continue to get our guys ready to play, hopefully, a 14-game season.”