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It's only been six years since Mississippi State played for an SEC Championship. How have the Dogs fallen so far, so fast?
By Ian R. Rapoport
STARKVILLE — The murmurs started after the second week of the season.
Mississippi State had lost another lopsided football game, this time 43-14 at home to Auburn.
It marked the 14th time in three-plus seasons that MSU had dropped an SEC game by at least three touchdowns.
It was yet another sobering afternoon for Bulldog fans, who in 1998 cheered their team to the SEC Western Division title, in 1999 watched State win 10 games, and who in 2000 witnessed an 8-4 season that included a 17-10 win over that same Auburn program.
Since then, however, the Bulldogs have won just nine games and lost 32, raising this question: How did the MSU program fall so far so fast?
After that September loss to Auburn, first-year coach Sylvester Croom sat in the interview room and gave some possible answers.
He discussed talent, mostly how his Bulldogs didn't have enough of it. He talked of how recruits coming in could play immediately.
He said, "Our talent level needs to improve. I don't know if we had given our best, would we have won."
To some, the comments were puzzling. Talent? State always had that.
Weren't the last four recruiting classes all ranked in the top 25 in the country?
Doesn't the team have four players who were named to the prestigious Parade high school All-American team? Of all the problems with the 1-5 team, talent is not one of them, right?
Yes, there are talented players on the roster. For the most part though, part of the downfall of the MSU football program can be traced to players who are no longer on campus.
Of the 51 players signed by former coach Jackie Sherrill in 2000 and 2001, only 15 are still on the team.
"There's a couple of us still around here," said fifth-year senior safety Slovakia "Pee Wee" Griffith. "But you got to work with what you got."
When MSU athletic director Larry Templeton speaks to alumni groups, he makes sure to point out the lack of upperclassmen.
Glance around the SEC and compare the numbers. The media relations departments of each of the other 11 schools in the conference were contacted in an effort to assertain how many fourth- and fifth-year players are on the roster. Six responded, and none had fewer than Mississippi State.
Ole Miss has 32 such players, Kentucky has 31, Vanderbilt has 26, Arkansas has 24, Auburn has 23, South Carolina has 22 and LSU has 18.
"There is no doubt under Mississippi State's former coaches, they were recruiting talent ... on paper," said Jeremy Crabtree, national recruiting editor for Rivals.com. "But most of them didn't make it to campus or didn't pan out."
Where did they go?
Of the past five signing classes, those in 2000 and 2001 stand out. Originally, each class was lauded.
The 2000 class was the first for MSU after it went 8-0 to start 1999 and was ranked No. 8 in the polls. The 2001 class included 12 players from junior colleges and was rated 10th nationally by noted recruiting guru Max Emfinger.
Of the 2000 class, five players never enrolled because they could not qualify academically, another nine left before 2004, and only two concluded four-year careers with at least one start. Some were highly recruited. Some were not.
"Nobody knows how a kid is going to react until he shows up," said Glenn Davis, a former MSU assistant coach who is now the head coach at Co-Lin Community College. "All we can do is project guys who will be good citizens on and off the field.
"The coach in us wants every kid to be a starter," continued Davis, who was considered one of State's top recruiters. "But some need to be backups. And maybe we signed too many backups."
From the 2000 signing class, only Griffith, fullback Darnell Jones, guard Will Rogers, receiver McKinley Scott, and tackle David Stewart have started this year and each are fifth-year seniors. Running back Fred Reid and punter Jared Cook each play. Receiver Ray Ray Bivines is injured.
Competing with a fraction of the upper classmen available has contributed to this tough stretch.
"There have been more seniors on other teams in the past," Griffith said. "More leaders. Back then, there was more experience."
The 2001 class is a different story. MSU signed 12 junior college players. Of the 24 signed overall, only seven are left.
A top junior college player — Paul Broussard — was shot and killed at a fried chicken restuarant before he arrived on campus. Eight Jucos used up their eligibility and departed. Two left before their final year.
Recruiting junior college players can leave a hole in a roster if they are not replaced.
"With recruiting junior college players, it's a high-risk, high-reward," said Jamie Newberg, national recruiting analyst for Scout.com. "For Coach Sherrill, that was part of his strategy. But you don't have them as long. That was part of the problem."
There is always a thin line to walk.
"Jucos bring instant maturity," said former graduate assistant Wes Slay, who served as recruiting coordinator following the 2001 season and now sells antiques. "But they are in Juco for a reason. And it's not always academic. You gamble. But if it pays off, it pays off big."
Some gambles have paid off, like Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot or Texans safety Eric Brown — each Jucos who starred at State before the NFL.
The answer to the question of why Mississippi State signed so many junior college players that year depends on whom you ask.
Sherrill says that with the lack of depth his team faced, the junior college route was the only answer.
"You always approach junior college players to fit a need," said the former coach, who retired following the 2003 season. "If you've got younger players and some depth to fill your needs, you don't bring in junior college players."
Eleven of the 12 Juco players were on defense, and Davis said each was brought in at the request of former defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn.
Davis feared for the long-term effects.
"(Dunn) had taste for junior college players," Davis said. "I was worried about it. But I was loyal to the staff. I was a good soldier. Even if you don't agree, you have to be loyal because it's your job."
Dunn said he had no choice. The high school talent in Mississippi was so bare that year, he said, junior college players were the best option, especially along the defensive line.
"We had to get the Jucos because we couldn't get the high school seniors," said Dunn, now defensive coordinator at Memphis. "We couldn't find any we thought could play or we'd get beat out by Ole Miss for guys we liked."
Only one junior college player was signed in 2003. Essentially, Sherrill was forced to replace 11 upper classmen with 11 freshmen.
"The Jucos, they leave and you have nobody to fill their shoes," senior defensive tackle Ronald Fields said. "With a lot of them, you have to question why you even signed them. Sometimes, it's good to have younger guys who will be here four or five years."
The 2002 class moved in the opposite direction and now includes 13 players who have started games this season.
If recruiting problems have contributed to this difficult stretch, where does the program go from here?
When Croom was hired in December, he scrambled to sign 23 players, seven of whom have contributed this fall.
"The first recruiting class is always a struggle to put together," Newberg said.
For the current staff, the challenge begins during the next signing period. The first day junior college players can sign letters of intent is Dec. 15; the high school signing period begins Feb. 2.
Croom said he has taken a different philosophy than the previous regime, that he will ignore online and magazine rankings. His 2004 class was ranked 62nd in the country by rivals.com, and he doesn't care, a philosophy that Dunn supports.
"It's a kiss of death the way people brag about the ranking of their recruiting classes," Dunn said. "You just never know."
Croom will look for what he calls "character guys" who are more likely to stick around five years. He will not reach for a player because somebody named him an All-American.
Every coach on the staff has veto power for a recruit and if one doesn't agree, the player will not be offered.
"There are some All-Americans in this state and elsewhere we don't want here, for various reasons," he said. "We're looking for the type of guys that fit our profile and specific needs — from a character and ability standpoint."
Croom points to guard Brian Anderson and nose tackle Andrew Powell, two lightly recruited players whose work ethic have made them starters.
Before the season, Croom dismissed running back Nick Turner and receiver Antonio Hargro from the team. But he's willing to sacrifice losing now for long-term winning.
"Had I not made those decisions, (we) might've won one or two more games," Croom said. "We could take shortcuts. But if you don't build the program right, it's going to crumble at some point."
This may take time. Sherrill, who went 7-5 his first year following Rockey Felker (who went 6-5 his first year), cautions to be patient.
"Judge Sly three or four years down the road," Sherrill said. "Rockey won with somebody else's players. I won with Rockey's players. ... So, yeah, you don't judge a coach by his first year."