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With Croom gone, Miss. St. focuses on future

JACKSON, Miss. | Let the speculation begin!

Ideas for Mississippi State's next coach were flying around the Internet, the grocery store and the church pew this weekend. But Bulldogs athletic director Greg Byrne wasn't in on the discussion. Nope, the youngest athletic director in major college football is about to make the most significant — and most watched — hire of his career, but he's putting on the poker face and says he's done talking till he has a new coach.

"I just don't think you should talk till you have something to say," Byrne said.

How long the search might take is guesswork at this point. While a job in the Southeastern Conference looks pretty good on the surface, Byrne's challenge is steep.

Coach Sylvester Croom resigned at a critical time for a program on the verge of breaking through or slipping back into the cellar for the foreseeable future.

Byrne must find a candidate ready to compete in the win-now-or-else SEC West, sell him on a program that has some limitations and one of the conference's smallest budgets, and convince him to take less than half what Alabama coach Nick Saban makes.

And it will be difficult to find a candidate that fits Byrne's wish-list description of what he wants. But he's hired consultant Chuck Neinas to assist and is committed to a monthlong search if necessary.

"We're wide open to finding the right coach for Mississippi State," Byrne said. "We want somebody with high energy, great integrity, good, sound coaching background and ability," Byrne said. "We want someone representing the university and the student athletes in the right manner, and developing them to be the best football player, and more importantly, the best person that they can be."

The faithful are split on which way to go.

Hire a proven head coach who may have washed out at another school? Former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer and former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden come to mind. How about a top-notch coordinator? Say, Florida's offensive coordinator Dan Mullen? The Gators' defensive coordinator Charlie Strong has had interviews in the past few years as well.

Or should Byrne target an up-and-coming head coach from a conference on the fringes of the BCS. Chris Peterson at Boise State, Gary Patterson at TCU and East Carolina's Skip Holtz?

Fred Nichols, president of the Mississippi State's central Mississippi alumni association and a member of the influential Bulldog Club, said offense comes to mind immediately when he thinks about the next coach.

While the defense thrived under Croom, he was never able to put a top-100 offense on the field in five seasons. It was believed Byrne would ask the coach to make changes in his offensive philosophy and coaching staff, and Croom balked.

"I just want to see us put points on the board. If we could've scored 10 points in the Auburn game, we would've won that game," said Nichols, a 1973 Mississippi State graduate.

"I think the West Coast offense is just an offense that is too complicated for the time the NCAA allows the coaches to have to coach the players. It just never worked at State."

Nichols said fans are tempering expectations. Mississippi State might not have the budget and salary to lure an established coach — even one currently without a job.

"I'd be tickled to death if we get somebody like that, but we may just have to take a flier on (an assistant) coach that maybe isn't a known quantity to the public, but maybe in the coaching profession has indicated he's got the necessary skills to perform and have a successful program. I'm willing to take just about any style of coach that could generate some excitement in the fan base."

There was a time when Croom generated that kind of excitement. The coach, who has not returned repeated phone calls from The Associated Press, met briefly with players during a half-hour team meeting Monday.

Players are not being made available to comment directly on the decision, but some said they were stunned by Croom's decision in quotes released through a spokesman.

"You know, I just feel upset," center J.C. Brignone said. "I came to play for coach Croom. They tell you not to choose a place to play because of a coach but coach Croom is an amazing person. When my father died, he was there for me. Losing him is a tough deal but as one of the team leaders, I have to pick myself up and show by example. And we have to get to work."

Added running back Anthony Dixon: "We are going to move on. We are going to do what coach Croom wants us to do. We are going to push to be SEC champs."