Black college presidents have to stop paying lip service and make football programs a priority
ATLANTA — Friday afternoon, Deion Sanders will face the media for the next-to-last time as head football coach at Jackson State University. Undefeated Jackson State will take on North Carolina Central in the Cricket Celebration Bowl for a chance to be crowned Black national champion and to complete the program’s first undefeated season.
After that, the man known as Coach Prime will begin the next chapter of his fascinating career as head football coach at the University of Colorado.
For those of us who attended historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Sanders two-year tenure at Jackson State presented a number of paradoxes: Was he a savior or a hustler? A truth teller or a charlatan? A vision of the future or a mirage?
The truth is that Sanders is a little bit of each — savior, hustler, truth teller, charlatan, visionary and mirage. In the end, he is an ambitious coach ever on the lookout for the next opportunity, the talented recruit who will help him climb Jacob’s ladder.
Sanders has been criticized for taking the Colorado job. Not by me. This was the best job out there at the time and Sanders’ assistants will be well compensated.
“It may not be a great job in the eyes of a lot of people, but at the end of the day, it’s a job, right?” said former Morgan State University head coach Tyrone Wheatley. “And it’s an opportunity that most of us don’t get.
“Where else could Deion go? How many more Celebration Bowls can he go to?”
Wheatley is currently the running backs coach for the Denver Broncos. Coaches move. We all move, from one job to another, one corporation to another.
“There’s no difference from the HBCUs or the other group of 5s. There’s no difference,” Wheatley said. “A coach is going to go to Youngstown State to do what? To get a bigger and better job. So HBCUs are not any different from any other conference. I think it becomes different because it is an HBCUs and when Black coaches take those jobs, they expect us to say, ‘OK, you got to be loyal. You’ve got to stay here. You’ve got to give back to your people.’ ”
No one realistically expected Sanders to be an HBCU lifer — I certainly didn’t. His tenure at Jackson was mutually-agreed-upon exploitation. Jackson State presented Sanders with an opportunity to be a Division I head coach in a competitive conference where he could prove that he could turn a program around.
In exchange for the opportunity, Jackson State would be the beneficiary of Sanders’ media magnetism, energy and vast connections.
“I’m happy for him,” said John Grant, the executive director of the Celebration Bowl. “What has happened for him is no different than what happens in other circles with a coach’s ascension. People do a great job, they get bigger jobs; they don’t do a good job, they get fired. We’re not accustomed to this in the HBCU space where an HBCU head coach moves up to FBS Division [I] as a head coach.”
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In 1979, Willie Jeffries left South Carolina State for Wichita State to become the first African American hired as head coach for an NCAA Division I-A football program.
As Sanders prepares to write his next chapter, the larger question is what will be the next chapter for Black college football, an institution that goes back to 1892 when Biddle College played Livingstone College.
After Sanders announced that he was leaving Jackson State, I reached out to Morgan State University president David Wilson and Wheatley.
Like so many HBCUs that had prominent football programs in the 1960s, Morgan State, like Jackson State, has attempted to revive its past football glory in a challenging contemporary environment in which top high school athletes choose predominantly white colleges. Sanders and Wheatley exemplify the very dilemma they faced as HBCU coaches.
Sanders went to Florida State after high school. A native of Detroit, Wheatley was a high school star who became a star running back at the University of Michigan. He spent 10 seasons in the NFL and held a number of assistant coaching positions in college and in the NFL. Like Jackson State with Sanders, Morgan gave Wheatley his first opportunity to be a Division I head coach. He stayed for three seasons (the second season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic). His two-year record was 5-18.
I asked Wheatley what he thought about the future of HBCUs.
“It’s the presidents,’’ he said. “The future of HBCUs is really in the presidents’ hands.”
I hadn’t expected that answer, but Wheatley is exactly right. The next chapter of HBCU football will be written and driven by HBCU presidents. As a group, these presidents and their leadership teams often seem conflicted about the value of their football programs and the impact successful competitive sports programs have on other initiatives within the university.
At so-called Power 5 institutions, football and basketball programs are the front porch of member universities. Not everyone in the academy likes this, but it’s accepted. Typically, at these schools, the three highest-paid employees on campus are the football coach, the basketball coach and the athletic director. They receive the lion’s share of media attention and higher salaries than even the president. The president holds the power but remains in the background. The HBCU president is often regarded more like a preacher and everyone else on campus is part of the congregation. In this environment, the high-profile football coach can pose a threat.
Wilson has had his feet in both HBCU and PWI (predominantly white institution) worlds. He attended Tuskegee University as an undergrad and earned his master’s degree from Tuskegee as well. Wilson earned his doctorate from Harvard and worked in various academic capacities at the University of Wisconsin, Auburn and Rutgers, each of which poured resources into athletics, especially football.
Wilson was reluctant to speak specifically about the Jackson State situation, but he made it clear that his model of success was the coach who was in it for the long haul.
“Too much focus is on individuals who come for a quick dance and not those who understand that it’s about much more than that, it’s about your passion,” he said. “It’s about building something that will endure. And then it’s about the role that you play in shaping the lives of the young men that you coach over time to enable them to become solid, contributing men to the larger society.”
He invoked the names of coaches such as Eddie Robinson (Grambling), Jake Gaither (Florida A&M), Earl Banks (Morgan) and Big John Merritt (Tennessee State).
“That’s really what sets those individuals apart,” Wilson said of how those coaches shaped lives. “And I don’t see anyone in the current era who can come close to what they did to advance HBCUs. How do we build a competitive program with individuals who understand the tradition of the institution, respect that tradition, and can hold it high and can revive it?”
“I don’t see anyone in the current era who can come close to what they [Eddie Robinson, Jake Gaither, Earl Banks, Big John Merritt] did to advance HBCUs. How do we build a competitive program with individuals who understand the tradition of the institution, respect that tradition, and can hold it high and can revive it?”
I pointed out that those coaches were HBCU lifers largely because they had to be, because the opportunities like the one presented to Sanders at Colorado were not open to Black coaches of that era. The difference between then and now is that when segregation ended, PWIs did not hire the legendary Black coaches. Instead, they swooped in and drained the Black talent pool from which those coaches recruited.
Wilson’s larger point is that Sanders’ departure is not a cause for hand-wringing but presents an opportunity to do what HBCUs historically have done: Provide opportunity for growth and development, and identify the next promising head coach.
“You understand that top talent might not be with you for the long haul, and it is OK to give up the good talent that you have helped to mature,” he said. “We all go through that and we lose some of our top people. And once we do that, just get out there again and go for the next top person you can find and bring him or her in and turn the reins over to them.”
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Jackson State announced Thursday that Tigers assistant T.C. Taylor will be its new head coach. Last year, Morgan hired former Bowie State head coach Damon Wilson to replace Wheatley.
But Wheatley raises an important point about Black college presidents making athletics a priority. The opportunities for aspiring Black college coaches, while not great, are better than they once were, and HBCUs can be attractive landing spots if the presidents make the jobs appealing. This means providing resources to facilities and support personnel. At a time when Black college football is receiving more visibility, HBCU presidents must exercise the wisdom and will to capitalize on the moment.
If you’ve listened closely to Sanders’ comments over the last two seasons, he often spoke about having to constantly fight at Jackson State. Presumably, the fights were against the administration for support. He poured much of his own money into completing facilities and securing equipment.
Wilson pointed out that wearing multiple hats comes with the territory of being an HBCU coach.
“I think it is a challenge for HBCUs to recruit coaches who are used to being in places with an abundance of resources and they come to an HBCU and they have to basically use what is available to them, which is far less, and then at the same time be competitive within the space in which they operate,” Wilson said.
On the other hand, wearing too many hats can accelerate burnout. Over the years, I have heard stories from HBCU coaches about the lack of support for athletics in admissions, financial aid, housing infrastructure and routine practice field maintenance. These issues affect recruiting and retention.
Wheatley repeated his contention that the next chapter of HBCU football will be written by HBCU presidents.
“The future of HBCUs lies in the hands of the presidents of those universities,” Wheatley said. “If they want HBCU athletics to survive, they have to get off their butts, stop being so pompous and righteous, eat some crow and admit they don’t know what the hell they’re doing when it comes to athletics. If HBCUs want to grow and want to survive, and they want to flourish, you got to come out of the Stone Ages.”
HBCU presidents and their leadership teams have to give more than lip service to making football programs a priority. According to Grant, ESPN televised 32 HBCU games in 2015.
“This year more than 150 HBCU football games were televised on ESPN networks,” he said. “The landscape of college athletics, from an HBCU perspective, has changed. We’re getting more exposure than we ever had in history. Is the administration ready and prepared for the change and what this change can do for their institutions?”
For HBCUs to seize this moment, there must be a comprehensive plan beyond hiring a charismatic head coach and thinking the coach is going to win. From Jackson State to Morgan to Prairie View A&M, how will the president, the athletic director, the senior leaders at HBCUs support the coaches in all areas of the institutions?
For all of his success at Jackson State, Sanders didn’t provide the answer to this HBCU football conundrum. He merely provided a clue.
William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.
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