By Ro Brown
In case you haven’t noticed, it appears the road to resurrecting a downtrodden football program if you are a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) is through “celebrity.” Two HBCU traditional football powers hired new head coaches without any head coaching experience.
Jackson State and Tennessee State, two storied football programs, have decided to hire “celebrity coaches.” Men who were great football players but lacking the experience or credentials for the job.
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Jackson State hired Deion Sanders as their head coach. Sanders was arguably the greatest cornerback in the history of the game. He was certainly the most colorful. And he was a first ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer. But he has never been a head football coach at any level.
Tennessee State has followed suit with their selection. They announced that 1995 Heisman Trophy winner and 4-time Pro Bowl running back Eddie George is the new head man in Nashville.
Make no mistake, hiring “Coach Prime” (his self-bestowed moniker) at Jackson State has been a windfall for JSU. All 6 games have been televised by ESPN. No other Jackson State football game was previously aired on ESPN’s main channel. And most believe a Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) marketing agreement with Pepsi was fashioned due to the presence of the man who performed at the highest level in baseball and football simultaneously.
Sanders served as the offensive coordinator of his son’s high school football team. George has no coaching experience. Qualifications that one would consider inadequate at two of the “blueblood” programs of HBCU Football.
Since 2014, Jackson State has an overall record of 24-32 and a conference worksheet of 19-27. Not happy times for a program with 3 Black National Championships, 16 Southwestern Athletic Conference crowns, including 8 during the decade of the 1980’s under College Football Hall of Fame coach W. C. Gorden. Pro Football Hall of Famers, Walter Payton, Lem Barney, Jackie Slater and Robert Brazile were JSU Tigers.
Tennessee State went 58-61 under alum Rod Reed over 11 seasons. TSU fans were spoiled by 12 Black National Championships under the direction of College Football Hall of Fame coach John Merritt and Coach Henry Keane. Keane should be in the College Football Hall of Fame, but isn’t. The Tigers have produced loads of pros including Pro Football Hall of Famers Richard Dent and Claude Humphrey.
Hopefully, both legends will restore these programs to their rightful places among college football’s elite. But it raises questions.
Can they coach? We’ll find out. After six games “Coach Prime” is 3-3 having dropped 3-in-a-row. Those who follow recruiting say the best is yet to come. Sanders has the number 1 ranked fall recruiting class in the nation at the Football Championship Series (FCS) level. A recruiting haul containing prized high schoolers (including his 4-star rated son) quarterback and college transfers.
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But every year, all HBCU’s have transfers from FBS or Power 5 and Group of 5 conferences. Another question is, has Deion attracted a higher quality athlete than the other HBCU’s? Or do we think so simply because it’s Deion Sanders doing the selling?
And then there’s the question of opportunities…or lack of…for black coaches. If you are a black coach who has worked and toiled in hopes of someday becoming a head coach, how do you feel that great, ex-players are automatically moved to the front of the hiring line despite little or no experience?
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“We were not looking for a cookie-cutter solution to our goal of putting winning back into our football program. We wanted to think outside the box,” said Glenda Glover, TSU President.
Let’s hope both Coach Prime and Eddie George succeed at Jackson State and Tennessee State. Despite the fact that it could mean bad news for those aspiring coaches who weren’t as supremely athletically gifted as these two new head coaches. More HBCU’s will certainly make similar hires if they are successful.
I’m sure Sanders and George will be able to successfully convince a 5-star recruit or two to their campuses. But if you think HBCU’s will be in constant competition with LSU, Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State for the cream-of-the-crop of young Black talent you are kidding yourself.
Coach Prime and Coach George will face each other on Saturday, September 11, in the annual Southern Heritage Classic at the Liberty Bowl Stadium in Memphis.
But here’s another question.
If Deion Sanders was a high school senior right now, would he choose Florida A&M instead of Florida State? And would Eddie George attend Central State instead of Ohio State?