When the dynamic Jackson State coach Deion Sanders convinced No. 1 high school prospect Travis Hunter to withdraw his commitment to Florida State and join Team Prime, the move became the top buzzworthy news of the early-signing day in college football. This was a very big deal. Deion Sanders was, and is, a sports headliner.
Sanders sped past Alabama coach Nick Saban, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Ohio State’s Ryan Day to jump to the top of the Twitter trends, roll up massive online click counts, and use up much of the on-air oxygen at ESPN and other prominent rapid-talk factories.
The hyperventilating was understandable, and justified – but also extreme. Conclusions were reached in record time. But was this a game-changing, history-altering moment? From this day forward, would more of the elite recruits follow Hunter’s highly publicized choice, change their outlook on the available college-football options, and sign on with a historically black college or university?
Would this significant moment lead to a resurgence of HBCU football and give HBCU coaches a better opportunity to go head-to-head against Power Five Conference coaches and land their share of Top 100 prospects? Would HBCU programs become more popular destinations for the increasing number of players entering the transfer portal?
While recognizing and appreciating the magnitude of Coach Prime’s recruiting prize – and the stunning surprise that went with it – I feel compelled to catch my breath and walk my way through this. You are invited to join me.
1) Deion Sanders is absolutely on top of his game as a coach, and he’s had across-the-board success since taking over at Jackson State before the 2020 season.
The Hunter signing was no fluke. The Pro Football Hall of Famer knows what he’s doing, and his power of celebrity is formidably appealing. This is one of the greatest cornerbacks in pro football history, a multiple Super Bowl champion, and a superb modern-world communicator who commands high-profile, major-platform media space.
Sanders has strong connections in the business world – a tremendous advantage in this new era of NIL endorsement opportunities for players. And Sanders wins, having gone 15-4 in two seasons at Jackson State. How many college football coaches have this all-around package of skills? It’s an ideal mix for recruiting.
While Hunter certainly was a top-level recruiting catch, Sanders already was doing incredible things at Jackson State before the star cornerback from a Georgia high school said no to Florida State to make the journey to Jackson, Miss. Sanders has been winning the recruiting battles for coveted players that had multiple Power Five offers.
Last year top junior college cornerback De’Jahn Warren backtracked from a commitment to Georgia to join Jackson State. And for his 2021 recruiting class Sanders signed five 4-star and seven 3-star prospects. Moreover, Sanders has attracted 19 transfers from FBS programs – including a dozen from Power Five teams.
This is amazing: In 2021 Jackson State was ranked No. 55 in the 247 Sports composite recruiting rankings – just behind TCU and Indiana, and ahead of Iowa State, South Carolina, Kansas State, Purdue, Wake Forest, Syracuse, Colorado, Illinois, Washington State, Arizona, BYU, Boise State and Houston, Texas Tech and UCF. That’s damn impressive.
This season Jackson State set an all-time attendance record for the school, averaging over 42,000 fans per home game. On Saturday the Tigers go against South Carolina State in the Celebration Bowl in an unofficial HBCU championship game. championship game for HBCUs. If you plan to watch the game, check out quarterback Shedeur Sanders, the coach’s son, who earned recognition as one of the nation’s top freshmen.
2) The NIL angle – Name, Likeness, Image – received considerable attention in the instant analysis of Hunter’s decision to go with Team Prime. What’s the impact?
Sanders’ fame, charisma and shrewd networking skills gives him a huge edge over most college football coaches in the NIL competition. But here’s the thing: just because Sanders has the pull to motivate corporate entities and other businesses to step up and put large sums of money in place for NIL purposes, it’s a bonanza for his recruiting as the Jackson State coach. But what does that do for other HBCU programs – including Jackson State’s fellow members of the SWAC conference?
That’s why I think the “This Will Change College Football As We Know It” narrative is overstated. At least to some extent.
In general, yes. It’s big. The new NIL freedoms are substantial, and should grow larger, and will have weighty influence in resetting the terms of engagement in the national recruiting wars. And if you doubt that, then you missed the desperate pleading and begging of Mizzou coach Eli Drinkwitz this week as he implored business to get in the game with endorsement opportunities for MU players.
But it’s a more challenging task at the HBCU level. Sanders can be an NIL rainmaker for recruits at Jackson State – but what about other HBCU programs? Sanders already has shown he can beat a Power Five contender for a top recruit. And the NIL factor looms large in his victory. But without the potential of serious NIL deals for players at the other HBCU schools, can those programs actually slug it out with Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M and win the skirmishes for four-star and five-star recruits? So far, at least in this area, Jackson State stands alone. And that’s because of Coach Prime.
3) This leads to an obvious question: How long will Sanders stay at Jackson State?
Sanders, a Florida State alum, wanted the head coaching job at his alma mater, when the Seminoles searched for a coach after the 2019 season. But the FSU administration went with Memphis coach Mike Norvell instead. If that wasn’t a whopper of a mistake at the time, it sure looks like one now. Sanders also had discussions with TCU after coach Gary Patterson’s resignation, but no deal was made.
Given the burst of positive publicity over Sanders’ Hunter signing and exceptional performance at Jackson State, the administrators of Power Five programs will reset their views of Sanders, and he should become a hot candidate for open jobs. If decision-makers and financial boosters didn’t see Sanders as a serious coaching candidate before his rising-star phenomenon at Jackson State – well, they sure as heck will take him more seriously now.
Sanders gets his chance – soon. Maybe as soon as 2022. But Sanders won’t take any old job. He’ll want to go big. If that means waiting while, we’ll see how he plays it. But if Florida State calls as the 2022 season is winding down … it’s gotta be Prime Time, right?
Related note: Sanders’ emergence at Jackson State could inspire FBS and even NFL teams to be bolder and more open-minded in their search for new head coaches. That would be a welcome development and an overdue break from doing something the same old way.
4) Follow-up question: If Sanders leaves Jackson State for a more glamorous job, what does it mean for the pro-HBCU movement?
This gets to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it? As long as Jackson stays in place at Jackson State and builds onto his expanding foundation, he’ll continue to raise awareness for all HBCU programs – and inspire more recruits to restore the prestige of HBCU football. And that’s no small matter.
HBCU football is legendary. I’m just going to give you a list of HBCU football alums; most are Pro Football Hall of Famers: Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Deacon Jones, Buch Buchanan, Mel Blount, Willie Davis, Michael Strahan, Willie Lanier, Doug Williams, Shannon Sharpe, Jackie Slater, John Stallworth, Harold Carmichael, Claude Humphrey, Harry Carson, Elvin Bethea, Robert Brazile, Art Shell, Lem Barney, Bob Hayes, Leroy Kelly, Robert Brazile, Rayfield Wright, Steve McNair, Aeneas Williams, Richard Dent, Larry Little, Emmitt Thomas, Charlie Joiner, Roosevelt Brown, Willie Brown, Ken Houston, Marion Motley, Donnie Shell, Harold Jackson, Tank Younger, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, L.C. Greenwood, Winston Hill, Everson Walls, Otis Taylor.
Depending on the era, many of the names mentioned here signed on with HBCU programs because they lacked other options. Because of segregation or ignorance, these future stars weren’t offered scholarships by major programs – and an HBCU destination was their only realistic choice.
The SEC didn’t integrate until 1972. This season 57 percent of SEC players are Black. (That, from the NCAA’s demographic database.) And during a different time in America, most of the 57 percent would have played for HBCU programs.
A rush of HBCU players found pro-football opportunities when the American Football League (AFL) started up in 1960 to compete with the NFL. This was a golden era of sorts, and HBCU alums were all over AFL-NFL rosters. The Kansas City Chiefs had 13 HBCU players on the roster when KC won Super Bowl IV. In Super Bowl III, the New York Jets and Baltimore Colts had a combined total of 14 HBCU players on their rosters.
Sadly the HBCU presence in the NFL has diminished over the years. We’ll get to that in a bit. But it’s a noble endeavor, wanting HBCU football to return to the limelight and take a more prominent position on the national sporting landscape. Sanders is doing it … but primarily for Jackson State.
There’s only one Deion Sanders – or so we think. Former NFL running back Eddie George – who starred for the Tennessee Titans – became head coach of HBCU program Tennessee State this season and went 5-6. Longtime NFL coach Hue Jackson recently was named head coach of his alma mater, Grambling State.
Can George and Jackson deliver the same impact as Sanders? Will they draw as much attention? Will their personalities – and programs – be enticing enough to contend for high-level recruits? When Doug Williams – the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl – returned to his alma mater (Grambling) to succeed the iconic Eddie Robinson. It didn’t go well.
Sanders has moved the needle. But he can’t elevate all of HBCU football by himself. Other coaches will have to join the effort – and they’ll have to be inspirational and great and have the force of personality to make a lasting difference.
I have no doubt about Sanders’ ability to recruit elite talent and make Jackson State a strong brand with national appeal. In less than two seasons he’s already getting there. But that applies to Jackson State. And if Jackson State is the only program that can win these main-event recruiting battles and turn into a hive for national media coverage, then HBCU football will largely remain underfunded and overlooked.
5) What about the NFL Factor? If playing in the league is a priority for a recruit, HBCU programs face a distinct disadvantage.
Perhaps some recruits want to play for an HBCU team for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the NFL. And even though elite prospects usually are inclined to use the Power Five stage to reach the NFL, it doesn’t apply to one and all. We shouldn’t dismiss the desire of a Black player to commit to a HBCU program.
But compared to the Power Five, the HBCU resources won’t be the same. The facilities won’t be the same. The staffing won’t be the same. What about treatment of injuries? Heck, some Power Five programs all but have their own sports-injury institutes on campus.
Money. Money. Money. SEC programs receive annual TV payouts of $45 million, and that will go way up again during the next round of broadcast contracts. The $45 million doesn’t even include revenue from tickets, concessions, local marketing deals, etc.
The FCS median is about $16 million. And until Sanders arrived to enhance the earning power at Jackson State, the university pulled in an estimated $6 million in sports-related revenue in 2019.
That’s why I say Power Five programs can do a lot more with facilities, staffing, technology, advanced sports medicine and other stuff that I haven’t thought of. Not to mention the built-in massive national exposure on network and cable TV.
Another obvious benefit of playing Power Five football is having the chance to improve and increase your potential NFL value by going against upper-tier talent on a regular basis. HBCU football is played at the FCS level – secondary to the FBS level. And in a pragmatic sense, that matters a lot.
In 2019, NFL teams had a combined total of only 32 players on their rosters, and that dropped to 18 this season.
None of the 259 players chosen in the 2021 NFL Draft came from the HBCU.
Beginning with the 2000 NFL Draft, HBCU teams have been shutout in nine separate drafts – with no players picked by NFL teams.
This is hardly surprising given the extensive number of Black players who play for teams at the FBS level. Especially the Power Five. And the SEC is the most powerful vehicle for taking a player to the NFL.
A great HBCU player can be identified by scouts and make it to the NFL; in 2019 the Houston Texans drafted Alabama State offensive tackle Tytus Howard in the first round at No. 23 overall.
But that’s one player. And before Howard in 2019, the last HBCU player to be chosen in the first round was defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Tennessee State) in 2008.
So that’s two HBCU players taken in the first round in the last 14 NFL Drafts. Now let’s look at how many players from the five power conferences have been chosen in the first round over the past 14 NFL Drafts:
- SEC, 136
- ACC, 70
- Big Ten, 64
- Big 12, 50
- Pac 12, 54
Mizzou and Texas A&M didn’t begin play in the SEC until 2012, but if you add in their first-round selections from 2008 through 2011, the SEC count would increase to 143.
In theory, a coach like Sanders can change the math. That said, if you’re a defensive back with NFL aspirations Deion Sanders is the ideal teacher. If more of the higher-rated prospects play for HBCU teams, then more will develop into NFL talents and take the HBCU path to get there. But how many dudes will take that leap of faith when 418 SEC players have been called by NFL teams – all rounds – in the past 14 NFL Drafts?
6) Let’s wrap this up with some closing thoughts:
Jackson State – and by extension all HBCU football – has been boosted by Deion Sanders. ESPN is showing HBCU games now. And there’s favorable publicity, positive stories, and a sudden burst of curiosity about HBCU football. The Sanders-Hunter moment dramatically raised HBCU awareness – and that moment generated some momentum.
But I can’t help think that the momentum will stall if Coach Prime leaves Jackson State for another coaching opportunity … be it Florida State or another attractive Power Five post. Should that happen, Sanders will take some heat for it after evangelizing so loudly and passionately on behalf of HBCU football. That’s probably unfair. Sanders has the right to pursue other opportunities, and he’s already performed a valuable service for HBCU football. But if he goes, he’ll be hit with the criticism. That’s how the media machine works. As for now, Deion Sanders is great for college football. And he can be even greater still. It depends on what he wants, and where he wants to be. But he’s always gone all-in. And he’ll be making a lot of big-time coaches nervous.
Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend!
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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Data from Sports Reference was the statistical source for this story. And the recruiting info is courtesy of 247Sports.com