Deion Sanders is a college football head coach.
It’s an obvious declaration, but one that will likely get lost in the maelstrom of Sanders leaving Jackson State University, an HBCU, for Colorado University, a PWI. Let’s be clear, Sanders was always going to leave JSU. When Florida State decided to part ways with Willie Taggert in 2019, Deion Sanders was reportedly interested in the job. There were two problems though, Deion had never coached at the college level and he didn’t have his undergraduate degree. Enter Talladega College, an HBCU where Deion completed their FASTtrack degree program. Roughly a month later, Jackson State hired him to be their Head Coach. Now, Sanders (and presumably a large cadre of coaches and players—including Sanders’ QB son Sheduer and former top recruit Travis Hunter) is headed to Boulder, CO and the Pac-12.
Sanders went 27-5 as a head coach and brought JSU two straight SWAC titles. Sanders did what many in college football coaching do, he left for what he considered a better job.
He’s a college football coach.
There are layers to the vitriol that met the Deion job changing news. One is the feeling of abandonment for greener ($$$$) pastures. It’s a familiar feeling, like when Hampton and NC A&T left the MEAC for other, non-HBCU sports conferences. It always hurts a bit more because HBCUs were painstakingly created to foster an environment for an entire people that were deemed unworthy by those in power. So when a team, or in this case a high-profile coach, decide to leave, it feels more personal than when USC leaves the Pac-12 or Jimbo Fisher quitting the Florida State gig to become Texas A&M’s new football coach.
HBCU graduates sometimes feel like they need to validate their degrees because they are looked down upon by others. It’s the reason that HBCU alum root so hard for all HBCU grads. The sheer joy of Vice President Kamala Harris ascending to her post was not just because she was the first Black woman to hold that office, but because she was a graduate of Howard University. It served as undeniable proof of what all HBCU graduates know, the education received at HBCUs is on par with anyone else’s. To say nothing of the nurturing that it gives its students. Having a coach have success at an HBCU and leave it for a PWI taps into that “not good enough” feeling.
Some of the players he recruited will be coming with him. As he recruited them, he publicly emphasized the importance of sending Black kids to HBCUs. He is now bringing them to Colorado. Which feels hypocritical.
College football coaches take players and staff with them all the time. It’s football.
Sanders was refreshingly open about being courted by Power 5 schools. And even though Deion Sanders has been rich and famous for the past three decades, money is still an important factor in this discussion. And it's not just Sanders’ money that will be changing, according to a report from Brian Howell Colorado Buffaloes beat writer for Buffzone, there will be a $5 million pool for Sanders’ coaching staff. For comparison, Jackson State’s football budget was $2.1 million last season. PWIs (and Power 5 conferences specifically) have much larger endowments than HBCUs. To say nothing of the government’s underfunding of HBCUs. According to Forbes, HBCUs have been underfunded by nearly $13 billion. So CU being able to buy the talents from JSU—the institution that gave Sanders his coaching start--twists the knife in a wound that is already deep and painful.
Sanders can’t be expected to make up for systemic racism. He’s a football coach.
For his part, Sanders donated half his salary while at JSU. He brought his son, who could have gone to Power 5 schools, with him to play for Jackson St. When Jackson, Mississippi was going through a water crisis, Sanders took the team to help distribute bottled water to the community. Because of the prominence of Sanders and the success of the program, the school enjoyed a marketing boon, including getting the ESPN show College Gameday to Jackson. The idea that Sanders simply used JSU and gave them nothing back is simply untrue. During his time there, he was all in. Then he got another opportunity. And he left for another program. Because he’s a college football coach.
Ultimately what fuels the ire of many in this discussion of Sanders leaving is the thinking he must be all things to all people. For some, it was bigger than football. It’s an understandable conclusion given that before desegregation, HBCU athletics was a thriving entity. When PWIs began to accept Black players, the best athletes flocked and left the institutions that were previously their only option. And while there has been a bit of a change more recently with top Black athletes choosing HBCUs, it’s still largely an aberration. But that can’t all fall on Sanders. And had he not succeeded, he would have been fired...because it is about football, and he is a coach. It’s too much to expect of someone who did a great job while employed at an HBCU to cure all the ills that befall our institutions. Because although Sanders has a larger than life persona, he’s only a man. A man that coaches college football.
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