Ed Reed was announced as the next head coach of Bethune-Cookman University’s football team. Reed has been in a support staff role for the past three seasons with the football team of his alma mater, University of Miami, and was an assistant defensive back coach with the Buffalo Bills in 2016. This position, however, will obviously differ greatly given the expanded responsibilities of being the head coach of the football program at BCU.
Reed’s hiring comes on the heels of Deion Sanders’ tenure at Jackson State, a fellow SWAC combatant. Sanders garnered national attention because of his profile and success at the HBCU. That spotlight turned a bit hotter once Sanders left JSU after three seasons to head to Boulder, Colorado and become Colorado University’s head coach. While some lamented Sanders leaving for more snowy pastures, Reed’s hiring shows a recent trend of hiring former professional athletes with paltry coaching experience.
Reed’s hiring has largely been met with joy in the HBCU community. As much as it will be compared to Deion’s tenure, it is the opposite from how Sanders’ ended—a coveted player returning to an HBCU after working in conjunction with a PWI (Miami). Reed is an all-time great player, inducted into the pro football Hall of fame in 2019. He was a legend in college, not a small feat for a team that has launched the careers of several NFL players. He’s also won a Super Bowl. Reed has done everything there is to do on a football field as a player, and now he’s coming to an HBCU to impart his wisdom and sage advice to young men who aspire to join him in the exclusive club of professional football players. Even his role at Miami as a part of the support staff was largely one of a mentor role—especially important given that most of the roster he’ll assemble at BCU will never play in the NFL and will need the guidance that HBCUs are known for imparting on young adults before heading out into a world that sees them as more of a threat than an asset. On the surface, the hire is a (pardon the mixed sports analogy) slam dunk.
In early November, after a disappointing season, the Indianapolis Colts hired Jeff Saturday as their interim coach. Saturday was a six-time Pro Bowler, made four different All-Pro teams, and won a Super Bowl during his 13-year playing career. When he was hired, he had never coached in college or the pros, and his main job was as an NFL analysis on ESPN. His hiring was met with a bit less critical acclaim. Largely the thinking was that someone shouldn’t come from commentator to coach of an NFL franchise without working their way to the position. And that criticism came despite Saturday having been a head coach for three seasons at Hebron Christian Academy. Lots of the criticism focused on the coaches that had been in the building and being stepped over to bring in an outsider who was unfamiliar with the team. Others pointed to the unfairness of coaches that have worked their careers for an opportunity to be a head coach. Race even became an issue because hiring an interim head coach allows teams to bypass the Rooney Rule. But the overarching principle was the same, how can someone without high-level coaching experience come in and run the program without doing the work to prepare for such an undertaking?
Reed’s case has similarities to Saturday’s but is significantly different. He isn’t an interim coach coming in midseason. There aren’t accusations that his hiring was an attempt to shirk diversity protocols. Reed has never been a head coach. But perhaps the largest difference between Saturday’s hire and Reed’s is that Reed will be coaching college football and not in the NFL. The distinction is important because of the differences in personnel acquisition. The NFL is governed by a salary cap, and while players/organizations attempt to cajole others into joining their ranks, money is a limiting factor in terms of who goes where. In college, the only limitation to rosters is scholarship availability. Reed’s pedigree speaks for itself. He’ll walk into the homes of prospective players with a metaphorical (or perhaps actual) Super Bowl ring and gold Hall-of-fame sports jacket and regale the players with his past glory and the certainty that he knows what it takes to achieve those lofty accomplishments. That’s likely what helped Sanders land Travis Hunter after he initially decided to attend Florida State. Even if Reed isn’t a master technical tactician on game days, he could be playing a stacked hand of high-level recruits; something the 2-9 BCU Wildcats haven’t had in quite some time. It’s an idea that is even more tantalizing once one factors in the transfer portal, which allows current college players to leave immediately. Players Reed would get an opportunity to coach right away and turn around a fledgling team. BCU gets a viable program. Reed gets a chance. It’s a win/win proposition.
Unless you’re a coach with ambitions to take a head job, and no big name and NFL pedigree to accompany it.
There are plenty of good coaches in the HBCU universe that don’t have the name recognition of a Sanders or Reed. And simply hiring one, like Tennessee State did with Eddie George, doesn’t lead to immediate success; TSU is 9-13 over his two seasons as head coach. And the idea of working one’s way up from position coach to coordinator, all while moving across the country with family in the hopes of having an opportunity to be a head coach only to have someone with no experience take the job is a heartbreaking one. But one that will become more routine as the splashy, big-name hire becomes more commonplace. It’s ironic that the athletic director (and head coach of their basketball program) of BCU is Reggie Theus. Theus was an accomplished NBA player in his own right. Despite having his pedigree, he started off as an assistant before he ever donned the mantle as head coach. That was usually how the hiring process worked. But things have changed in the years since Theus got into coaching.
One of the largest outcries from Sanders’ critics when he departed came from the feeling that he was using JSU. That he viewed it as a steppingstone instead of a destination. But if granting big name hires becomes more of a trend than a blip, isn’t that the tacit agreement being made? From a university point of view, they get the headlines/publicity that come along with such a hire and a shot at recruiting high-level talent that are enamored with someone who has valuable practical experience. And the coach gets a shorter route to overseeing a program and figuring out if they can be a head coach. It may be unfortunate for some, but life (and particularly sports) is filled with such irregularities that border on unfair. Ultimately well-connected and resourced Black people coming to help HBCUs is likely a positive But it’s important everyone come into the arrangement with open eyes and don’t expect any lifelong commitments from people testing the waters to see if they’re even up for the job.