ATLANTA — Saturday’s Celebration Bowl marked the end of Deion Sanders’ time as head football coach at Jackson State University.
In his three years there, Sanders earned a 27-6 record, won back-to-back SWAC championships and coached his team to two consecutive Celebration Bowl appearances.
His decision to leave after this season and head to the University of Colorado was a shock, with some erstwhile fans now calling him a sellout.
Don’t count me among his critics.
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In fact, I believe Sanders’ departure from Jackson State was necessary — both for him and for HBCUs as a whole.
It’s rare for a man of Sanders’ status – NFL Hall of Famer with a personality and swagger to match – to even consider coaching a HBCU team. He could have easily gone elsewhere to start his coaching career.
“I could be an assistant in any college, or a head coach in any college, but at such a time as this, God called me to Jackson State and me to these men,” Sanders said in 2020 when it was announced he’d be the new Jackson State head coach.
Since that day, he has became the undisputed ambassador for Jackson State and HBCU football, establishing a platform never seen before.
Sanders was profiled on “60 Minutes” and “Good Morning America.” Jackson State even hosted ESPN’s “College GameDay,” a show often reserved to spotlight one of week’s biggest games.
He provided a platform for his players to get exposure and compensation through endorsement deals, and Jackson State and other HBCU games were showcased more often on TV because of Sanders.
Sanders and the Jackson State football team will star in “Coach Prime,” a four-episode docuseries set for release on Amazon Prime on Dec.29.
He publicly called out NFL teams for not showing up to Jackson State’s Pro Day.
Jackson State’s signing of Travis Hunter, the top high school football recruit in 2022, showed the world that HBCUs can compete when given an opportunity and resources.
Sanders was underpaid, earning $300,000 a season, and he gave up half of his salary to fund new facilities and resources for Jackson State’s football program.
A football coach at any level is not required, nor should be required, to donate money to help the team. Sanders did.
Let’s not forget Sanders’ other reason for going to Jackson State: He saw the job as an opportunity to not only make a difference, but improve his chances of being elevated in the head coaching ranks.
Prime, like any other coach, was there to win and eventually be promoted elsewhere. He did that, so what else was left for him to prove?
“In coaching, you get elevated or you get terminated,” Sanders told his team when he announced he was leaving for Colorado, where he’ll earn $29.5 million over five years, according to Yahoo Sports.
“How can you expect him not to leave for that much money?” one Jackson State supporter told QCity Metro. “For that much money, most Black people would have left, too.”
White coaches aren’t asked to decline advancement out of loyalty. Why should a Black man be asked to do so?
HBCUs have a spoiled history of long-tenured head coaches. Two of the longest-serving coaches are Eddie Robinson, Grambling State University’s head football coach from 1941 to 1997, and Jake Gaither, who led Florida A&M University’s program from 1945 to 1969, according to the Black College Football Hall of Fame.
Times are different now. HBCU programs and coaches don’t have the same patience to maintain long-term relationships, especially when money is factored into the equation.
Some Black fans apparently viewed Sanders as some kind of savior for HBCU culture, there to fix the many problems plaguing these institutions. But in actuality, he was just a football coach — albeit one with a lot of recognition from his years in the NFL.
The issues that HBCUs face — funding, resources and exposure — go far beyond the football field. The success of HBCU culture as a whole should not be placed on one man.
Sanders did his part. Now, it’s time for both sides to use these past few years as a stepping stone for future success.
“Nobody was talking about HBCUs,” Shannon Sharpe, the NFL Hall of Famer and HBCU alumnus, said on his Fox show “Undisputed.”
HBCUs are now on television, “and that’s because of him,” Sharpe said of Sanders. “He gave you the blueprint, now follow the blueprint.”
We have to be honest and understand that HBCUs may never enjoy the notoriety that PWIs seem to take for granted. But the blueprint Sanders left us — to upkeep and spotlight those institution — is a responsibility that falls on HBCU students, graduates and supporters alike.
Sanders shone a spotlight on HBCU culture, and he used his own funds to upkeep the Jackson State program. Now it’s our job to represent and give back to those institutions even more than he did.
QCity Metro spoke with Jackson State supporters at the Celebration Bowl, where they talked about Sanders’ impact to the school and his departure.
Before Sanders arrived, people preferred to tailgate outside the school’s football stadium instead of buying tickets to watch the game, said Dallas Hardy, a 2010 graduate of Jackson State. In his last three season, he said, seats have filled up.
Though disappointed to see him leave, Hardy understands Sanders’ decision.
“People grow and go,” he said, “It’s his time.”
Ty Politte, a Lubbock, Texas, native, was spotted outside the stadium wearing a Well Off Luxury “Jackson Great” hoodie, a design created by Deion Sanders Jr.
Politte had never heard of HBCUs until Sanders announced he was going to Jackson State. He supported the school even more now that his brother, Jacob, is on the team.
“I represent [JCSU] every day with their products,” he said.
His father Sylas said it’s “selfish” for people to be mad at Sanders for leaving.
“You can’t fault him for what he’s doing, especially for what’s best for his family,” he said.
Politte said he’s excited to see what’s next for the program.
“Hopefully they can keep running that torch, and I think Coach (T.C.) Taylor will do a good job at that,” he said, referencing Sanders’ replacement.
Aisha McGee and Karen Alston, 2000 Jackson State graduates, said it’s “bittersweet” that Sanders is leaving the school.
“We were glad to see him come and hate to see him go, but you got to do what you got to do,” McGee said.
They all agreed that Sanders changed the culture at Jackson State and brought excitement to HBCU culture.
Alston said she hopes other former NFL players and coaches will now see HBCUs as a career option. “Not for personal gain,” she said, “but for the actual culture and impacting lives of young Black men.”