Deion Sanders’ exit from Jackson State shows why HBCUs keep struggling — Andscape
It makes perfect sense that Deion Sanders high-stepped out of Jackson State over to Colorado. It’s logical. And that’s what makes it so sad.
Colorado announced Saturday night that Sanders, aka Coach Prime, who brought equal parts Bishop T.D. Jakes and rapper Gucci Mane to the football coaching profession, will lead the Buffaloes program. Sanders is leaving historically Black Jackson State University, where in three electric seasons he brought an attention and relevance to HBCU sports that hadn’t been seen since Steve McNair quarterbacked Alcorn State 30 years ago.
Sanders went 27-5 at Jackson State, including 12-0 this season leading up to the Celebration Bowl on Dec. 17. He intercepted five-star recruits aimed at predominantly white schools as spectacularly as he snatched passes as a superstar NFL cornerback. He upgraded Jackson’s State’s facilities and sold out stadiums. He made me want to buy his dope J hat. More importantly, Sanders revived hope that Black colleges could hold onto the spotlight they deserve. He made people believe that Black schools could once again produce some of the greatest players to touch a football.
Now he’s leaving for Colorado, an underperforming team in the downward-spiraling Pac-12 conference. The Buffaloes have only had two winning seasons since 2005. Six of the last seven coaches got fired. I grew up watching Sanders be Prime Time; Colorado football plays on Nowhere Standard Time. Adding insult to injury, only 2.6% of its more than 36,000 students are Black.
Everybody knew Sanders would eventually leave for a bigger stage, and he said as much himself. Nothing wrong with that. We need more Black coaches to compete with the Nick Sabans and Jim Harbaughs. Many anticipated that as soon as Florida State had another 5-7 season, Sanders would be hired to coach at his alma mater. If not them, there were a range of other options, including emerging power Cincinnati. Until then, he could continue to attract dollars and future NFL draft picks to Jackson State, while raising the profile of the rest of the historically Black Southwestern Athletic Conference.
But choosing a doormat like Colorado? Really? That sends a message that running a lousy program at a predominantly white school is a better option than leading the best Black one.
The jilted feeling is amplified because it seems to always turn out this way. Since America’s reluctant integration, Black talent and resources (and in sports, talent is the biggest resource) have been systematically transferred from our institutions to white ones. The result at Black colleges, newspapers, law firms, record labels, you name it, is less Black community self-sufficiency and more of the false perception that Black and Black-led is second-rate. Sanders was so inspirational at JSU because he changed that narrative. But if even a millionaire Hall of Famer won’t stay more than a few years, what chance do HBCUs have of keeping the next superstar? Will Black teams always be a launching pad, but not a destination?
That said, it’s not fair to demand that Sanders be the HBCU savior. He’s a competitor who wants to win at the highest level. No Black coach has ever won a national college football championship; Sanders just might be able to break that barrier. That would be impossible at Jackson State, and not only because it plays in the lower-tier FCS. Like all HBCUs, it’s chronically underfunded and struggles to provide amenities that are standard elsewhere. HBCUs eat Subway while Power 5s dine on steak. You can bet Sanders won’t be mowing his own field at Colorado.
His pay raise is hard to ignore. Sanders will make more than $5 million per year, with incentives that could bump that an extra $2 million. He was paid $300,000 per year at Jackson State. His assistant coaches also will get huge raises in Colorado.
And maybe Sanders can do something surprising amid the transforming college football landscape. He’ll be in the Pac-12, which is wide open as USC and UCLA join the Big Ten. The College Football Playoff is expanding from four to 12 teams in 2024. Maybe Colorado can run the table in the weak west and sneak into national title contention.
So yes, Sanders’ choice is logical. Which makes me heartbroken for a legendary Black college that deserves more than a few years of shine, and then the inevitable slide back into the shadows. Sanders won because top recruits who normally wouldn’t sign with a SWAC team wanted to play for Coach Prime. When he’s gone, those elite recruits will be too. Black America will continue to produce most of the best players, and predominantly white colleges will continue to reel them in.
Some of you are rolling your eyes at me, a Yale graduate, telling Sanders to stay at an HBCU. You’re not wrong. But I chose one of the best colleges in the world. If Sanders had an opportunity to jump to one of the best football teams, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Instead, he left a Black mecca for a football wasteland whose team went 1-11 this season.
After Jackson State beat Southern on Saturday in the SWAC title game, Sanders gathered his players to inform them that the rumors were true. He cast his decision as selfless, saying it wasn’t about money – “I’ve been making money a long time” – but about maintaining Black representation as other coaches are fired. He did not say the word “Colorado.”
“What I don’t want you to do,” Sanders told his team, “is thinking something is better on the other side.” He was referring to the transfer portal, but it’s obvious that Sanders saw Colorado as better than the HBCU where he spoke those words.
There’s an old saying among Black folks – some of us have been conditioned to think that the white man’s ice is colder than ours.
Maybe when it comes to college football, it’s true.