Hall of Famer Corner Back, now turned college football coach Deion Sanders announced that he was departing the head coaching position at Jackson State. The announcement was made public moments before it was revealed that he was leaving Jackson State, a Historically Black College, to join the University of Colorado as their next head coach.
On the surface, his decision to leave Jackson State to become the head football coach at the University of Colorado seems like the most logical choice. It would be a vertical leap, and a no-brainer for anyone else in that position given the same opportunity. Colorado has reportedly signed the Hall of Famer to a five-year, $29.5-million-dollar deal. This is by far the most lucrative deal given to any football coach in the school’s history. Not to mention it would be a huge increase from his 4-year, $1.4-million-dollar contract from Jackson State.
In some ways making a vertical move to coaching a school, and competing at the highest level in college football, can be seen as a sign of progress. Black coaches, especially those who have spent their careers coaching at historically Black institutions, rarely get the opportunity for this type of advancement to coach in one of the sports top conferences.
Despite the positive implications this move would suggest, after just three years at Jackson State, Sanders is leaving behind a trail of disappointment and criticism because his departure highlights many of the reasons that HBCUs fail to progress.
Historically Black colleges and Universities have played an integral role in creating Black upward mobility. They offer Black athletes an opportunity to take greater control of their own future and strengthen their communities instead of being exploited and taken for granted by the bigger name college sports programs. Despite lacking the resources available to that of a predominantly white institution, HBCU’s are responsible for more Black Medical school applicants and have graduated 40 percent of all Black Engineers and members of congress, 50 percent of all Black Lawyers, and 80 percent of all Black judges.
Even our vice president Kamala Harris graduated from Howard, an HBCU. But despite all the successful people HBCU’s have put forth, their funding still pales in comparison to other institutions. At the end of the day, the legacy of the historically black college wasn’t enough for Sanders to stay.
In addition to his own salary, Sanders will receive a $5 million war chest to hire his coaching staff. With that additional perc, Sander’s new contract with Colorado is 10 times larger than the Jackson States’ entire $2.1 million football budget. The increase in just about everything he would receive is, on a surface level, justifiable. As I stated early, anyone put in the same position as Sanders would also take this more lucrative opportunity.
For Sanders, who compiled an overall record of 27 – 5 during his time at Jackson State, which includes an undefeated season for the first time in the school’s history, and has emerged himself as one of college football’s most charismatic coaches, he wanted more to work with. However, Sanders isn’t leaving the school without bringing them unprecedented national exposure winning back-to-back Southwestern Athletic Conference Championships, and coach of the year awards, making the Tigers a top destination for some recruits and shining the light on just how athletically gifted HBCU schools can be. However, Sanders never misled anyone about his interest in moving to a bigger and better funded and resourced program.
Upon his arrival at Jackson State, Sanders pulled at all of the emotional strings, stating “God led me to join Jackson State’, or that George Floyd’s murder partially motivated him to take the position and that he was committed to reshaping the narrative that surrounds HBCU’s and that he also wanted to change the lives and “Change the perspective of HBCU football”.
The attention that Sanders would bring to Jackson State and overall HBCU football would significantly increase. During his three-year tenure, the athletic department generated an estimated $185 million in advertising and exposure for Jackson State. National media would swarm to cover their games giving HBCU’s exposure they long have been deserving of. All from perhaps one of, if not the best cornerback to ever lace them up. His presence would truly bring the meaning of “Prime Time” to HBCU’s.
Many felt abandoned after his departure. It doesn’t help that he left for a program that finished 1-11 during its previous season and hasn’t won more than five games in a single season since 2016. Coaching jobs open up more frequently from programs that are in dire need of a turnaround, but Sanders quickly jumped at an opportunity from a school that has finished last place in the Pac-12 conference rather than staying at Jackson State and continuing to build upon a legacy of success that he started, only reinforces the narrative that “validation” is more important than cultivating Black excellence at a Black Institution.
The question of what successful Black individuals owe the Black community is a difficult one to answer. “At some point we as Black people have to admit that Black flight impacts Black institutions & communities just as much as white flight & then gentrification. Truth is, “Being Black is so damn complex in America that having these conversations in public is a challenge in itself” said Gary Chambers Jr, a civil-rights activist.
Black flight has played a role in creating some of the conditions that Sanders would inherit at Jackson State and many other HBCU’s around the nation. HBCUs were once the only higher-education option available for most Black people, and for generations, that’s where all the top Black athletes would attend before desegregation.
Since their inception, HBCUs have been forced to do more with much less, a dynamic Sanders knew he would have to face head-on. During his tenure, Sanders and his team had to endure a massive water crisis in the city of Jackson, and to help combat some of the financial struggles the program and city were facing, he volunteered to donate half of his salary so that much-needed upgrades for the training facility would be completed before the team training camp began. But as a head coach, he shouldn’t have to do that.
The major institutions receive enough funding to where their staff members don’t need to donate their salaries in order to give their teams the “best chances” at success. As admirable as it was for Sanders to donate half of his salary, it highlights the inequality that exists between HBCUs and other institutions.
Even with their limited recourses, no one thought that Sanders would coach there for the rest of his career, but we also didn’t think that he would leave after only three seasons. But his short stint there wasn’t for nothing. Both he and the school had much to gain from his time there. Before Sanders accepted the head coaching position, no major conference school had any genuine interest in making him a head coach. The university took a chance on him, and both benefited tremendously.
Deion Sanders definitely deserves a lot of credit for what he was able to achieve at Jackson State, but this is not the blueprint other HBCUs or head coaches should follow. This is one of the many reasons why his departure is much bigger than people outside of the Black community realize. Fixing the problems that have plagued HBCUs for decades wasn’t Sander’s responsibility to bear. Sports experts suggest that Sander’s coaching efficiency at Jackson isn’t unusual, but that it usually would take more time to achieve the success he had been able to do in the short three years he was there. Certainly, Jackson State earned immense fame and popularity by hiring the Hall of Famer for their coaching position.
And Sanders did accomplish what he originally said he was going to do, but the responsibility with Sanders lies in helping perpetuate the notion that Black individuals oftentimes find themselves leaving their community for the bigger paycheck. Although he was able to win in a big way and turn their program around, his achievements don’t turn around the decades of neglect that HBCUs have endured. His stint taught us a lot, however. It taught us that no matter the conditions, no matter the circumstances, the Black community still stands and fights and supports their own with pride and dignity. A major reason why his departure has hurt so many is that we believed in what he sold. To see the dream of what could be dissipated at the sight of a bigger paycheck is a tough reality pill to swallow.
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