It stings that Deion Sanders has left Jackson State University for the University of Colorado. Sanders brought a great deal of positive attention to the program and the rich history of JSU football, the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Yet, surveying the list of 68 head coaches at Power 5 conference programs reveals a homogenous group and a depressingly familiar reality of the football head coaching ranks. For as bad as the NFL's hiring record of Black men is, it's worse among FBS schools and P5 programs in particular. So seeing Sanders hired by a Pac-12 school is a good thing.
In the current hiring cycle, seven P5 programs had openings at head coach — Auburn, Colorado, Stanford, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin, Arizona State and Nebraska. Six have been filled entering Sunday afternoon, with Stanford still open. Of those hires, only Sanders is not a white man. Among the hires was Auburn shamefully getting Hugh Freeze, the top model for having the complexion for the protection. He got hired by a second SEC school despite a list of transgressions that includes highly questionable conduct toward minors, privately messaging a woman who accused his players at Liberty of sexual assault, and lying to recruits and their families while trying to pin much of his wrongdoing on a predecessor. (But hey, he might win a few games, so who cares, right?)
Overall this year, 17 of the 131 FBS schools had or have head coaching openings, and of the 10 that have been filled, Sanders is the only non-white man hired. If we go back a year before this current hiring cycle, of the 29 FBS schools that brought in new head coaches, just six tapped Black men and other men of color.
It's rare that coaches at HBCUs get consideration from P5 schools, let alone hired. And Sanders is getting a massive pay bump. If his approach at Jackson State translates to Colorado and he has success, it will be a great thing for him and maybe have a trickle-down effect.
"I think Deion's a great example of somebody who should and deserves a chance because he's a football guy," Mike Locksley, head coach at Maryland and founder of the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches told Yahoo Sports. "He's one of the best to do it in terms to playing and then now, the acumen he's shown in coaching, it shows what he's capable of.
"There's a lot of Deions out there. I think Deion's shining the light of what can happen at places like HBCUs, and it only opens up more opportunities for us to dive into the HBCUs where we've had a ton of great coaches. ... I think what Deion has done and the light he has shone on HBCUs, he has also shone a bigger light that there are capable coaches that are on that level, that have the tools necessary to do it, whether it's on that level or at a PWI institution."
What could Deion Sanders have done with more years at Jackson State?
Locksley's Coalition launched an academy in 2021 to help minority coaches get the off-field experience and connections necessary for head coaching jobs. Participants Tony Elliott and Marcus Freeman have since gotten high-profile gigs, Elliott at Virginia and Freeman at Notre Dame.
There's a nagging feeling that Sanders left too soon or maybe shouldn't have left at all. Yes, yes, for you or me, a chance to change jobs and earn significantly more money is almost impossible to pass up. I get that.
HBCUs have a mission that is vastly different than every other college and university. Their function isn't solely to educate future professionals; they offer a community and a support system for Black students they don't get at other schools, commonly called predominantly white institutions or PWIs. They're seen and nurtured, and many of the things that have to be explained — or endured — at a PWI just don't at an HBCU.
In the days of segregation, many HBCU athletics programs were powerhouses. The Tennessee State Tigerbelles' track and field team gave us 23 Olympics medals, including the iconic Wilma Rudolph; 10 percent of the players inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame played at an HBCU; 10 members of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame call an HBCU their alma mater.
Once the staunch segregationists at schools realized they'd have to let Black athletes onto their teams and campuses if they were going to keep enjoying sporting success, the combination of a sharp and steady decline in funding for public colleges plus the wide pool of deep-pocketed boosters PWIs can count on for facilities improvements and other enticements have imperiled HBCUs — athletically and academically.
Sanders' arrival in Jackson, and his repeated declarations that coaching the Tigers was a "calling," was a major shot in the arm for the school and a city that has seemingly been abandoned, even by the state officials who call the capitol their workplace.
As recently as October, Sanders was on "60 Minutes" saying that he accepted the offer to coach Jackson State three months after the murder of George Floyd because "a lot of folks sit back with Twitter fingers and talk about what they're going to do; I wanted to do it."
Do what? "Change lives, change the perspective of HBCU football. Make everyone step to the plate and do right by these kids," he said.
He certainly may have impacted lives. And in two years he got the Tigers back to the top of the SWAC and left JSU's facilities better than he found them. But what could he have done with three more years? Eight? Ten?
The traveling circus that is ESPN's "College Gameday" was in Jackson this season, showcasing the beauty and pomp that is HBCU life for a huge national audience. It happened because of Sanders' allure, though it should have happened years ago, if not at JSU then before another big HBCU showdown.
"It's a tough deal, man," Locksley said. "You know, he's been able to take advantage of that [job] and add to it. He's given us more firepower that it's not just assistants at the Power 5 level that could be [head coaching] candidates, but head coaches at that level."
Grambling State legend Eddie Robinson understood the mission. He had opportunities to be a head coach elsewhere. He didn't take them. It likely cost his family a great deal of financial security, but he understood that he wasn't coaching just football players, he was coaching young Black men for life in a country where they have deep ancestral roots but are still treated as unwelcome visitors in policy and practice.
Sanders said he knew the assignment, but it feels like he handed in his work too early and unfinished.