George, Sanders hirings good step for HBCU football

Eddie George

Now that things have settled a bit at both Tennessee State and Jackson State Universities, a revisit to their high-profile hirings of Eddie George and Deion Sanders as head coaches seems in order. TSU has spent the last week enjoying headline coverage in newspapers, on websites and TV in a manner it hasn’t seen in years, not even when it made the FCS playoffs in 2013. The initial George hiring, plus news that former Titans head coach Jeff Fisher would be serving in some advisory capacity and former Browns head coach Hue Jackson would be hired as offensive co-ordinator kept the Tigers in the sports news/talk cycle for days at a time when HBCU teams usually only get mentioned if they’re holding pro days for NFL scouts to view prospective draft picks.

Sanders’ debut season at Jackson State winds down its spring season Saturday against Prairie View. After a 52-43 loss a couple of weeks ago to Alabama A&M, the Tigers hope to complete their first winning year since 2013 in the upcoming contest. But while they are 3-3 for the spring, Jackson State had both the Alabama A&M and forthcoming Prairie View games scheduled to be sown on ESPN. Not ESPN U or ESPN 2, but the main ESPN network.

That’s despite not exactly having a stellar season and playing in the spring. Jackson State games are once more getting regular coverage in area publications, and Sanders has been the subject of several lengthy articles in major newspapers. The most recent one came last Friday in USA Today, where Sanders repeated some of the themes he’s been emphasizing since taking the job last September. He lamented the gap in facilities and opportunities for HBCUs vs. predominantly white institutions, and said that his ultimate goal is to be competing for championships.

Eddie George said much the same thing during his introductory press conference April 13, though both he and TSU Athletic Director Dr. Mikki Allen are quick to add that it is going to take time for things to reach the point everyone wants, for TSU to be a contender for the OVC title and make a return to the FCS playoffs.

But the bigger question regarding the hiring of George and Sanders, one with long-term implications, will be whether they can convince blue-chip Black high school athletes, both in-state and across the country, to consider attending their schools vs. going to the SEC or other Power 5 conferences. Every TSU game this past season was on ESPN +, a streaming service that does reach millions of homes, but isn’t anything close to being on a broadcast network or even a major cable one.

ESPNU does carry its fair share of HBCU games, but what the SWAC and OVC are hoping is that the presence of Sanders and George will make their conferences more a factor in national coverage and publicity. TSU and Jackson State games this fall will now be on the watchlists for all the major sports outlets, and the hope is these two individuals won’t be the last big name Black former star athletes to join the staffs of HBCUs.

The tradition at TSU is an impressive one in both football and basketball, but the Tigers haven’t made the FCS playoffs since 2013. Jackson State has had a long run of losing seasons. Both teams are clearly hoping better days are ahead, and their fan bases not only look forward to seeing better football, but to the first scheduled meeting between the Tigers and Jackson State on September 11. That’s the 32nd annual Southern Heritage Classic in Memphis, which COVID negated last season.

My guess is this year, assuming there’s no similar COVID cancellation, it will get a lot more attention and coverage than in the past.