The world of college athletics has changed dramatically over the last couple of years. The implementation of NIL (name, image and likeness) rules coupled with the transfer portal has created a situation for many colleges that resembles free agency in pro sports. Players can now be compensated, and can also leave one school, go to another and play immediately rather than sitting out a year. But for many HBCUs, these changes only add to their major dilemma: how do you maintain the traditional special qualities of an HBCU while simultaneously trying to get the same attention, exposure and fiscal opportunities as the Power 5 and mainstream schools.

A big decision now for many HBCUs is conference affiliation. A prime example is the decision of North Carolina A&T to join the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), following in the footsteps of Hampton University. They made that decision last Friday, and plan to make this move as early as July in most sports. 

“The Colonial Athletic Association is consistent with our academic and athletic aspirations,” NC A&T Athletic Director Earl Hilton told The Undefeated website after the meeting. “The Colonial already has four institutions of R1 [Research 1] status, and we’re moving in that direction, in that community of R1 universities.” The R1 designation is the most elite category for research-focused institutions – considered to have “doctoral/very high research activity” and represents fewer than 4% of public and private universities. N.C. A&T, currently classified as an R2 university, is considered to have “higher research activity” and aspires to be an R1 institution. They certainly feel making this move helps that objective.

The other side of this dilemma was epitomized last week by comments made during a press conference by Tennessee State University head coach Eddie George. He had some strong words regarding the school’s longtime (1986) affiliation with the Ohio Valley Conference.

“We’re going into a different time and age,” George said on the 1StarRecruits podcast. “For us now  — obviously — with Tennessee State, we are seeking to go to a conference that has more stability. The OVC —  it’s a dying conference at this point in time. But, we can continue to stay hopeful that (OVC) leadership will pick and continue to add teams. But at some point, we’re going to have to take into account our future and do what’s best for Tennessee State.”

The Tigers were once hailed as visionaries for being one of the only HBCUs in a conference such as the OVC. But now the OVC is losing schools left and right, as five have dropped out, including Murray State. Austin Peay and Belmont, three big rivals and draws for Tennessee State in basketball, and Jacksonville State and Eastern Kentucky, two of the OVC’s better football schools. George is concerned that the schools coming in, Little Rock and Southern Indiana, don’t offer either much prestige or much attraction for TSU football and basketball fans. 

George is also keenly aware that the Tigers, who have a long and proud history in football, basketball and track as an HBCU athletic powerhouse, now isn’t as well regarded among some other institutions. Though no one wants to say this, that is no doubt part of the reason (along with money) that Jackson State is backing out of the Southern Heritage Classic, an event that began in 1990 and has annually brought lots of income to Memphis.

JSU head coach Deion Sanders wants his school to get the same attention and showcases as any Power 5 school, and they arranged to play in Birmingham next season despite having signed a four-year extension with the Classic. After some public ugliness, Jackson State will face TSU in September for the final time. George says he and JSU head coach Deion Sanders have talked about the game between the two historic HBCU programs, and they have reached some level of understanding.

“This arrangement has been in existence before we got here,” George said. “He has a unique vision for where he wants Jackson State to go, and so do I. And I get it. I’m a businessman. And when you look at the impact that he’s had from an attendance standpoint and being a draw, you want to have transparency with where every dollar goes and make sure it’s going to the right people at the right time. So I completely understand what he’s talking about. And for the foreseeable future, it might be the best thing for this thing to take a pause and let it flush out and restructure the deal, and in a very unique way. We can always create opportunities down the line when the infrastructure is right,” George said. “So after this year, I think it stops and we’ll try to reconvene this opportunity in this great tradition, this great match up, later on down the line.”

For many HBCUs, in this new environment, they will have to figure out how to proceed in a way that retains the special qualities that differentiate their schools, yet also enable them to get some of the big money that’s out there for college football and basketball.