Dr. Mikki Allen TSU athletic director

By Ron Wynn

NASHVILLE, TN — Tennessee State University football begins its second year under the leadership of head coach Eddie George with high expectations and some intriguing possibilities to consider. As they faced Jackson State last Saturday night in their final Southern Heritage Classic showdown  (Jackson State will no longer participate in the event after this season), there are interesting questions the Tigers must answer in the years ahead. 

Indeed, HBCU football in general finds itself at a crossroads.  The Power 5 conferences are closing ranks, with both the Big 10 and the SEC expanding, and possible consolidation involving the remaining conferences very much on the table. Unlike the NCAA basketball and baseball tournaments, where HBCU conference winners get berths and at least a chance to compete on the big stage, none of the nation’s 130 HBCUs are Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams. So even as the College Football Playoffs expand in the near future to 12 teams, none of them will be HBUCs.

Next year TSU will open its season on national television as they journey to South Bend for a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. They also get a $1 million guarantee for the game, which is matched during the regular season only by the identical amount that Fed Ex pledges to both them and their opponent in the Southern Heritage Classic. Otherwise, it is also higher than what FCS schools usually receive for playing this type game. By comparison Notre Dame paid Marshall $1.25 million for its trip to South Bend last week, and will pay upcoming opponents UNLV and Northern Illinois $1.35 and $1.4 million respectively for their visits.

TSU got $525,000 for a 2021 game against SEC opponent Mississippi State, which is in line with what HBCU and FCS schools ordinarily get for playing road games against FBS teams

But many of the fans and boosters of Power 5 and major football teams are increasingly frowning on these games. With many conferences now insisting on eight game conference schedules, the remaining three games will increasingly be given over to major intersectional matches between fellow powerhouses. Those games are both good for TV ratings and also for clout in the playoff race for the winners. HBCUs have been able historically to use those games for vital income, and if they disappear it may mean fiscal difficulties for a number of schools.

TSU and Jackson State have both benefited from hiring big-name former NFL stars as head coaches. In the case of Jackson State, the benefits have been two-fold. One, Deion Sanders’ presence has helped them greatly upgrade their recruiting, including landing the highly coveted Travis Hunter away from Florida State and Alabama. 

Jackson State also had its best year in history last season with a SWAC title, an 11-2 record and a Coach of the Year award for Sanders. That they lost the finale in the Celebration Bowl 33-10 to South Carolina State didn’t take away the significance of the improvement they’ve made. They’ve continued that mastery so far this season with a 2-0 record, including a 16-3 defeat of TSU Saturday night in Memphis.

Jackson State and Sanders want to be in, no pun intended, prime time. He’s irritated some in HBCU circles by saying he doesn’t want his team playing in classics. But he’s also suggested that the two biggest HBCU conferences, the SWAC and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), merge into a super conference, creating for HBCUs the identical regular season drama that the Power 5 schools have in competing for a. playoff berth. So far. the MEAC has been publicly hostile to the suggestion, while the SWAC has been non-committal,

By contrast, Tennessee State is eying a move up the ladder to FBS status. This would not be the first time that TSU has tried competing in that arena. The Tigers competed as a Division I-A independent from 1977 to 1979 before ultimately joining I-AA along with the SWAC and eventually the MEAC. For a brief period at the end of the ‘70s,  a number of HBCUS known for their football prowess such as FAMU, Grambling and North Carolina AT&T along with TSU temporarily considered forming a separate league. “It is strictly an exploratory conversation so we can get a feel for where different schools stand,” TSU AD Bill Thomas said at the time. “On the surface, I think a football league like that would do very well in attendance and fan interest.

But ultimately nothing came of it. TSU has been in the OVC since 1988. But the OVC has suffered a host of defections, losing such teams as Jacksonville State, Belmont, Austin Peay, Eastern Kentucky, and Murray State. With only six schools playing scholarship football, the conference lost its automatic bid to the FCS playoffs, though certainly any team with an undefeated record or maybe just one loss could get an at-large berth.

But neither George or TSU athletic director Dr. Mikki Allen seem content with their current OVC status. During a recent interview with the 1StarRecruits podcast, George didn’t mince words in assessing the OVC’s contemporary position within the football universe. “We’re going into a different time and age,” George said during the 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 up and continue to add teams. But at some point, we’re going to have to take in to account our future and do what’s best for Tennessee State.”

Dr. Mikki Allen’s desire to make TSU an FBS school is also reflective of his athletic past. Dr. Allen, who began his tenure at TSU June 1, 2020, was a four-year letterman at the University of Tennessee, and was on the 1996 national championship squad, followed by a brief stint in the NFL.  He earned bachelor and master’s degrees at the University of Tennessee in 2001 and 2007 and a doctorate from Trevecca Nazarene University in 2016. 

Since coming to TSU he has been a staunch advocate of bolstering both academic and athletic facilities while making key staffing changes, signed an agreement with the Nashville Predators in hopes of eventually starting a hockey program at the school, and garnered a seven-figure grant from former Tiger and current NBA star Robert Covington to fund a state-of-the-art basketball facility in the near future. In his eyes, a move to FBS is simply one more step in the overall process of strengthening TSU’s position in the college athletic world.

Dr. Allen reaffirmed the ultimate goal of FBS status for TSU when he gave interviews to both USA Today Tennessee and HBCU sports regarding what he saw as the future of TSU sports, and in particular football. “I have a goal for this program to eventually become an FBS program and to do that we have to make the enhancements in terms of our facility profile and our competition venues,” Allen told USA Today Tennessee. “We’re bolstering resource investments in our coaching staff and then when you look at exposure, conference exposure is paramount. That has a lot to do with recruiting. We want to put a fence around our talent here in Tennessee, but the conference exposure comes from your neighbors as well. Out of conference markets have a lot to do with attendance and putting butts in seats so we’re looking at all those things.”

But he also told HBCU Sports that he also held out some hope for staying in the OVC, while simultaneously fielding other offers. 

“We’ve definitely been open to hearing other conferences, Allen said the Big South and A-Sun as two leagues that have approached TSU in the last few months But he also said the hope is another HBCU could join the OVC. Thus far, those HBCU institutions that have been on the move such as Florida A&M, Bethune-Cookman, North Carolina A&T and Hampton have joined the likes of the SWAC, Big South and Colonial Athletic Association.

There are also some fans, mainly members of the old guard who still remember the heyday of the Big Blue and head coaches like “Big” John Merritt and Joe Gilliam Sr. who push for TSU to join the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). The SWAC told HBCU sports this spring that they had approached TSU about possibly joining them. But that move would seem to be contrary to becoming an FBS school, as no SWAC members are now FBS institutions. TSU has not been part of a predominately HBCU conference since it was in the now defunct Midwestern Conference that included Kentucky State, Jackson State and Grambling State among others.

Things have not gone so well for TSU in the early days of the new football season. They made a strong comeback on the road against 13th ranked Eastern Washington, coming back from a double digit deficit before losing late 36-29. Then the offense looked awful against 19th ranked Jackson State, producing only a field goal in an ugly 16-3 loss.Both George and Dr. Allen know that their ultimate dream of making the move to FBS status will require bolstering the talent level first, then bolstering the schedule.

With eight games to go, there’s still ample time for the Tigers to have a good year. But how the larger questions are answered in the years to come will indicate the direction and caliber of not just Tennessee State football but all its athletic programs and structure.