A trio of historically black college or universities are betting on the name, image and likeness of their newly hired head football coaches to lure in highly touted recruits, more fans and athletic revenue.
Jackson State University, Tennessee State University and Morgan State University have each hired a famous former NFLer to take the reins of their football programs. Tyrone Wheatley, a former Michigan star running back, first-round NFL draft pick and 10-year pro, came on at Morgan State in 2019. NFL Hall of Fame defensive back Deion Sanders accepted Jackson State’s offer in 2020. And Eddie George, the Ohio State Heisman Trophy-winning running back who gained more than 10,000 career yards in the NFL, was hired at Tennessee State in March.
Before each coach’s arrival, all three schools were coming off losing seasons. Both Morgan State and Tennessee State’s athletic directors say they weren’t looking for a former NFL player to fill their head coaching vacancies, but when the opportunity arose, their candidates fit the school’s needs. Jackson State declined to comment.
“At the end of the day, we needed someone to come in with energy and someone that has been in the shoes of a student athlete,” Tennessee State athletic director Mikki Allen said of his decision to hire George, who makes his coaching debut on Sept. 5. TSU will also have former Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson on the staff as offensive coordinator.
Morgan State’s athletic director Edward Scott described his rationale. “I needed somebody that was tough-minded and understood that [change] wasn’t going to happen overnight,” Scott said of Wheatley, who went 3-9 in his first season. “I needed someone who was going to be willing to put in the work and have deep recruiting ties, and I think he brought all the values and attributes that I wanted our young men to see.” Former Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones has joined the Morgan State coaching staff, as well.
While the three coaches have glossy playing résumés, they’re working with comparatively limited resources. Each of the schools operate on a football budget that is less than $5 million. Power 5 schools in their own states, like the University of Tennessee, Mississippi State University and the University of Maryland, all have more than $30 million to spend. The budget disparity is reflected in the head coaches’ salaries compared with their Power 5 counterparts.
The recruiting gap is vast, as well. But the schools are betting that former pros can lure in topnotch high school players.
“We’ve seen an immediate impact in terms of high-level recruits,” said Tennessee State’s Allen. “Since the hiring of coach George, our [recruiting] inbox has definitely been full. And that goes for prospective student athletes and guys in the transfer portal. We have someone that is magnetic and someone we know young people will gravitate to and someone that can instantly get buy-in.”
As the Jackson State Tigers head into the 2021 season, Sanders has secured the No. 1 recruiting class in both SWAC and the MEAC, according to 247Sports. His 2021 class even rivals some FBS programs.
While budgets affect recruiting and on-field success, so does exposure. During the fall, most of the Saturday afternoon and Saturday night gameday slots are reserved for the Power 5 conferences. This leaves little room for HBCUs and other FCS programs to showcase their talent.
However, with the SWAC choosing to play football this past spring due to the pandemic, opportunities opened up for some of the conference’s games to be flexed onto ESPN3, ESPN2 and even ESPN. Jackson State’s games against Southern University and Alabama A&M were both moved to ESPN after originally being scheduled to air on ESPNU.
For the JSU Tigers, coached by the man known as “Primetime,” it’s all about being seen. Sanders pointed to that philosophy during a recent segment on Brandon Marshall’s I Am Athlete podcast. “[HBCUs] are never on television, so there’s no exposure,” Sanders said. “I have to make sure you’re on [YouTube] so that you can be exposed.”
To increase visibility for his players, Sanders said he’ll have a documentary releasing in July about his team. But that’s not all. He’s including opponents such as Florida A&M. “I don’t want to just do a documentary on us. [When] we’re getting ready to go play FAMU on Sept. 5, I want to send a camera to [them] for a week. I want to see y’all prepare, see us prepare, then we get it on. Then I want [the audience] to see it. Now that’s exposure.”
Tennessee State launched the Big Blue Sports Network to provide radio coverage of Tigers’ athletic events at the end of 2020. Currently, the school is filming a series called The First “27”: The Coach Eddie George Era, which will document the new coach’s efforts.
The celebrity coaches face off when Tennessee State plays Jackson State on Sept. 11.
The final obstacle that the three schools are looking to overcome are sending players to the NFL Draft. In the last two years, Tennessee State offensive tackle Lachavious Simmons was the sole HBCU player selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, and no HBCU player was taken in 2021. It wasn’t always this way. HBCUs were once hidden gold mines for NFL teams. Jackson State University has more Hall of Famers than Clemson University, the University of Florida and Texas A&M, with all four of JSU’s inductees—Lem Barney, Walter Payton, Jackie Slater and Robert Brazile—drafted between 1967 and 1976.
“If you look at the vast majority of Hall of Fame players who went to HBCUs, most of them plied their trade during the height of segregation,” said Derrick White, an African American and Africana Studies professor at the University of Kentucky. “Even though segregation and predominantly white institutions in the South really end in the late ’60s, you still see the ramifications of that well into the 1970s....
“That’s how you get someone like Walter Payton and even Jerry Rice, because Mississippi was one of the slowest states to fully integrate its programs," White said. "And so when you look into the modern ’90s era, with guys like Aeneas Williams, Michael Strahan and others, those players are really guys we don’t see as much because scouting has become so much more robust.”
Scott, the Morgan State AD, hopes Wheatley’s experience on the NFL field and sideline will pay dividends for athletes by getting them an NFL shot. “If Tyrone Wheatley says you can play, it’s going to take on a different level of credibility,” said Scott. But he still recognizes that there are unsolved problems. “Structurally there are issues that need to be addressed," he said. "Now how we go about doing that is more difficult.”
To help with this, the NFL has put programs in place to help HBCU players get selected. The league launched an HBCU Combine that was supposed to debut in 2020, but COVID-19 caused a two-year postponement. It’s now slated for next Jan. 28-29. Following the combine there will be two separate all-star games to showcase HBCU talent. Players from HBCU conferences like the MEAC, SWAC, SIAC and CIAA will be selected to the Reese’s Senior Bowl, which will take place one week after the combine on Feb. 5. And two weeks later, NFL Network will host the HBCU Legacy Bowl.
Jackson State’s Sanders originally vouched for the HBCU Combine, but now he wants something different. “A couple years ago, I fought for us to have our own HBCU combine,” he said on the Marshall podcast. “That ain’t a fight no more. I don’t want separatism, I want equality. There’s only 52 players invited [to the HBCU Combine], so why don’t you take that 52 and put them in the actual NFL Combine so they can really be seen?”
As of now, the league is still rolling with the HBCU Combine and events in January and February. Sanders says if HBCUs “apply pressure,” their prospects will eventually be in Indianapolis for the official NFL Combine.
In the meantime, Sanders believes Jackson State players could reap benefits from new NIL laws that take effect in Mississippi on Sept. 1.
“Now the NCAA, God bless ‘em, they done messed around and said they getting ready to pay these athletes,” said Sanders. “Who better to prepare them for that? … My boys are straight because I’ve already been hustling.”
Collectively, all of the schools head into the year with one thing on their minds—winning. It’s the key ingredient to increased budgets, more exposure and enhanced NIL opportunities, and ultimately what the new pedigreed coaches will be judged on.
“Winning changes things tremendously,” said White. “The scouts will come because they want to know why teams are winning, what they’re doing at their program, and what type of players you have.”