Grambling State found itself in the national spotlight once again, but perhaps not quite in the way it envisioned.
The fallout of this week’s Art Briles hiring flop shows how one of the most storied athletic programs among the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and indeed in all of college sports, is desperately pursuing a return to relevancy.
The school hired former Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson to restore Grambling football back to prominence. Jackson’s failed attempt to bring on the embattled Briles as offensive coordinator, as well as the incentives in the head coach’s contract, obtained by Sportico, point to how intense that restoration effort has become, and not just at Grambling.
Jackson’s signing follows a recent wave of HBCU athletic programs making splashy head coaching hires, from Jackson State’s Deion Sanders to Tennessee State’s Eddie George. It’s providing a jolt for programs, with some moves resulting in more wins as well as increased revenue and marketability.
Grambling State president Rick Gallot not only initially granted Jackson’s wish to bring on Briles—who was fired in 2016 for mishandling sexual assault allegations at Baylor—but he is incentivizing the head coach to ease the program’s financial strains.
Jackson’s contract states he will receive 25% of new revenue generated from initiatives, promotions, opportunities or sponsorships that didn’t previously exist and that he obtains himself.
While it’s not uncommon for contracts to include non-performance bonuses, Jackson’s four-year deal ($1.6 million) is part of a new trend with its tie to marketing and sponsorship dollars. For example, Sanders, arguably the catalyst of the wave, is currently working under a four-year contract ($1.2 million) in which he receives 10% of season ticket revenue after the first 10,000 purchased.
Jackson’s incentives to bring in more money are meaningful, too, given the resources of HBCU athletic departments, which are often dependent on student fees and ticket sales without the TV revenue that Power Five schools garner. Grambling State hasn’t won a Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) title since 2017 and went 10-16 the past three seasons, and the program faces the tall task of trying to capture more championship banners and gain renewed attention despite being limited financially.
“We often forget that marketing is a large part of this business,” South Carolina sports and entertainment management professor Mark Nagel said. “Winning games is at the core foundation from a coaching perspective, but there’s also a marketing splash that has to be made, especially when you’ve been struggling for more than a decade to make your mark in this environment.”
The SWAC football program was hit hard by the ongoing pandemic, losing more than $2 million during a shortened 2020 season. It’s also scheduled for a balloon payment of $1.3 million next year to pay off maturing debt, according to the latest financial audits, which stems from renovations at Eddie Robinson Stadium.
Jackson’s attempt to hire Briles showed a school perhaps too eager to reclaim success. His defense of Briles through his charity foundation seemed to only add insult to injury.
The criticism became widespread in a hurry, with the school quietly deciding not to provide a statement on the Briles hire ahead of the ensuing backlash. The initial negative reaction included a rebuke from former Grambling State alum, NFL star and College Football Hall of Famer Doug Williams.
Other alums chimed in as well. “With the moves Deion Sanders and Eddie George are making, I can see how there is pressure to win, especially with our history,” said former Tigers’ basketball standout Brion Rush. “But I don’t know how Briles [would have] played a part in it.”
Grambling State athletic director Trayvean Scott said the school did its due diligence before bringing on Briles, a former Big 12 coach of the year. It was apparently a similar degree of diligence used when the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Southern Mississippi offered Briles a job, before they, like, Grambling State, changed course on their decision.