MEMPHIS – First, let’s set the record straight right from the start.
Deion Sanders and Eddie George are not – and will not be – saviors of HBCU football.
The coaching legends, eventual Hall of Fame talent, pageantry, legacy and global impact of football at historically black colleges and universities were solidified long before Sanders and George arrived on their respective campuses this year.
The heavy lifting and lane-clearing were already done decades ago by the sacrifices, sweat, blood, tears and triumphs of the likes of Eddie Robinson, John Merritt, Jake Gaither, Bob Hayes, Jackie Slater, Walter Payton, Jerry Rice and countless others.
Sanders leads Jackson State and George guides Tennessee State into Saturday’s Southern Heritage Classic at the Liberty Bowl in a game billed as the biggest and most anticipated in the 32-year history of the Classic. It’s all true. The spotlight has never flashed brighter on this game, mainly because of the larger-than-life personalities and resumes of the current coaches.
Coach Prime, as Sanders insists on being called, is a Hall-of-Famer whose spark and flamboyant style on and off the field made him one of the NFL’s greatest players and winners. Social media was made for Sanders. In many ways, he was well ahead of his PrimeTime. And George’s rugged, workmanlike zeal as a bruising All-Pro running back for the Tennessee Titans made him one of the most beloved players on any level among this region’s football fans.
Yet still, despite all the hype and spotlight that will shine on these coaches this weekend, Sanders and George aren’t saviors of HBCU football. No, instead they embrace being much-needed servants of HBCU football. The highest-profiled servants these ranks have ever experienced. Regardless of Saturday’s outcome on the field, both Jackson State and Tennessee State will emerge winners – as will the HBCU sports landscape overall.
What Sanders and George are in the process of doing that’s most important is discovering how to combine their passion with their purpose, respectively. With their resources, exposure, media connections and corporate investments, both former NFL standouts are creating lanes on multiple levels to connect student athletes in and around their programs to pro careers.
ESPN and other major networks will broadcast more HBCU football games this season than ever before. Last week, Jackson State opened with a win over Florida A&M in Miami’s NFL Stadium. Sanders’ former teammate and Hall of Famer Terrell Owens was on the JSU sideline. That was also the case during the spring season when Sanders made his debut in Jackson with a surprise pregame visit from Hall of Fame quarterback and former Cowboys teammate Troy Aikman.
Likewise, George made his coaching debut at TSU last week on the campus of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic against Grambling. TSU lost the game to Grambling, but one of the victories beyond the final score was seeing two-time former NFL head coach Hue Jackson serving as George’s offensive coordinator.
It’s just enhancing a better system, a better quality of life, a better wholistic approach to what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to advance. When I reach out and say what we need is X, Y, and Z for our players, people step up and do it. And that’s a way we can keep our program sustainable.
Imagine what access to that level of coaching, elite talent and knowledge will do for recruiting, fundraising and exposure for HBCU football. Memphis will be the epicenter of it all this weekend. And it continues a trend of high-profile former athletes lending their names, brands, resources and careers to elevating the quality of education and life on HBCU campuses.
Coaching football and developing players for pro careers represent only a fraction of the job duties Sanders and George have taken on. Their purpose and passion go well beyond that.
“What we both bring are resources we have nationally, that probably wouldn’t come to this university without that,” George said of his commitment to TSU. “It’s just enhancing a better system, a better quality of life, a better wholistic approach to what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to advance. When I reach out and say what we need is X, Y, and Z for our players, people step up and do it. And that’s a way we can keep our program sustainable.”
Sanders shared a similar perspective. His endorsement impact and professional relationships have sparked a paradigm shift at Jackson State, whose facilities and equipment have undergone a massive makeover.
“As long as we keep the standard the standard – I’m pretty sure coach George has a standard there as well,” Sanders said. “We will not compromise that. We will not be complacent with that. You put guys around you who have been there and done that, who can echo that, but also have the affection and affinity to hug and love and embrace these kids. Let’s challenge them to go to the next level. We want the best for these kids. I don’t think they really understand what they have just a phone call or touch away. I don’t think they understand that in its totality.”
Sanders and George are opposites in personality, but completely aligned in vision.
This weekend, Memphis will showcase what’s on the verge of becoming the epitome of HBCU football. The Southern Heritage Classic will pit two tradition-rich, like-minded programs coached by legendary former NFL players who didn’t need these jobs. Sanders and George instead saw them as mutual investment opportunities. They didn’t need the unique challenges that have hindered traditionally under-resourced, overlooked football programs from a mainstream perspective. Sanders and George are tackling solutions.
HBCUs have always been about providing opportunities that didn’t previously exist.
For Sanders and George, this is a symbiotic relationship.
Jackson State and Tennessee State provide them historic foundations to launch coaching careers on the shoulders of legends. Sanders and George will use their talent, experience and connections to raise HBCU football beyond previous limitations and expectations.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.