Deion Sanders is now in Colorado after two years at Jackson State, where he came in like a tornado and made an unforgettable impact on both the school and the SWAC before he suddenly left for a Power 5 head coaching job last winter. His move, as well as his time at the HBCU, was both praised and panned.
Sanders was the main topic at a panel discussion at the 2023 NABJ Convention in Birmingham, Alabama in August. The three panelists—Sports Illustrated reporter Wilton Jackson; Carron Phillips, senior writer at Deadspin; and HBCU GO TV Associate Producer Jason K. Ingram—discussed the “post AD (after Deion) era.” All agreed that the SWAC existed before Sanders and will survive now that he’s gone. But lessons must be learned about the experience going forward.
“We understand he was here. We understand we appreciate what he tried to do. And what he didn’t do,” noted Jackson.
Phillips, who was more critical of Sanders, pointed out that HBCUs must avoid hiring “celebrity” coaches such as Sanders, a former college and pro football star. He was also critical of how mainstream media “suddenly” discovered Black colleges simply because of Sanders. “It seems like every decade, White people discover us. And Black people brag about their cousins who went there. We’ve seen this phenomenon before. It wasn’t just a person.”
When Jackson State hired Sanders in 2020, the move was described by one publication as a “god move.” The new coach took that and ran with it. He spoke out boldly that his school and other HBCUs must upgrade their athletic facilities if they are to attract four- and five-star athletes away from PWIs. He often said he was there for the long haul, committed to seeing that change.
Mainly because of his presence, ESPN brought its “College Gameday” show to campus, only the second time at a Black school. Reportedly Sanders’ presence helped generate $185 million in advertising value and exposure to JSU.
Black college football didn’t just start during the pandemic, which coincided with Sanders’ arrival at Jackson State. The SWAC was formed in 1920 with six Black colleges in Texas. It’s now a 12-school league that has been well-known for decades for its halftime shows and colorful marching bands and cheerleaders.
“All HBCU conferences have their own flavor,” noted Jackson.
“We’re going to showcase our stories,” added Ingram.
“There’s still so many issues and things going on in the SWAC that we need to address and tackle,” continued Phillips of the first fall of the post-AD era. “We are seeing in real-time how college athletics are changing. Maybe there should be some HBCU super conference. I don’t know, but these are all conversations we should have.
“You’ve got to figure a way to build off of it for the future, so they can be sustainable,” said Phillips of the SWAC and other Black college conferences. “It just isn’t feasible to think that our institutions are going to immediately change overnight.”
HBCU pride at Target Field
There isn’t a Black college or university in Minnesota. The closest is Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, and even though it is not an official member of historically Black colleges, Chicago State University in Illinois is sometimes seen as an HBCU. But last Friday, the Minnesota Twins held the team’s first-ever HBCU Night.
“We don’t have an HBCU here in Minnesota,” stated Twins Business Communications Director Matt Hodson in an MSR interview. “We want to use our platform to help raise awareness of the incredible opportunities HBCUs provide.”
Fans who attended last Friday’s Twins-New York Mets contest received an HBCU tee shirt designed by a Black college alum. The first pitch was thrown out by Medtronic exec and HBCU graduate Keisha Houston.
“It’s about showcasing HBCU pride at Target Field,” said Hodson. “[It’s about] growing awareness and building community. Our hope is that this night adds another layer of community-building and togetherness.”