By Lenny Moon
As a slight disclaimer, the following perspective comes from not directly covering the collegiate coaching career of Deion Luwynn Sanders (aka Coach Prime) but merely from the sidelines since his arrival. Covering Historical Black College football for over three decades does provide a vantage point from whence I speak. The appropriate timing by anyone is an aspect that most would rather procure than having all of the skill in the world. If one is able to merge both “timing and skill” then usually that entity finds themselves ahead of the brood. For openers, the premier of Deion Sanders tenure as a rookie head collegiate football coach while landing at a traditional Black conference (in 2020) was a breath of fresh air for a multitude of reasons. Certainly worthy of mentioning was the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s decision for opting to play spring football during the pandemic thus creating a television product for ESPN at a time when most of the remainder of the country had been forced to shut down. This of course created a hunger for live televised football programming at an all-time high (“good timing is more valuable than skill”).
Sanders brought national attention to the existence of HBCU football (the SWAC in particular) significantly more than that product had ever witnessed. Of course the popularity had always been firmly entrenched in certain pockets of the country, primarily in the “Chitling Circuit”. But the so-called mainstream had little or no interest in what transpired on “the other side of the tracks”. At the risk of sounding redundant, “timing is more effective than skill”. The merging of timing and skill postures one to significantly impact the radar screen. Sanders has always understood the formula for attracting attention to his brand. To his credit, he commanded attention for his supreme athletic ability that he readily articulated frequently, was camera friendly, colorful and controversial. Last time that I checked, he was the only Pro Football Hall of Fame caliber gridder in history that concurrently had the skill to hold down a Major League Baseball position that qualified to participate in the World Series with the Atlanta Braves in the 90s. So needless to say that the under-served HBCU football product received a much deserved infusion of spotlight with the arrival of Coach Prime. Additionally, he’s proving to be one of the most effective recruiters going, which again is a variable of his crafty salesmanship skills that deserves a world of credit. With the added exposure comes additional revenue opportunities that obviously had not been available with less eyeballs involved.
Having spent over three decades covering HBCU football, primarily the SWAC conference, I’m well aware of the rich legacy earned and associated with that storied conference. The SWAC conference led the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS once known as 1-AA) in attendance in 43 of the past 44 football campaigns. The only blemish during that impressive run was 2005 when they finished 3rd. Let’s be clear, this achievement is measured against all comparable conferences nationally, not just of African American decent. A great portion of those years, Jackson State set the pace as the leader, highlighted by their healthy contribution to NFL rosters as well as the Pro Football Hall of Fame (see photo above). The SWAC, HBCU football and Jackson State had rich traditions long before the arrival of Coach Prime aka Deion Sanders. Let’s not forget that Grambling’s Eddie Robinson was college football’s all-time winningest coach until recent years, and provided a truckload of NFL players for decades, including Doug Williams who dispelled the myth pertaining to Black signal callers forever with his Super Bowl XXII record-breaking performance. James “Shack” Harris predated Williams at that position to become the first opening day Black starting QB in the league and went on to Pro Bowl status from the same institution. Alcorn’s Steve McNair finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting, not only from a FCS program, but an HBCU product from the SWAC. Buck Buchanan (another Grambling alum) was the first player selected way back in the 1963 NFL Draft. And many, many other examples exist that reflect the undersold legacy and contribution of Black College Football. In summary, Sanders brought a spotlight to the HBCU product that previously had very little appeal to the so-called mainstream. This author is not on the bandwagon of judging what Coach Sanders should or should not have done with his career. But akin to the TV commercial that flashes the sexy woman that’s intended to grab the viewer’s attention to sell auto parts, “Now that we have your attention. here’s a quality product that we’d like for you to check out” with a proven track record of sustained excellence. There’s only one Coach Sanders but the lesson that he left behind for the HBCU community, the SWAC and Jackson State is that Black College Football is a viable product if appropriately marketed and packaged to satisfy the palate of even the so-called mainstream’s appetite.