Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders figuratively has blown the hinges off of the doors of HBCU sports, along with the sports world in general, in his brief tenure at the helm.
He won the press conference, and seemingly won the recruiting battle in his first early signing period a few days ago. However, there is something amiss among those following the words and social media posts of Sanders. There are some of us in HBCU-dom that are taking Coach Prime’s words and posts, and are taking those words into deep left field.
There are some who believe that Sanders’ presence would increase the value of the Southwestern Athletic Conference and its soon-to-be 12 members as a whole. There are some who believe that Football Championship Division members like the SWAC, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Tennessee State, North Carolina A&T, and Hampton should get invitations to Football Bowl Subdivision bowl games — the other 30-plus played by members of Power Five and Group of Five conferences.
Let’s pump the proverbial brakes for a minute, take a deep cleansing breath and relax. It’s not completely bad that Coach Prime is using his bully pulpit to drum up discussions of HBCU athletics and inclusion into the more lucrative bowl season. However, some things must be discussed before going whole hog on Sanders’ statements.
First things first: let’s tackle the notion that Sanders’ presence will increase the SWAC’s value and raise the profile of HBCUs as a whole. The answer for that could simply be “yeah, but not exactly.”
Jackson State will get the lion’s share of media attention from those who cover HBCUs exclusively to those who mainly cover HBCUs during HBCU Week, Black History Month, or when the sh*t hits the fan at an HBCU (example: Grambling’s football boycott. NOTE: If ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio is at your school, things aren’t good).
The cameras will follow the Jackson State football program, for better and for worse. The Tigers have to have an opponent, so whoever they play that week will get the rub for playing Jackson State in the Prime Administration. However, those other SWAC matchups — especially the less sexy matchups — aren’t going to get the shine or cameras that a Prime-led JSU game will receive.
It’s not like HBCU-dom has not seen this before. Rickie Weeks was crushing the SWAC as a multiyear baseball All-American and the only HBCU Division I athlete to be named player of the year in 2003. The national media followed Rickie Weeks and Southern. HBCU media followed Rickie Weeks and Southern. However, those same media folks did not follow other conference members like they followed Southern during Weeks’ career.
Other recruits took notice, and the raised profile helped Southern recruit other stars during their early 2000s run of dominance in the conference. Those other talents didn’t go to the SWAC to play against Rickie Weeks. They chose to play for Southern because of Rickie Weeks. However, that rise of notoriety faded away as Southern could not maintain the momentum from that run.
What about the conference? The Tigers could spark other conference members to raise their collective game and push the conference forward. Well, that’s great in theory, but application is different.
If it were the case, then the Missouri Valley Football Conference would’ve swept through the FCS playoffs since North Dakota State has become a national name. The Bison have won or shared the MVFC title every season since 2011, grooming a first-round pick in quarterback Carson Wentz, beating an occasional Power Five team in the regular season and hosting College Gameday a few times during their current run.
North Dakota State raised its profile and that of the MVFC. However, their success has not transferred over to other MVFC members like serial killer Charles Lee “Chucky” Ray transferred his consciousness into a good guy doll.
Switching over to men’s college basketball, name another consistent national power in the West Coast Conference other than Gonzaga.
In short, trickle-down does not work in economics and college athletics. A rising tide does lift all boats, but some boats will sit higher in the water than others on that same tide.
Sanders also went to social media, suggesting sponsors should hand an FCS team (preferably his one day) an invite to one of the 30-plus postseason bowl games played by FBS teams in the 2021 and 2022 seasons. Sanders cited COVID-related cancellations of bowl games this year as a reason for bowl sponsors to rethink their process in future years.
One must admire the gumption and shoot-your-shot ethos of Sanders. However, the NCAA put the kibosh on interdivisional postseason play for years. By the way, it’s the NCAA’s fault why your fantasy SIAC vs. SWAC/MEAC vs. CIAA bowl game will never happen. The folks in Indianapolis won’t let it happen.
Years ago, the Liberty Bowl had its eyes set on having Heisman Trophy candidate Steve McNair and Alcorn State play in Memphis for the 1994 game. The NCAA informed Liberty Bowl officials in October 1994 that it would not relax its rules to allow the Braves to play in that game.
Alcorn was barred from playing in Memphis because it did not meet the NCAA’s requirement for six wins against I-A (now FBS) schools. Also, the NCAA rules at the time barred Alcorn because of the existence of the I-AA/FCS playoffs.
Currently, SWAC and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions are tied to the Celebration Bowl. NCAA bylaws bar those teams from playing in the playoffs and the Celebration Bowl in the same year. NCAA bylaws also bar Tennessee State, North Carolina A&T and Hampton from participating in the playoffs and a bowl game.
That leaves Sanders’ best option for a bowl invite against an FBS team to become a part of an FBS conference with at least eight members, a prospect at least five to 10 years off as those pegged for the move up would have to significantly increase their current budgets to accommodate such a move.
Also, if the Power Five cartel that runs the FBS would not allow American Athletic Conference champion Cincinnati into the College Football Playoff/Power Five Invitational, do you think those conferences and the Group of Five would willingly allow a bowl sponsor to negate their contracts to let an FCS team into a bowl game?
These have been interesting times in HBCU-dom. The excitement is palpable, but please pump those brakes and slow down at the moment. Enjoy a brisk walk outside.
Just. Stay. Calm.