Deion Sanders, Jackson State and Eddie George, Tennessee State
Photo: Orange Blossom Classic (left), Tennessee State Athletics (right)

In the book Forty Million Dollar Slaves, author William C. Rhoden documented Naismith Basketball Famer Chris Webber explaining his decision to sign with Michigan instead of an HBCU.

Webber, who had been the most sought-after basketball recruit since Magic Johnson in the state of Michigan at the time, criticized Black colleges for not putting themselves in a position to attract elite athletes by upgrading facilities, arenas and acquiring lucrative TV contracts.

“A lot of people put that pressure on me to go to an HBCU, like ‘Come on, Chris, you can change it around, you can change it around,’” Webber said. “But I think that process has to start within the Black college association. “Playing on BET is not good enough for me. Just like me playing on MTV is not good enough. I want the world to see.

“In a way, I feel guilty because we could have changed that rhyme. But we had to do what was best for us at that time. But we talked a lot about going to Black colleges.”

Webber become part of the Fab Five — one of the most revered college basketball programs in NCAA history. Though the group comprised of Webber, Jalen Rose, and Juwan Howard, didn’t win a national championship, the youngsters were celebrated for the indelible cultural and social mark they left on the sport.

But regrettably, we’re left to wonder what could have been if Webber and his peer had decided to acquiesce to an HBCU instead and attempted — as his advisors suggested — to level the playing field.

Also read: Tennessee State coach Eddie George tells Deion Sanders how he will navigate newfound challenge

Since desegregation and changing political attitudes shifted in America, HBCU athletic programs experienced an uneven impact. Over time, Black colleges that once had a territorial stranglehold on the best Black athletes no longer were the predominant destination for them. Jackson State, Grambling State, and Tennessee State were soon replaced by Alabama, USC, and Florida State.

As a result, the quality of talent — while still there on a smaller scale — stagnated. The days of Eddie Robinson, Jake Gaither and John Merritt going into homes and getting commitments from Jackie Slater, Walter Payton, Doug Williams, and Bob Hayes were no longer.

There had been a constant yearning for generations that Black athletes — the blue-chip ones — to “come home.”

When Jackson State and Tennessee State meet in the annual Southern Heritage Classic Saturday in Memphis, there will be a pair of five-star recruits on each sideline in Eddie George and Deion Sanders.

They were hired within seven months of each other in the midst of a pandemic and influx within college football; but their missions — ambitious ones at that — are to elevate HBCU football back to where it once stood and what it stood for.

“You want to enhance that world and bring a light to the HBCU world and the great storied programs that have produced NFL talent and great talent into the world, period,” George said. “That comes along with it. But at its core, at its impetus, it’s always first and foremost these young men that are in this building.”

Television networks, which already had contracts with HBCU conferences, now have new storylines thanks to coaches who bring name recognition and a known brand to the sidelines.

Sanders, who enters his second season as head coach at Jackson State, has already reimagined the program while also acting as an activist to underscore disparities and inequities that disproportionately affect Black colleges.

The Pro Football Hall of Famer has lamented everything from wanting more games featured on national TV to the lack of HBCU players taken in the NFL Draft. He even criticized ESPN for not being able to find the score of Sunday’s Grambling State-Tennessee State game on its expansive news ticker.

“We can play on your network but you can’t put us on your ticker?” he said. “You own the network. That doesn’t cost any money. Give us that.”

As it relates to football, Sanders has used his marketing and promotion savvy to help transform the football program into a talent attraction. Jackson State is coming off the heels of a recruiting cycle that was regarded as the best in the history of the FCS and even more prolific than many established FBS programs.

While George hasn’t drawn the same attention as his outspoken and affable counterpart, he’s embraced the challenge of rebuilding the Tennessee State program through a more cerebral approach that includes utilizing various pro football and business connections.

The words “excellence” and “standard” are used quite often to describe the level of expectation George expects the program to attain.

Shortly after being hired this past spring, George tabbed former NFL coach Hue Jackson as offensive coordinator and Brandon Fisher, son of former Tennessee Titans and Los Angeles Rams coach Jeff Fisher, as defensive coordinator. He later added pass-rushing specialist Clyde Simmons to the staff.

George and Sanders have compiled more than 80 combined years of NFL experience on their staff. The access to these minds and perspectives is immeasurable.

“I wish the best for these kids,” said Sanders. “I don’t think these kids understand what they have … a phone call or touch away. I really don’t think they understand that in its totality.”

Though ex-NFL players have assumed coaching roles at HBCUs previously, this feels different with George and Sanders. It feels like there is a sudden shift happening. Over the last year, there has been awakening within America — particularly Black America to reinvest in the culture sparked, in large part, by the police killing of George Floyd.

Professional sports leagues, companies, and entertainers with little historical ties to HBCUs have made overtures to uplift them. It has been Chris Paul wearing HBCU-specific gear and Michael B. Jordan orchestrating an HBCU basketball tournament. The NBA moved the All-Star to Atlanta with the intent of paying homage to the rich histories of Black institutions.

This movement has emboldened high school athletes to seriously consider and commit to Black college athletic programs.

After all, coaches are the faces of college football programs. They’ve always been stars and driven the mystique and popularity surrounding the game.

And it’s safe to say that among the biggest stars in college football — at least in name — are George and Sanders.

The hope is their presence and influence can possibly springboard the next Chris Webbers to form Fab Fives or super teams at HBCUs.


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