After it was announced that football is great Deion Sanders left his coaching job at Jackson State University for a job at the University of Colorado Saturday he was criticized on social media. Many are angry that the black former superstar is leaving a historically black college where his leadership could continue to provide a solid foundation for young black athletes.
But this view is a bit short-sighted. Sanders shouldn’t be required to stay with an HBCU, and as Colorado’s new head football coach, he has proven true to his craft.
Upward mobility is not exclusive to white coaches.
That’s not only because of the success Sanders had in his three years as a coach at Jackson State in Jackson, Mississippi, but also because his deal in Colorado a reported base salary of $5 million per year. (He made $300,000 a year in Jackson State.) This means that Sanders is primarily looking out for himself.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what college football coaches do. They want the best contract they can get from a school that they believe can win major championships. That’s why many a coach has changed jobs, despite telling a new crop of new recruits that he will stay.
Sanders proved his prowess in his first coaching job by making the Jackson State Tigers the best team among the HBCUs. His 27-5 coaching record includes a 12-0 record this year and two straight Southwestern Athletic Conference titles.
In his last game at Jackson State, Sanders will lead the Tigers against North Carolina Central University in the Cricket Celebration Bowl on December 17 in Atlanta. The Tigers will seek a victory in what has became known as ‘the black national championship game’.
Some might say that Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Major League Baseball player who also excelled as a football commentator on network TV, should have been content to stay in Jackson State. Why not build the Tigers into a true dynasty while continuing to praise the HBCUs?
But those critics need to realize that Sanders has the same right as any other coach to pursue success at a higher level. That’s why he heads to Colorado from the Pacific-12 Conference, one of college football’s Power Five conferences (along with the Big Ten, Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, and Big 12).
Ambition is available to anyone who wants to own it. In that respect, Sanders is no different from Nick Saban, for example, the legendary coach of the University of Alabama.
Those conferences have lucrative TV rights deals like the Big Ten’s seven-year, $7 billion contracts with NBC, Fox and CBS starting in July 2023. And teams in these conferences compete in New Year’s Day bowl games and play for major championships on the biggest venues.
Sanders, who nicknamed himself “Coach Prime”, wants a piece of that action. His new goal is to lead the Colorado Buffaloes to a national championship. Not “the black national championship.” The National Championship.
Ambition is available to anyone who wants to own it. In that respect, Sanders is no different from, for example Nick Sabanthe legendary University of Alabama coach with whom Sanders appears Aflac commercials.
At every previous stop in Saban’s head coaching trajectory (University of Toledo, Michigan State University, Louisiana State University, and the NFL’s Miami Dolphins), he may have disappointed some of the players who signed on hoping he would stay. But Saban asserted his right to take on new challenges, and he was richly rewarded with each success. He has won a record seven national championships (six at Alabama, one at Louisiana State), earning more than $11 million a year.
Upward mobility is not exclusive to white coaches. Sanders now shows the same ambition he had as a teenager in Fort Myers, Florida. Schools from coast to coast eagerly recruited the supernaturally gifted defensive back and kick returner. He could have gone to an HBCU like Florida A&M University. The NFL would still have drafted him, as would Jackson State’s Walter Payton, Mississippi Valley State University’s Jerry Rice, and other legends who played at HBCUs.
It is understandable for those who revere HBCUs to lament Sanders’ departure. He brought HBCUs the national attention they long deserved.
Instead, Sanders chose Florida State University. One of the larger schools. He wanted to match his skills against those playing at that level. That’s what he wants now as a coach.
As for those who wanted to play for Sanders at Jackson State, they can now consider Colorado. His son, Jackson State star quarterback Shedeur Sanders, is expected to do just that and follow his father. Just like players outside of Jackson State. Winston Watkins Jr., a highly recruited wide receiver, says he’s moving to Colorado after initially opting for Texas A&M. When asked why he made the change, Watkins recounted football website On3.com: “Deion Sanders. He is the GOAT [greatest of all time] and it always will be. He is a great coach and can develop me as a player and as a person.”
Jackson State, meanwhile, may struggle to find another coach as charismatic as Sanders. But it’s possible the Tigers will find a coach who can build on the foundation Sanders laid. He is hardly the only man who can inspire young black men to succeed on the football field and in life.
It is understandable for those who revere HBCUs to lament Sanders’ departure. He brought HBCUs the national attention they long deserved. But he was never obliged to stay. He may accept what he deems a better offer.
So it’s better to support Sanders to succeed in Colorado so that other black people who want to coach have a better chance of getting hired – at every level.