The exit of Coach Prime generates serious thinking amongst mixed reactions

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As a senior at Jackson State, it was devastating to learn that Coach John Merritt was leaving Jackson State for Tennessee State near the end of the 1962-63 school year. Having led Jackson State to back-to-back Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) championships and been named SWAC and Black College Coach of the Year, his departure was considered bad for the program and bad for the college. It was bad because in addition to himself, most of the staff of coaches and some key players went with him. Then, almost as true to form, in the very next season Jackson State fell to a miserable 2-5 SWAC record. It is this type of fear that has overtaken many Jackson State University football fans as the news of Coach Deion Sanders’ exit circulates.

Instead of allowing themselves to be overcome, however, it may be good for JSU supporters to look at Alcorn State University under Coach Fred McNair in the immediate aftermath of the departure of Coach Jay Hopson for the University of Southern Mississippi. McNair stepped in and improved upon Hopson’s record, leading Alcorn to back-to-back SWAC championships and Celebration Bowl appearances. As some have assured, JSU football will be alright.

The writer deliberately waited for a week and a half before commenting on Sanders’ exit in order to allow all of the pieces to fall in place and to allow his own emotions to settle. Nevertheless, before the event becomes such ancient history that nobody cares, he did desire to look at the good, the bad, and the ugly surrounding Sanders’ departure.

The Good

Perhaps, first and foremost, many are thankful to Sanders for the pride and good feelings brought on by the program’s success under Sanders. It fostered two solid years of boasting and bragging. Growing out of that same burst of success is the realization that Sanders generated a great deal of positive publicity for the university, not the least of which was its appearing on ESPN’s “College GameDay” program and in a Sports Illustrated cover story. Largely because of Sanders and its winning seasons, many people across the country heard a great deal about JSU. Along that same line, many became more cognizant of Black college football in general.

Secondly, it was good, though less publicized, that Sanders provided material support to other Mississippi HBCU programs at Alcorn and Mississippi Valley and helped generate more publicity for SWAC and HBCU football programs.

For those things, the writer, like many others, is eternally grateful. THANK YOU, Coach Prime for spending three wonderful years with JSU. 

On the other side of the ledger, it was good and should not be forgotten that JSU provided the opportunity for Sanders to get his first college coaching experience. He had been passed over by several white colleges before JSU offered him a head coaching job. In that sense, the university made him as much as he made it. Along that same line, although Shedeur Sanders is an unusually gifted quarterback, he was given the opportunity to develop and shine at JSU. It is almost unheard of that a freshman would be the starting quarterback at the college in which he enrolls. JSU was thus good for Shedeur Sanders as well.

Thirdly, it is good that Sanders was able to move from a salary of $300,000 a year to one of nearly $6 million a year. That does not often happen to Black coaches, especially those who toil at HBCUs. It may help open the door for other capable Black coaches. In the same breath, the move to a different level of football is undoubtedly good for the confidence and ego of Deion Sanders.

The Bad 

Among the bad things about the exit is the fact that a number of good players, including Shedeur Sanders and Travis Hunter, will no longer be at JSU. The same holds true for the coaches, including Howard Thurman, who are leaving with Sanders. In other words, there will be a bit of re-building at JSU, as was the case with the departure of Merritt in 1963. 

Secondly, it is bad that some parents, players, and fans were “oversold” by Coach Sanders using racial heritage or ethnicity and religion to win their confidence. Saying things like God had sent him and that Black people do not have to be financially induced “to get us to play for us.” Once he completed a very successful three-year tenure, however, money has attracted him to leave “us” to coach for “them” and God must have changed tunes. It is not only a matter of how disappointed such parents, fans, and players must be, but how much confidence they should have had in his words.

Thirdly, it is bad that as a result of his departure, many other Black college coaches, teams, and fan bases are cheering the bad fortune of JSU. Such celebrations are understandable since they figure that it will be easier to defeat Jackson State with the Sanders father and son duo gone. It, nevertheless, is a bad thing to have the Black community divided on such a matter, especially when those from one school of thought make claims that some despondent fans are displaying a crawfish or crab mentality.

Then, there is the matter of timing the announcement of his acceptance of the job offer at Colorado. Rather than wait until after the Celebration Bowl, Sanders announced his departure after clinching the SWAC Championship. There are people who wondered aloud about the impact that will have on the bowl game Saturday. Apparently, Colorado wanted the announcement made early enough so that they could take advantage of Sanders’ ability to recruit players, especially top-flight Black players. That ability is apparently one of the things that Colorado found attractive about Sanders. The timing of the announcement, nevertheless, caused some to feel that Sanders apparently felt more obligated to Colorado than to the needs and best interests of JSU or HBCU football. 

The Ugly

Just as the former three items above may not be the only good things about the Sanders’ exit, the latter four may not be the only bad outcomes. As a matter of fact, we turn now to several other things that are not only negative but so negative as to represent the truly ugly environment in which it all unfolded.

First, there is the racist nature of the college football programs in Mississippi and elsewhere. Just one example may suffice to explain the situation. The fact that Ole Miss has an athletics budget that is more than 2,000 times the budget of JSU means that Ole Miss can hire more coaches and athletic staff, provide superior facilities for training and playing, provide more inductive “assistance” to the athletes whom they recruit and their parents, and in every other way build superior teams. The material disparities are even more pronounced when it comes to Alcorn and Mississippi Valley. It is all based upon purely racist appropriations and oversight. 

That was in part what the Ayers vs. Waller lawsuit of 1975 was about. Situations in other states that have Black colleges face the same problems. Texas Southern Law School Dean Otis King and others have written about it. Institute for Services to Education Director Elias Blake and others have testified about it. Civil Rights Attorney Alvin Chambliss and others have argued in court about it. The condition goes a long way in explaining why Alabama, LSU, Florida, and other predominantly white colleges continue to “buy” most of the best Black athletes, leaving the rest to be fought over by the Black colleges. It is why Colorado could lure Coach Sanders. As long as white boards and commissions control the purse strings of Black and white institutions, these disparities will continue, an unusual number of excellent athletes and successful coaches will be lured to the white institutions, and HBCUs will remain second-class in the running.

The cut-throat nature of the capitalist economy under which we live is given even freer rein under this umbrella of racism. This means that there will be continued wars for the services of coaches and players, with the wealthier institutions clearing the field. There is nothing in the way of the big boys “buying” the coaches and players who are attracted to the dollar above all else. It is unusual, heroically so, when a family decides to choose an Alcorn over an Alabama, a FAMU over a USC, or a Tennessee State over a Texas. The economic pull is too great for them to resist the large white institutions. It takes strong and influential parents and teachers to persuade the recruits to do otherwise. For that reason, the writer’s hat has long been off to talented high school recruits such as Chad Ford and Robert Kent who chose JSU despite being highly recruited by predominantly white colleges. At the intersection of rampant white racism and unbridled capitalism, Black college football suffers.

Finally, the ugliness is emphasized when one realizes that Black student athletes are viewed and treated far more as “professional” athletes than as students. Many institutions and coaches talk about helping young men to develop intellectually, but then proceed to treat them as potential, if not already professional athletes. Obtaining a college education clearly becomes secondary, if a focus at all. The young men are treated as commodities and mere gladiators for the fan-bases and prospects for the National Football League. Coach Sanders, whether consciously or unconsciously, has taken a giant step to model all three ugly truths with the move of himself and his players and staff from JSU to Colorado. 

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The exit of Coach Prime generates serious thinking amongst mixed reactions

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
December 27, 2022