Deion Sanders had several goals when he took the 2020 head coaching job at Jackson State, a historically black college in Mississippi.
One of them was rebuilding the Tigers program, whose illustrious history includes four Pro Football Hall of Famers (Lem Barney, Walter Payton, Robert Brazil and Jackie Slater).
Well, JSU is 9-0, has a ton of highly-ranked recruits and averages over 42,000 fans per game.
Another goal was to draw attention not only to JSU, but to HBCU and HBCU football schools as a whole.
From ESPN broadcasts to “60 Minutes” appearances to the day-to-day power involved in having a promoter like Sanders, it’s come true, too. Even with a potential jump to an SEC or Pac-12 job for Coach Prime, he’s not done.
Sanders advocated this week that the best team from an HBCU each season should have the chance to play in a bowl game against an FBS opponent.
HBCUs compete in FCS football, which is considered a division below major programs like Alabama or Ohio State, but even Central Michigan or Middle Tennessee.
The competition may be a step up, but the potential exposure as part of a nationally televised season is significant.
“Why can’t it be us?” Sanders said this week. “I just say, ‘Why can’t it be us?’
The short answer is NCAA rules. FBS is one division, FCS is another. Jackson State and the other HBCUs don’t even compete in the extended FCS playoff, which is usually dominated by schools like North Dakota State and Sam Houston State.
To even do that, you’d have to change the NCAA rules again, though that’s a simple fix.
There will be 41 bowl games this season, meaning 82 of the 131 FBS teams will reach the postseason. Last year, 21 teams made it to a bowl game with just a 6-6 record. Rutgers, as a late replacement, actually entered the Gator Bowl at 5-7. This is a middle ground.
“You have teams that go almost 6-5 going into a bowl game,” Sanders said. No one is going to watch them play, and no one is tuning in to witness that stupidity. But you have us who travel deep and travel heavy.
It’s not about getting a spot in the College Football Playoff or even the Rose Bowl. There are plenty of mini games that basically appeal to more than die-hard college football fans and gamblers. Did last year’s Myrtle Beach Bowl game between 6-6 Old Dominion and 6-6 Tulsa get anyone fired? One of those teams that plays the best HBCU game will be more attractive.
And as Sanders noted, it will likely be better attended because JSU, among others, travels really “deep” and “heavy.” The Tigers have more fans than a number of FCS schools.
A small bowl game based in the South would probably covet the opportunity. These are showcases after all, essentially exhibition tournaments designed to reward teams while promoting a product and boosting the local economy.
Why not, right?
The main reason is that until now, very few people even considered it an idea, let alone a good one. HBCUs play Division I basketball (and other sports), including multiple leagues with automatic bids for March Madness. Football is different though. Maybe Sanders brought this up.
FBS and HBCU teams sometimes play during the regular season. Alabama State lost to UCLA, 45-7, and Florida A&M fell to North Carolina, 56-24, among others, this year. However, UCLA and UNC are top 20 teams. What happens against a 6-6 club outside the MAC?
There may be concerns about player health and safety due to the extended season, but if Deion Sanders isn’t worried about that, he certainly knows more than most.
HBCUs have a bowl game – the Celebration Bowl – that features the champions of its two major conferences, the SWAC and the MEAC. The game will be held in mid-December at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Last year South Carolina State defeated JSU in front of 48,653 fans.
It’s a great weekend that would be made even better if the winner went to an FBS bowl played against an FBS opponent in late December or early January. A smaller bowl would have to be moved for this, but so what?
“It’s after prom,” Sanders said. “It’s a goal. It’s a bowl game before the New Year that we’d love to have a chance to play in. Along with FAMU and some other great teams that are doing great things.”
Coach Prime doesn’t make mistakes. As bowl games lose their value as the playoffs expand and many top players skip games to prepare for the NFL, here’s something new for an old industry to embrace.
It won’t be done this year, but someone has to do it. Having Deion Sanders at an HBCU could be another lasting legacy.