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HBCUs ponder a prime exit after football coach Deion Sanders leaves Jackson State

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When former NFL star Deion Sanders first broke into coaching college football, he made what seemed like an unusual choice. He took a coaching job at Jackson State University, a lower-division team with a losing record in the decade before Sanders. This year, though, JSU came away with a 12-0 record, and that winning streak has brought a national spotlight to HBCU athletics. But next year, things will be different.

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DEION SANDERS: In coaching, you get elevated or you get terminated. Ain't no other way.

SUMMERS: That's what Sanders told his players at Jackson State upon taking the head coaching job at the University of Colorado, a school in one of the top five conferences for college football. LA Times sports culture critic Tyler Tynes joins us now. Hey, there.

TYLER TYNES: What's happening?

SUMMERS: Hey. So to start if you could, just give us your gut reaction when you heard the news that Sanders was leaving Jackson State for Colorado.

TYNES: I think, on its face, it's not that big of a deal, right? You know, a man takes a job, gets a better job in some respects, and he gets a big pay raise. But when you're a head coach at an HBCU, it comes with, sometimes, a bigger commitment, right? It's not only to these players - it's to this community, to the teachers and to the fans that go back decades, to our traditions and everything else. And so when you leave Jackson State, especially after you sold a very specific dream, it's going to come with a fervor like no other.

SUMMERS: So for people who don't follow college football as closely as you and I do, talk about what that dream is that Deion Sanders - that Coach Prime sold to this school. What did he give them?

TYNES: He gave them a dream, like any coach would. He said that God brought him to Jackson State to revive HBCU football. And listen, depending on how you think about football, Deion Sanders made good on his dream. ESPN came down. The whole world watched college football in the South in a way they hadn't in many years. But any time a college football coach leaves an HBCU, particularly for a PWI...

SUMMERS: A predominantly white institution.

TYNES: ...Mmm hmm - it's going to ruffle a few feathers.

SUMMERS: In the days since Deion Sanders announced that he was leaving Jackson State for Colorado, there's been some people who have been critical of him for turning his back on HBCUs, they've suggested - perhaps even turning his back on Black people. Is that a fair criticism to you?

TYNES: I think any time we run the risk of calling a man a sellout before we actually get there, it's dangerous. We don't really know what Deion's motivations are yet - though, in the past, Deion's motivations have been Deion. And so when the idea is that you've gone to a historically Black college to sell a dream of prosperity and bringing them back to glory, I think it might be fair criticism to think he's done something wrong, especially in the way that he left Jackson State and the way that he's talked to both his new players and his old players. There's fair game on Deion Sanders all around. Whether he sold out Black people or not I think is a stretch just too far.

SUMMERS: You've documented a time when the best Black players in the sport would sometimes opt to play for the best Black coaches at HBCUs, but the college football landscape has changed since then. What do you think would need to happen for HBCUs to retain national-level talent today?

TYNES: We'd have to have a new sport. I would love nothing more than for every HBCU in the world to be able to go toe-to-toe with the best PWIs, the best Power Fives in the country. But the reality is that, between certain legalese in our country and also certain roadblocks when it comes to football, our HBCUs have been stripped of their power. And that power is not coming back in most cases. Though we do think that a lot of these recruits could and should choose HBCUs over some other schools, I think it's wrong sometimes to ask teenagers to make big decisions like that.

SUMMERS: Black players are now the majority of top-level college football players, and they're often the superstars who show up on ESPN no matter what school they're playing for. But Black head coaches - those are far more rare in college football, let alone the NFL. So do you think Deion Sanders' hiring opens any doors there?

TYNES: Any time a Black coach can get a head coaching job at a predominantly white university, it's a very, very, very big step one way or the other. I don't know what Deion's hiring is going to do in terms of the ripples and effects for college football. I hope it means that more Black folks get hired - at the minimum.

SUMMERS: Tyler Tynes is a sports culture critic for the Los Angeles Times. Tyler, thank you.

TYNES: Appreciate you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.