By conventional measures, Deion Sanders’s decision to leave Jackson State to become the head football coach at the University of Colorado is a no-brainer. Colorado has reportedly signed the former NFL star to a five-year, $29.5 million deal—the most lucrative contract given to any football coach in that school’s history and a huge bump up from Sanders’s current four-year, $1.4 million contract.
And in some ways, his impending departure from Jackson State, a historically Black institution in Mississippi, for a school competing at the highest level in college football is a sign of progress. Black coaches, especially those who have been head coaches at historically Black institutions, rarely get a real shot for top positions in major conferences.
Yet Sanders, after just three seasons at Jackson State, is leaving behind a trail of disappointment and criticism, because his exit highlights all the reasons that historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) fail to thrive.
These schools have played an essential role in creating Black upward mobility and, as I have previously argued, offer Black athletes—whom big-name college-sports programs have long exploited—an opportunity to take greater control of their own destiny and strengthen their communities. Despite typically lacking the resources available to historically white institutions, HBCUs are responsible for more Black medical-school applicants than predominantly white institutions, according to McKinsey & Company. They have graduated 40 percent of all Black engineers and members of Congress, 50 percent of all Black lawyers, and 80 percent of all Black judges. Vice President Kamala Harris graduated from Howard University, one of the most prestigious HBCUs in the nation.
In the end, the profound legacy of HBCUs just wasn’t enough. In addition to his own salary, Colorado promised Sanders a $5 million war chest to hire his coaching staff—another perk that wasn’t possible at Jackson State. In fact, Sanders’s new contract at Colorado is more than 10 times larger than Jackson State’s entire $2.1 million football budget in 2021.
These are justified rewards for Sanders, who has emerged as one of college football’s most charismatic and compelling stars. At Jackson State, Sanders compiled a 27–5 record, which included guiding the school to an undefeated season this year for the first time in school history. He also won back-to-back Southwestern Athletic Conference championships and coach-of-the-year awards, brought the school unprecedented national exposure, and made the Tigers a destination for some of the top high-school recruits in the country.
Sanders never misled anyone about his interest in moving on to a bigger and better-resourced program. When Sanders was asked during a recent 60 Minutes interview if he would consider coaching offers from major-conference schools, Sanders said: “I’m going to have to entertain it. Straight up. I’d be a fool not to.”
Still, Sanders once seemed to understand that the Jackson State program has a special mission. After taking the head-coaching job in 2020, he appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America and told the host Michael Strahan—one of about three dozen HBCU players in the NFL Hall of Fame—that “God led me to Jackson State.”
Again and again, Sanders tugged at all the right emotional strings. “I don’t know if you know, but we’re family now,” Sanders said during his introductory press conference at Jackson State. He also told 60 Minutes that George Floyd’s murder partially motivated him to come to Jackson State, and that he was committed to reshaping narratives about historically Black colleges and universities. He wanted to “change lives,” he said. “Change the perspective of HBCU football.”
But as Sanders’s accomplishments piled up and the attention the program received increased, so did his prospects. During Sanders’s tenure, the athletic department generated an estimated $185 million in advertising value and exposure for Jackson State. The national media swarmed to cover the newest sensation in college football, including ESPN’s wildly popular show College GameDay, which made its first-ever visit to Jackson for the game against Southern University in October.
For Jackson State fans who feel abandoned, it doesn’t help that Sanders opted for a Colorado program that finished 1–11 last season and hasn’t won more than five games in a season since 2016. Naturally, coaching jobs open up most frequently in programs that aren’t in good shape. But by jumping at an offer from a major-conference school that is in the bottom rung of the Pac-12 Conference rather than continuing to engineer success at Jackson State, Sanders reinforced the narrative that mainstream validation is more important than fostering Black excellence at a Black institution.
The question of what successful Black individuals owe the broader Black community is a complex one. Gary Chambers Jr., a civil-rights activist who unsuccessfully sought a U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana this year, tweeted this about the Sanders situation: “At some point we as Black people have to admit that Black flight impacts Black institutions & communities just as much as white flight & then gentrification. Truth is, being Black is so damn complex in America that having these conversations in public is a challenge in itself.”
Black flight played a role in creating some of the conditions that Sanders would later inherit at Jackson State. HBCUs were once the only higher-education option available to most Black people, and for years all the top Black athletes went to HBCUs. Then desegregation, along with white institutions’ recognition that their football teams wouldn’t survive unless they started to recruit Black players, permanently loosened the grip that HBCUs had on the top talent.
Since the beginning, HBCUs have been forced to do more with so much less. Sanders definitely had to contend with that dynamic at Jackson State. He had to endure a massive water crisis in the school’s host city, and this past summer even volunteered to donate half of his salary so that much-needed upgrades for the football facility would be completed before training camp began.
As admirable as that offer was, it highlights the gross inequality that exists in higher education. Earlier this year, Forbes calculated that 18 public HBCUs were underfunded, relative to their predominantly white peer institutions, by nearly $13 billion from 1987 to 2020. Other HBCUs face similar funding disparities.
Given Jackson State’s limited resources, no one was delusional enough to believe that Sanders would follow the path of the legendary HBCU coach Eddie Robinson, who coached at Grambling for 56 years. Sanders just didn’t sound like someone who would bolt after only three seasons. “Oftentimes, you’ve got to be willing to be that guy, willing to risk it, willing to attempt it, willing to secure it to accomplish your goals,” Sanders told The Undefeated heading into his second season at Jackson State. “And I’m more than willing. And I’m more than able. And I’m more than capable.”
Sanders wasn’t only doing the Tigers a favor through his presence; he got a lot out of the relationship too. No major-conference school had any genuine interest in making Sanders a head coach before Jackson State entered the picture. Sanders came out much further ahead because the university took a chance on him.
Sanders unquestionably deserves a lot of credit for what he achieved at Jackson State, but that’s not a blueprint other HBCUs can follow. This is one reason his departure hurts more than it should. Fixing the problems that have plagued HBCUs for decades was never Sanders’s responsibility, even though he once seemed to think that’s what he was called to do. If Sanders deserves blame for anything, it’s for helping advance the false notion that one person’s achievement can somehow defeat decades of neglect.