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Deion Sanders: Winning for All the Great Black Coaches of the Past

Here’s hoping that his Colorado team’s stunning upset win last Saturday was only the beginning.

Deion Sanders, head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes
Ron Jenkins/Getty Images
Sanders, head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes, during last week’s game against the TCU Horned Frogs in Fort Worth, Texas

One summer day during the early 1960s, Jake Gaither was holding his annual coaching clinic on the campus of Florida A&M University, a historically Black school, where he had led a dominant football team for nearly 20 years. So respected was Gaither among his colleagues that, despite the laws and customs of segregation that ordered life in the Jim Crow South, such famous white coaches as Woody Hayes of Ohio State, Frank Howard of Clemson, and Ben Schwartzwalder of Syracuse regularly made the pilgrimage to Tallahassee. Sitting on benches beneath live oak trees to blunt the stifling heat, they watched Gaither cover a blackboard with his innovative plays.

During one of those sessions, the students included a more recent arrival, Bear Bryant, who had taken over the Alabama Crimson Tide a few years before and transformed the team into a perennial national power. He had also, in keeping with the South’s stance of “massive resistance” to civil rights, kept his squad entirely white. When Bryant scoffed at Gaither’s offensive scheme, saying it would never work at a big-time school, Gaither shot back, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll take my players and beat yours with it, and take your players and beat mine with it.”

Gaither’s words attested to two truths. One involved the absolute segregation of college football in the South. The other, which belied any sense of moral superiority in the North, was the utter impossibility of a Black head coach like Gaither, no matter how successful and brilliant and inspiring, ever being hired to helm a team even on the far side of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The long-ago encounter between Gaither and Bryant, which I had first discovered in doing research for my book Breaking the Line, surged front of mind last Saturday as I watched Deion Sanders’s Colorado team stun highly ranked Texas Christian 45–42 on the foes’ home field. It was just last season that TCU played for the national championship. Colorado had entered the game as a three-touchdown underdog, with a roster that Sanders had almost entirely overhauled since arriving from Jackson State in Mississippi early this year. It hardly mattered to the oddsmakers that in three years at that HBCU, Sanders had put together a 27–6 record and out-recruited football powerhouses like his own alma mater, Florida State, for top prospects. Left largely unstated amid the media fascination with “Coach Prime” moving into a Power Five conference was the sad, damning rarity of an HBCU coach being admitted into college football’s top echelons.

With his team’s stirring upset of TCU, Sanders not only defied the dismal expectations for a team that had finished 1–11 last season. More importantly, at least from a historical perspective, his triumph amounted to a makeup call for so many exceptional coaches during the heyday of Black college football, from the late 1940s through early 1970s, who were systemically denied any such opportunity. But a makeup call is, by definition, too late and too little to correct the injustices of the past.

If merit is supposedly the measure for upward mobility in America, then how many coaches compiled more achievements than Gaither at FAMU, Eddie Robinson at Grambling, and John Merritt at Tennessee State? Gaither put together a career winning percentage of .844, Robinson set a major-college record with 408 victories, and 10 of Merritt’s 21 teams at TSU either went unbeaten or lost just once. Many of the players developed by these coaches excelled in the NFL and went into the pro football Hall of Fame—among them Charlie Joiner of Grambling and the San Diego Chargers, Richard Dent of TSU and the Chicago Bears, and Ken Riley of FAMU and the Cincinnati Bengals.

In one respect, like other Black institutions that paradoxically flourished amid segregation, HBCU football was its own proud, unapologetic, self-contained world. Yet the scorning of Black head coaches by the major football programs inevitably left a condescending stain. As John Merritt famously put it, HBCU football was played “behind God’s back.” Eddie Jackson, a longtime administrator at FAMU, said of Jake Gaither, “An invisible asterisk hung over his incredible career.”

In the culture of the American South, the secular religion of college football stood not as an incidental element of segregation but as one of its pillars. Until 2010, Mississippi’s team took a Confederate soldier, “Colonel Reb,” as its mascot, and the segregationist Governor Ross Barnett once delivered an anti–civil rights speech at halftime. Before being revised several years ago, the Alabama fight song included the verse, “You’re Dixie’s football pride, Crimson Tide.”

Yet even after schools like Alabama and Mississippi belatedly recruited Black student-athletes in order to compete against long-integrated powerhouses like USC, Ohio State, and Michigan State, colleges in the North and South alike passed over the gifted coaches in the HBCUs. Those men included not only head coaches but talented assistants like Joe Gilliam Sr. and Cat Coleman at TSU and Doug Porter at Grambling, who, absent their race, surely would have been on short lists for head-coaching openings.

It took until 1979 for any predominantly white school, in this case Wichita State, to hire a head coach from the HBCU ranks, Willie Jeffries Jr. of South Carolina State. Perversely, it was as likely that a Black head coach could rise to the presidential Cabinet as to a head-coaching job in an elite conference. Indeed, Rod Paige of Jackson State, who went on to a career in public education in Texas, became George W. Bush’s secretary of education.

So, regardless of how Colorado fares in this weekend’s game against Nebraska, it is a time for two cheers for Deion Sanders. As for the college football establishment, it deserves none.

“With integration, PWI [predominantly white institution] coaches salivated at the thought of bringing in Black players,” said Michael Hurd, the author of the authoritative history Black College Football, “but that was all about blue chip athleticism, Black men accepted for their physical prowess. On the other hand, hiring a Black coach involved a different dynamic that meant conceding the white supremacist questions about a Black man’s intellect and leadership abilities. It meant equality. Athletic directors, coaches, and alumni struggled, to say the least, with that. Deion’s an aberration, and he’s off to a great start at Colorado. I hope he’s a huge success. But I won’t be holding my breath waiting for the next HBCU coach to get a boost from a Power Five school.”