Notable NFL Figures are Coming to Coach at HBCUs, Is it A Viable Long-Term Strategy?

“... obtaining a coaching gig at HBCUs can be a stepping stone for a more lucrative FCS or FBS job down the road.”

As the trend of notable NFL figures coming to HBCUs continues, we investigate what will happen as some of these figures succeed. Will they stay at HBCUs? How can we retain their services?

During the summer of 2021, we wrote an article discussing the athletic and academic revolutions occurring at HBCUs. We were all speculating what Deion Sanders and Jackson State’s FCS leading recruiting class would accomplish and the domino effect it would have on the SWAC. Tennessee State had recently hired NFL All-Pro and Heisman Trophy Winner Eddie George. As it would turn out, Tennessee State won their most games in a season since 2017. Jackson State would finish 11–2, including a perfect SWAC record, before falling to South Carolina State University in the Celebration Bowl. FAMU jumped from the MEAC to join the SWAC and had a spectacular season. Their only conference loss would be to Jackson State, and their strong season allowed them to participate in the FCS Division I Playoffs.
The budding success of football programs at Jackson State and FAMU has forced fellow conference members to revamp their programs. Grambling State and Southern announced new coaches to lead their respective programs in December. Southern hired Prairie View A&M head coach Eric Dooley, who had led the Panthers to a SWAC West Division title and Conference Championship vs. Jackson State this year. Grambling State hired former NFL Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator Hue Jackson to lead their program. Jackson’s hire continues the trend of notable NFL figures coming to HBCUs.
This trend is exciting for our institutions, but as we begin to look at the long-term outlooks of this strategy, things get murky. While I would like to believe that those who are taking positions at our institutions are doing it for the right reasons, it can be reasonably argued that for NFL figures without significant coaching experience, obtaining a coaching gig at HBCUs can be a stepping stone for a more lucrative FCS or FBS job down the road. Eddie George had no formal coaching experience before being hired at Tennessee State. Deion Sanders had no top-level coaching experience but had coached successful high school and youth teams. Hue Jackson was the only one of this trio with collegiate and NFL coaching experience.

Courtesy: Grambling State
You best believe that George, Jackson, and other HBCU coaches are watching Sanders’ movement to get a better picture of their own exit opportunities. The early success of Sanders at Jackson State has already led to him being interviewed for Texas Christian University’s(TCU) head coach gig, and he has hinted that he has garnered interest from other schools. For reference, the outgoing coach for TCU made $6.1 million annually, about 20 times more than the $300,000 annual base salary Jackson State pays Sanders. In the short term, Sanders will likely stay put as his sons matriculate through Jackson State, and he continues to build the program. Long term, however, it will be a tough proposition to retain successful coaches when such a stark pay gap exists. Furthermore, the loosening of rules around the NCAA’s transfer portal may allow Sanders or other successful coaches to take their recruits with them when they leave their respective programs.
A big part of the problem is resources. As we all know, HBCUs have been short-changed since their inception by federal and state governments as well as private philanthropy, which has led to a stark wealth gap between predominantly white institutions(PWIs) and HBCUs in all areas. Thus, it should be no surprise that the same stark wealth gap is present in athletics. While FBS and strong PWI FCS programs constantly upgrade facilities and programs through TV broadcasting deals, boosters, and ticket sales, HBCUs have never been afforded an equitable slice of these funds.
Presently, HBCU athletic departments do not have the capacity to compete with top-tier FCS and FBS coach salaries, but there may be solutions to mitigate the gap. Coincidentally, Sanders’ contract with Jackson State has some sweeteners that could be a blueprint for other HBCUs to follow.
As we said earlier, Sanders makes a base salary of $300,000 each year over his four-year deal. This is a pretty standard salary for a coach in the SWAC and across the FCS. He also has the standard performance incentives found in most contracts.
Beat an FBS opponent? $25,000 bonus.
Win a SWAC East Title? $10,000 bonus.
Win the SWAC? $30,000 bonus.
Win the Celebration Bowl? $50,000 bonus.
If Jackson State posts a single-year APR score above 970? $5,000 bonus.
The uniqueness of the contract begins to stand out when you see that Sanders gets a cut of ticket revenue as long as certain attendance thresholds are met.
As per the contract, if the number of tickets sold for such games is greater than 30,000 tickets, the University shall pay to Head Coach an amount equal to ten percent (10%) of the Game Ticket Sales Revenue. Jackson State has always had strong attendance numbers, and this year was no different. According to reports, the average attendance at Veterans Memorial was 42,293, and the SWAC Championship packed over 50,000 fans into the stadium. We can confidently conclude that Sanders received his 10% cut of ticket revenue.
An additional clause in his contract states that Sanders receives 10% of the total Season Ticket Sales Revenue if the team sells over 10,000 season tickets. The last report we had regarding season ticket sales was during the COVID shortened Spring 2021 season, where stadium capacity was limited, and it was reported that they had sold just under 8,000 season tickets. Considering the fact capacity has now increased and attendance, it is fair to say that Sanders likely hit this incentive as well.
All of this to say, if we calculate Sanders’ potential pay with very liberal estimates, we get some interesting numbers.
Revenue numbers were created by assuming 47,000 tickets were sold(20,000 advanced, 22,000 at the door, 3000 reserved advanced, 2,000 reserved game day) each of the five home games. We also assumed 10,000 season tickets were sold(8900 general season tickets, 1000 reserved season tickets, 100 box season tickets). The prices used can be found here.*

As we can see with these estimates, Sanders’ contract essentially has quadrupled with his ticket sales incentives. He was by far the highest-paid HBCU coach this season, and his salary puts him in the upper quartile of FCS coaches. The fact that Sanders’ contract includes a percentage of ticket sales and that money is the bulk of his deal means that he will always have a vested interest in the program’s success. This contract setup could also serve as a blueprint for other HBCUs interested in recruiting and retaining talented coaches. Building a strong program would create a mutually beneficial relationship between the school and coach, where continued success would be rewarded by ticket revenue.
As we’ve highlighted before, for most HBCUs, athletics is not a profitable endeavor, and the sad reality is that students end up bearing the costs of new facilities and complexes. This is in stark contrast to what happens at many PWIs. We have all heard the stories of the multi-million dollar donations that prominent alumni present to their school’s athletic programs to fund facilities. As the wealth gap grows, it becomes increasingly likely that this is a luxury that HBCUs will likely never see. However, as corporate and private philanthropy flourishes at our institutions, it does present the opportunity to entice prominent boosters from PWIs and other philanthropists to consider helping level the playing field. Athletic facilities that are funded by boosters mean that student fees can be reduced or reallocated to services that would better benefit the student population. Additionally, boosters can be instrumental in helping support salaries for coaches and personnel; as we see in many Power 5 conferences, boosters will help buy out underperforming coaches.
All in all, the trend of notable NFL figures coming to coach at HBCUs is likely to continue. What remains to be seen is how long these figures will last at our institutions. While the unsuccessful coaches will inevitably flame out, for the successful coaches, will our schools just be stepping stones to more lucrative positions at PWIs? We’ll gain more clarity as the Sanders’ saga unfolds, but conference rivals can replicate some of the strategies meant to incentivize Sanders into staying. Strategies like revenue sharing built into contracts when certain thresholds are met can help retain successful coaches to continue to build out athletic programs. Corporate boosters could improve athletic facilities, retain coaches, and strengthen athletic budgets while freeing students from funding athletic ventures.

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