Jackson State’s Deion Sanders ‘kicked down some doors’ but where do HBCU sports go now?

In February for Black History Month, USA TODAY Sports is publishing the series 28 Black Stories in 28 Days. We examine the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials continue to face after the nation’s reckoning on race two years ago.

Kortne Gosha’s reaction mirrored the rest of college sports when Ashley Robinson, the athletics director at Jackson State, revealed in September 2020 that he was about to hire Deion Sanders as head football coach.

“He called me and said, ‘What do you think?’ ” said Gosha, the athletics director at Florida A&M and Robinson’s longtime friend. “I said, ‘You’ll win the press conference.’ “

At best, hiring an NFL Hall of Famer and media star with a short coaching track record looked like a high-risk, high-reward bet on the force of Sanders’ personality bringing national interest to a program that had fallen into irrelevance. At worst, it could have been a publicity stunt doomed to embarrass everyone involved.

Instead, Sanders’ tenure has not only been successful on the field, it’s turned into a moment of opportunity for the entire group of football-playing Historically Black Colleges and Universities that have traditionally struggled for funding and exposure in the NCAA structure.

“I think we are as healthy now as we have been in quite some time,” said Southwestern Athletic Conference commissioner Charles McClelland, whose league has become the most prominent hub for HBCU sports.

A large part of it, undeniably, is due to the Sanders-driven marketing machine that has brought mainstream intrigue to a niche product. The evidence of it showed up weekly in the large crowds Jackson State drew wherever they played and 2.6 million television viewers for the Celebration Bowl, which is considered the HBCU national championship. There’s also been an…

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