Deion Sanders changing recruiting game for HBCUs
Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders motions to his players during an NCAA football game against Louisiana Monroe on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Monroe, La. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

A visible ripple was sent across college football in December when Jackson State coach and Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders did the unheard of, getting the No. 1 recruit in the nation to flip from his alma mater – Florida State – to his current place of employment.

After committing to the Seminoles nearly two years ago, cornerback prospect Travis Hunter stunned the nation during December’s early signing day period when he picked the Tigers over the Power 5 powerhouse. Never had a top-ranked recruit flipped from an elite FBS school to play for a FCS program, much less an HBCU.

Hunter’s decision has stoked emotions from both sides of the aisle.

On one side, you have Jackson State and other HBCUs that now hope Hunter has opened the door for other elite high school athletes to take their talents to the more nurturing historically Black colleges across the nation.

Power 5 programs, which are all predominantly white universities, are hoping quite the opposite as the trend could eventually cut into their billion-dollar monopoly that has made coaches millions while many student-athletes barely have enough money to hit a party on campus.

Count Texas Southern Athletic director Kevin Granger, whose football program competes against Jackson State in the SWAC, among those who are excited about the possibilities Sanders’ recruiting coup may have created for Black college football.

“I think it’s going to open it up not only for Jackson State, but what he is doing is going to open it up for the whole entire conference,” Granger said to The Defender. “Now, people are going to be able to look into the conference and say, `Hey, the conference ain’t that bad. And we can actually go to the conference.’

“I think it’s upon us too, once we get them to commit and come to the conference, that we do things, starting to win. If one or two of them can get drafted from this, it will blow up. That’s what the people are looking for, places they can go to get drafted. Once somebody gets drafted it’s over.”

Could HBCUs become a legit threat to the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 when it comes to competing for elite African-American athletes? Experts say, sure.

But that would require an unprecedented financial investment from the HBCUs and their alumni to upgrade facilities and other amenities that the Power 5 schools and even many of the mid-major FBS programs have.

“I can’t speak for all of those young men, but I would think they would need an investment in those programs from the alums, just the same as the Notre Dame alum or the Texas A&M alum invests,” Director of Recruiter Steve Wiltfong said. “I don’t know what alum investments is like in their sports teams at HBCUs.”

Hunter, who is considered the best two-way player to come out of Georgia since Champ Bailey, has become huge for HBCUs and has challenged others to follow him. And another did, when the nation’s top slot receiver Kevin Coleman also signed with Jackson State, paving the way for the Tigers to have a Top 80 national recruiting class last month.

JSU’s 2022 recruiting class ranked ahead of several Power 5 programs, which is unheard of for an HBCU.

“I’m so grateful for the massive support. I’m honored. Thank you,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “But while you are all here…let me nudge the spotlight over to HBCUs. Let’s massively support them…Alumni, grantors, athletes – it’s going to take all of us. Who’s with me? This is our moment.”

Apparently, athletes are listening. Wiltfong says many of the elite recruits are now including at least one HBCU on their finalist list. For instance, 5-star recruit Richard Young, who is the No. 1 running back in the junior class, has vowed that he will take visits to Florida A&M and Jackson State.

HBCU programs have seemed to benefit from an awakening of consciousness that started with the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter Movement. There has been a movement of self-support among the Black community and that has spilled over to HBCU athletics where a top basketball recruit decided to attend Howard University and several Black celebrities have chosen to send their kids to play for schools like TSU and Tennessee State.

Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback, has now made it okay for other high-profile coaches to turn to HBCUs with Eddie George taking over at Tennessee State, Hue Jackson assuming control at Grambling State and former players like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed reportedly looking for HBCU opportunities.

“What Deion is doing and proving is if you get the right people in front of these student-athletes to be able to explain all of the advantages of going to an HBCU then you may get an opportunity to flip one or two of them,” Granger said. “And if you flip one or two, maybe you can flip three or four. Then the next year after that you can flip four or five. You hope that the domino effect continues to happen.”

While Young isn’t close to making a college decision, he is making of point of keeping HBCUs part of his recruiting mix.

Young told 247sports, “People don’t really know this, but me and [head coach Willie Simmons] have been building a relationship for a while now. I have been texting him back and forth and talking to him on the phone. I haven’t really told anyone this before, but I’m definitely going to visit Florida A&M.”

Wiltfong sees this as a trend that could eventually become landscape-altering.

“Travis Hunter is a trendsetter so maybe it becomes a trend and you see more guys do it,” Wiltfong said.” With that, Rome is not built in a day. Somebody has got to get it rocking and rolling.”