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Tennessee State coach Eddie George’s callout to fans highlights line between football and entertainment culture

Use celebrity and community to build interest in football and in historically Black universities

Tennessee State University football coach Eddie George has been a model of football consistency – and intensity – in Nashville, Tennessee, for more than a quarter century. On Saturday, when he questioned TSU fans’ love of football in a 90-second, angst-filled sermon, I interpreted his message in four words: Keep that same energy.

“I’m hoping that, you know, next week we’ll have the same crowd … that was here today. It was great. Would have loved for it to have been packed for the entire game, not after halftime when the bands left,” George said in a postgame news conference after his Tigers’ 24-17 homecoming win over Norfolk State University.

“We’ve got a special group, and I … want our fan base to really embrace that. I don’t know if they really love football, I just don’t know. I have been for three years and there’s only been a couple of games that they come to with that many people and be excited. But I don’t know if they truly love the game, because we are winning.”

George isn’t the first to criticize that component of football culture at historically Black colleges and universities, and he certainly won’t be the last. It is ironic he is raising that complaint, though, because the line separating the fans who leave early and the fans who stay marks the difference between football culture and entertainment culture.

When TSU offered George the job in 2021, he initially turned it down because he didn’t have any head coaching experience. But TSU’s administration didn’t want an X’s and O’s guy. It wanted a celebrity coach. That’s entertainment culture.

Entertainment culture has been a boon for Black college athletics, starting with NFL legend Deion Sanders’ tenure as coach at Jackson State University. TSU wanted in on the action, but there was one issue – there’s only one Coach Prime. A beautiful thing happened before Jackson State and TSU met a year ago in the Southern Heritage Classic, though: While speaking with media, George got to the heart of the matter when his methods were compared with those of his flashier counterpart.

“It’s not a right or wrong to either approach. The bottom line is — is change happening?” he said.

The change is the thing. For as much as folks wanted to mine George’s celebrity, he was made of stronger and more substantial stuff. That’s why his comments in January about the underfunding of Tennessee State to the tune of $2.1 billion were so relevant. They were the musings of a man who seemed to care about more than 10 yards at a time; he cared about the HBCU land-grant landscape.

He reiterated those concerns on a media call last week.

“This is bigger than just the athletic program,” George said. “It’s $2.1 billion dollars that could really help this university become elite. … I think we can look across the board holistically across the country at every HBCU and see they have been underfunded. Let’s call it what it is — systemic racism.”

I hear those comments and believe George might be in touch with that “higher calling” that draws African Americans to HBCUs, the tug on the heart that inspires sacrifice and commitment from generations of staffers and enthusiasts. Instead of comparing George to his celebrity counterparts, perhaps we should aspire to compare him with the likes of coaches who have been in the game for the long haul, such as South Carolina State University coach Buddy Pough.

Or perhaps we should review George’s previous comments once more. There is no right or wrong approach. Is change happening? As HBCUs compete in an unfair playing field, we should employ celebrity and community to build not just football interest but interest in our schools, too.

I remember when former Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference member Paine College in Georgia brought back its football program in 2014 after a 50-year hiatus. Arguably Paine’s most exciting win in 2014 was a 45-34 victory over Benedict College in South Carolina. Benedict is considered the best HBCU football program in Division II.

Paine’s first year back on the gridiron was also Selina Kohn’s first year as the college’s athletic director. She made history at the time as Paine’s first female AD and has spent the past quarter century at the institution as both a coach (women’s basketball, women’s volleyball) and administrator.

“We had to get very creative at how we got people in the stands,” Kohn said. “Because we didn’t have a band, we were inviting other team’s bands. We were giving tickets away on the radio, which not only got people to come to the games for winning tickets but also made the community aware of our games.”

Paine now competes in the National Christian College Athletic Association, but Kohn, an Albany State University alum, still has eyes on HBCU sports. She lauded the success of two Columbia, South Carolina schools, Allen University and Benedict.

“I’ve been watching a bit from behind the scenes, and Allen is making some noise in their transition to becoming a Division II school,” she said. “Benedict is like our distant cousin. We’ve always had that type of family relationship.”

I would love to see George build a relationship with the next generation of TSU’s football community, and this model might also work for my other brothas and sistas in HBCU administrations. Allow elementary school and middle school children to attend the games for free. This ensures at least one paying ticket and exposure of young people to the HBCU experience. Before I knew down and distance, I knew what the Marching 101 of South Carolina State represented.

This is how you build community. Jackson State’s pre-Prime and post-Prime attendance numbers are still worthy. There are HBCU fans like myself who stay for the fourth quarter – and the fifth quarter, when applicable. 

When George finally took the job at TSU, he implored fans to be patient with him. When it comes to building a football tradition and preserving the institutions themselves, we could all use a bit more grace.

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his sons.