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Why Deion Sanders encouraged Eddie George to become Tennessee State’s new coach

The two former NFL stars spoke about the realities and potential of HBCU athletics

Eddie George wanted answers about life as a college football coach at a historically Black university, so he called first-year Jackson State coach Deion Sanders last month for answers.

Apparently, George liked what he heard.

Tennessee State is expected to introduce George as its new head coach Tuesday morning.

George spent the bulk of his nine-year career playing for the Tennessee Titans, gaining 10,441 yards and scoring 68 touchdowns. In 2019, the franchise retired his No. 27.

So he’s a big deal in Nashville, where Tennessee State is located, but the reality is he has zero coaching experience.

When he left the NFL after the 2003 season, George attacked life with a zest that would make Paul Robeson, the ultimate Renaissance man, proud.

George finished his degree in landscape architecture from Ohio State, earned an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, founded the Edward George Wealth Management Group and starred in the musical Chicago on Broadway. Now he’s ready to take on coaching.

“He was supposed to spend a week or two with me because I wanted him to understand what he was getting into,” Sanders said, “and his only reluctance was that he hadn’t coached before.

“I said, ‘Eddie, you’re a leader of men. Get a great staff and you’re going to be OK.’ He didn’t have to reach out to me. Who am I? That says to me he wants this.”

All of George’s experiences have prepared him for this moment.

Football is a game of repetition, details and discipline. He has considerable experience in each of those areas.

Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George during a 29-27 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 7, 2003, at The Coliseum in Nashville, Tennessee.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Preparing for the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago is all about repetition and practice, and you don’t create a wealth management company and handle your clients’ life savings without attention to detail and organizational skills.

“You have to understand what this is,” Sanders said. “You have to wear more than one hat. You have to Tyler Perry this thing.”

Perry, of course, is the African American Hollywood mogul known for writing, directing, producing and starring in his movies, which have grossed more than $1 billion.

George has the personality and contacts to put together a staff of quality assistants who can help him as he adjusts to the job. Former Titans coach Jeff Fisher will reportedly be on his staff, as will Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who played at Tennessee State and became a 2008 first-round pick who retired from the NFL after the 2019 season.

Playing football at a historically Black college or university (HBCU) offers a different experience from playing at a traditional Power 5 program, but the reality is the best players want to play in the NFL. If HBCU programs show they can consistently provide that opportunity, they will sign players who don’t want to play at a predominantly white school.

This doesn’t mean a steady stream of four- and five-star Black players will be signing national letters of intent with HBCU football programs, but you better believe some will choose to do it.

“Eddie George is a winner. Eddie George is a great dude. Eddie George is great for HBCUs and it’s not going to stop there. Trust me, it’s not going to stop there. It just takes time.”

– Deion Sanders

“You’ll want to throw things some days. These kids don’t want to listen and do what I say. I don’t have time for this,” Sanders said. “You have to love this. You can’t fake this. They’re going to be able to tell.

“There has not been one day that I couldn’t wait to get up there, because it ain’t work. I’m getting ready to go spend some time with some of my dearest friends and teach kids. I love it.”

“Eddie George is a winner. Eddie George is a great dude. Eddie George is great for HBCUs and it’s not going to stop there,” Sanders said. “Trust me, it’s not going to stop there. It just takes time.”

Sanders and now George aren’t the first former NFL stars to fill HBCU coaching vacancies. Doug Williams, the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl, coached at his alma mater Grambling for several seasons, succeeding his legendary coach Eddie Robinson. And Harold Jackson, a beloved and heralded former Jackson State player who played 16 seasons in the NFL, coached at Jackson State during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Currently, the list includes Morgan State football coach Tyrone Wheatley, who starred at Michigan and played in the NFL for 10 seasons.

He’s talking about former NFL stars coaching at HBCUs.

We’ll see.

Sanders has impacted HBCU football in a way most of us couldn’t have imagined.

All of Jackson State’s games have been broadcast on one of ESPN’s networks and his relationship with PepsiCo Inc. helped the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) get a three-year deal with the beverage company.

The most important component of that deal is that PepsiCo has committed to hiring a graduate from each of SWAC’s 10 schools. The deal doesn’t get done without Sanders leveraging the relationships he’s created over the last 30 years.

George arrives with similar cachet and contacts.

Understand, though, hiring George can’t just be about getting Tennessee State on national TV or using his relationships to raise money for buildings.

“The hiring has to be authentic,” Sanders said. “It has to be about winning football games. It can’t be about all the other stuff, or it won’t work. Football has to be the main thing.”

Jean-Jacques Taylor, a native of Dallas, is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL for 25 years and is president of JJT Media Group.