Before Deion "Prime Time" Sanders took the University of Colorado job and shook up the world of big-time college football, Black head coaches with outstanding records at the sport's lower levels never got a chance to prove themselves on college football's biggest stage -- the one occupied by Alabama's Nick Saban, Georgia's Kirby Smart, Clemson's Dabo Swinney, and many other familiar names. That means Sanders is standing on the shoulders of giants, men who never got the opportunity "Coach Prime" has received at Colorado, writes longtime Alabama attorney and sports enthusiast Donald Watkins.
By the way, Sanders' Colorado Buffaloes now stand at 2-0 after starting the 2023 season with a 45-42 upset over last year's national runner-up TCU, followed by a Week 2 36-14 thumping of Nebraska in the Buffs' home opener on Saturday. Watkins looks for Colorado to reach even greater heights as the season moves along -- partly because Sanders and his players know they are playing for something bigger than themselves; they ate playing for those who came before them. Under the headline "Deion Sanders: Winning for All of the Great Black Coaches Who Never Had a Chance to Get This Far." Watkins writes:
Growing up in the president’s mansion at Alabama State University in the 1960s, I met the greatest Black college football coaches of all time. Men like Jake Gaither at Florida A&M University (1945-1969), Eddie Robinson at Grambling University (1941-42 and 1945-97), and John Merritt at Tennessee State University (1963-1983) were regular guests in our home on campus.
These men, all of whom were distinguished and respected African-Americans, compiled incredible records of achievement as head football coaches at their respective universities.
Jake Gaither had a 203-36-4 record over his 25-year career at FAMU, for a winning percentage of .844. In a 10-year streak from 1953 to 1962, his teams went 87-7-1. Gaither's teams won six black college national championships.
Yes, everything in the American South, including major college football, was racially segregated in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s.
Gaither was not the only big name who was forced to work under the radar of national television and huge, sold-out stadiums. Writes Watkins:
Eddie Robinson coached at Grambling for 55 years. He finished with 408 victories, 165 losses, and 15 ties. Penn State's Joe Paterno finished with 409 victories, making him the only FBS coach to surpass Robinson's mark. Robinson won nine Black college national championships and sent more than 80 players to the American and National Football Leagues.
Robinson’s Grambling Tigers beat Oregon State 23-6 on September 28, 1985, for his 323d victory. With this win, Robinson tied University of Alabama Football Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant for the all-time coaching record.
Then came Oct. 5, 1985. The Tigers beat Praire View A&M University 27-7. This was victory No. 324 for Robinson, putting him ahead of Bear Bryant.
John Merritt’s teams at Tennessee State produced a 172-33-7 record. Five of his teams were unbeaten, while five of them lost only one game. In the period 1969 to 1973, Merritt's record was 48-3-1.
Merritt’s TSU teams were Black college national champions for 1965, 1966, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1979 and 1982. Merritt also coached 144 TSU players who went on to become pro football stars.
Despite their unparalleled success in college football, none of these men got the opportunity to coach at a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) university that was afforded by the University of Colorado to Deion Sanders on December 4, 2022. In their era, FBS universities were too steeped in racism to hire winning Black head football coaches at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Hell, in the 1960s, it took federal court orders to get head football and basketball coaching jobs for highly qualified black coaches with outstanding won-loss records at their all-Black high schools who later applied for similar positions at the newly desegregated White high schools.
Gaither, Robinson, and Merritt had the misfortune of living in an era of "opportunity denied" for many Black Americans. Opportunity has not been denied Deion Sanders, and he is making the most of it -- for himself, and those who came before him. Writes Watkins:
Deion “Prime Time” Sanders is a graduate of Talladega College, an HBCU in Talladega, Alabama.
Prior to taking the Colorado head football coaching job, Sanders coached for 3 years at Jackson State University, a historically Black university where he amassed a 27-6 record and an undefeated season last year.
Deion Sanders is an all-star in sports, business, finance, and life. He is also a parent who actively fathers his adult children and many young men who do not have active fathers in their life.
Deion Sanders and his Colorado football team are playing for something much bigger than a great won-loss record, accolades from sportscasters, and sports trophies.
Deion Sanders recognizes that he is standing on the shoulders of Jake Gaither, Eddie Robinson, and John Merritt. God has afforded Sanders the big-time college football coaching opportunity that was consistently denied to Gaither, Robinson, and Merritt.
Deion Sanders is fighting for the respect in the college sports world that was denied to Gaither, Robinson, and Merrittt and the national championship teams that they consistently produced at their historically Black universities -- for decades.
Jake Gaither, Eddie Robinson, and John Merritt were men of honor. They did for college football what nobody else could do -- they established records of excellence that are unbroken today.
Deion Sanders carries on the legacies of Coaches Jake Gaither, Eddie Robinson, and John Merritt and their football players each and every day. The spirits of these great coaches are watching over Sanders from Heaven. They are cheering for his success. They are praying for Deion Sanders, whose tears of joy in victory are theirs, as well.
Deion Sanders picked up the torch of football coaching excellence at Jackson State and he is now carrying it at the University of Colorado -- on the highest stage of college football.
What is ahead for "Coach Prime" and his Colorado Buffaloes? This is what Donald Watkins foresees:
Unlike the few Blacks before him who were lucky enough to have the opportunity to coach at FBS universities, Deion Sanders did not renounce his "blackness" or his connections to the Black community as a quid pro quo for getting the Colorado head coaching job. Sanders has brought all of us along on this ride with him to the land of greatness, and we are basking in his success.
This is a defining moment in FBS college football. It will never be the same.
Deion Sanders' Colorado team will go all of the way to the FBS National Championship game, and win it. No other FBS university is on the same mission, with the same purpose and same passion. In January 2024, Deion Sanders' Colorado Buffaloes will be the last team standing. This is their destiny, and no FBS team can stop this historic event from happening.