Stephen A Smith commentary on Deion Sanders and HBCUs misses mark

Stephen A Smith defended Deion Sanders, stating his success at Colorado could open doors for HBCU coaches. Was he right?

Stephen A Smith is an HBCU graduate and supporter — he’s also a friend of Deion Sanders.

The Winston-Salem State University graduate recently posted an excerpt from his “No Mercy Pod” defending Sanders, who coached at Jackson State before accepting the Colorado job. 

“We got people hating on him all the time. Oh, he should have stayed at the HBCU longer. He shouldn’t have used them to catapult his career, and all of this other stuff they’re chirping about. Shut the hell up.” Smith said, mimicking people complaining. “When he was at Jackson State he did his job. He won football games, brought attention to his program, and never hesitated to bring attention to HBCUs and the needs that they had in order to elevate the profiles of historically black colleges and universities of this country.”

No argument there. But the rest of Smith’s animated monologue isn’t nearly as cut and dry. 

Smith suggested that if Sanders was successful — the doors would open for other HBCU coaches.

“Because if Primetime goes, and all of the sudden, he puts Colorado in the national championship picture… What about the next great HBCU coach?” Smith continued. “He’s opening up the doors of opportunities for future African-Americans, who want to coach on the highest levels.”

Smith went on to proclaim that all black people should be invested in the success of Deion Sanders at Colorado.

“There isn’t a black person alive that should not be rooting for Primetime Deion Sanders to succeed,” he yelled.

Before I give my thoughts on the backend of SAS’s comments, here is what informs my perspective on him.

Stephen A Smith and HBCUs

Seventeen years ago, I was a student journalist at Winston-Salem State University and Stephen A Smith was coming back to campus. 

I had chosen WSSU, in part, because of Stephen A. As I was making my college decision in early 2004, Smith was starting to appear as an NBA expert on ESPN. I was a big fan of sports and consumed a lot of the content. I had been considering communications as a major and I was in the middle of choosing between WSSU and North Carolina A&T. When I found out this man who kept appearing on the screen was a graduate of WSSU, I felt secure in my decision (that female-to-male ratio) didn’t hurt either.

Two years later, I was the sports editor for The News Argus — the school newspaper. The same newspaper that Smith had gotten his start at a decade-and-a-half earlier. I was assigned to write a story about the overuse of sports jargon in sports writing. The interview was set up, and it occurred in the press box at Bowman Gray Stadium during a football game.  

Smith answered my questions and then some. He left me with two nuggets that have stuck with me throughout my career. The first was it is better to be respected than liked as a journalist. And the second was that no good journalist is liked by everyone. Because they seek the truth and everyone may not want to hear it. 

I’ve tried to allow those two principles to guide my career thus far. And even though Smith’s day-to-day is far from traditional journalism, I’d like to think that those principles still matter to him. In the decade-and-a-half since then, I’ve continued to watch and learn from Smith while blazing my own career path and life journey. A good percentage of the time I don’t agree with his opinions on everything from day-to-day sports to much more serious issues. 

And for me, there are very few issues more important than HBCUs. There are times when he uses his platform to highlight HBCUs — very often WSSU, but many others as well. Those times I beam with pride on the fact that his professional roots lead back to 601 S. Martin Luther King Blvd. That he wrote for the same student newspaper and interned at the same local paper (The Winston-Salem Journal) that I did.

He spoke out about the importance of HBCUs BEFORE George Floyd and the so-called ‘racial reckoning’ of 2020. He’s served as a host of HBCU week in Wilmington, DE. And he’s given to Winston-Salem State in both athletics and the communications field. In fact, I was the recipient of the Stephen A. Smith Student Journalist of the Year Award in 2008. 

Even when he criticizes HBCUs (including his alma mater), he usually does so in a manner that comes under the mantle of telling a truth that may not always be pleasant.

Then there are days when his opinions make me cringe. Most of the time it is non-HBCU related. But this one was. 

Deion Sanders Coach Prime

Deion Sanders is the exception, not the rule

As great as Deion Sanders’ run was at Jackson State in terms of winning games and drawing attention to the rest of the SWAC as well as HBCUs at large, it is highly unlikely that a revolution is coming.

HBCUs have had great coaches for years and many of them have never sniffed the FBS level. Never mind the all-time greats — the two men that defeated him in the Celebration Bowl (Trei Oliver and Buddy Pough) have yet to break through those walls.

Sanders’ star power in terms of recruiting and popularity meant that his success in the SWAC over a two-year period allowed him an opportunity that other coaches who dominated for longer periods with less highly-regarded recruits never got. Smith may be removed from the day-to-day of HBCU sports, but he should know this. The football coach he covered in college — Pete Richardson — had a Hall of Fame career at Winston-Salem State and Southern University and never got a chance to coach at football’s highest level.

As great as NC A&T run was in the latter half of the last decade, College Gameday never flew SAS down to Greensboro for College Gameday as it did when Jackson State hosted Southern last October.

As long as Stephen A. continues to be at the forefront of sports media, he will be an HBCU spokesperson. Most of the time, when he’s locked in on HBCUs, he is a good one. But he has to know that this take wasn’t truly grounded in reality. Reality television, maybe. But a far cry from the reality of HBCU coaches in 2023, and likely beyond.

Stephen A Smith commentary on Deion Sanders and HBCUs misses mark
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