Why this early football signing period may change the face of HBCUs | Marcase

John Marcase
Special to The Town Talk

Normally, signing day for college football excites me as much as an all-day concert bill featuring the best boy bands of the 1990s.

What transpired last week was the exception.

The fact the nation’s top defensive back prospect, who is also arguably the top overall recruit, chose to sign with an HBCU made me take note.

It made others lament the coming of the apocalypse.

When news broke Travis Hunter of suburban Atlanta spurned Georgia and Florida State to sign with Jackson State and Coach Prime, Deion Sanders, it brought a smile to my face.

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It also harkened back to another time that was a scourge on this country’s history.

The best college football played in the 1950s and 1960s wasn’t played at Notre Dame, Alabama or on the West Coast.

The best football was played at HBCUs because Black players were not allowed to play at Notre Dame, Alabama or practically anywhere else. The Irish’s first Black player was Cliff Brown, who signed in 1971. A year earlier, Bear Bryant signed Alabama’s first Black player, Wilbur Jackson. Yet, it was a season later that John Mitchell was the first to play varsity football for the Crimson Tide. Supposedly, Bryant was motivated to begin signing African-Americans when Southern Cal visited for the 1970 season opener and blasted 'Bama, 42-21. The Trojans were fully integrated by that time.

Eddie Robinson became a legend at Grambling State and the first college coach to win 400 games. He currently stands third all-time. The teams Robinson fielded at Grambling in the 1950s and '60s likely would’ve surpassed the best LSU had to offer at that time, including the famed 1958 national champions.

Robinson also coached four members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame during his 57-year career — Willie Brown, Buck Buchanan, Willie Davis and Charlie Joiner. In all, 34 HBCU alumni are enshrined in Canton, none with more than Grambling.

There is only one other HBCU with as many Hall of Famers as Grambling — Jackson State.

For comparison, LSU has just five Pro Football Hall of Famers, and Florida State and Georgia have produced four each.

Instead of criticizing Hunter and Sanders, how about celebrating Hunter for stepping outside the norm and Sanders for going after the best of the best?

Sure, it is a new day for college athletics thanks to the NIL (name, image and likeness), which allows the players, or student-athletes if you buy-in to the NCAA’s marketing gimmick, to monetize their college careers. But please spare me the spiel about how it is ruining college athletics. As Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher admitted, players have always been paid, but only now are the payments publicized.

Also, don’t claim Hunter won’t receive the same exposure at Jackson State as he would have at FSU or another SEC school. Had Hunter taken the easy route, no one would be talking about him today. We are talking about him for signing with Coach Prime’s program, one that played four home games in excess of 45,000 in attendance this season.

Coming off a SWAC title and 11-2 season, there is a good chance the Tigers may play to capacity crowds in their 60,000-seat stadium for the 2022 season. In addition, every FBS or FCS game is streamed live on some platform these days. Hunter will get all the exposure he needs before moving on to a likely NFL career. And, he will be coached and mentored by one of the best to ever play his position.

NIL, the transfer portal and December’s signing period are not ruining college football. I’d make the argument they are making the sport better. More programs — at all levels — have a chance to improve. Kentucky landed a top 10 class for the first time in its history. Indiana ranked in the Top 25. So did Mississippi State, South Carolina and Missouri.

Yes, the times are changing, and that’s a good thing.

John Marcase is a former assistant managing editor and sports editor of The Town Talk. He writes a weekly column.