Two days after a 16-10 loss to Grambling in his debut as the Tennessee State football coach, Eddie George was reading his daily devotional on an early Tuesday morning before practice. The 47-year-old former Heisman Trophy winner and nine-year NFL veteran is in the midst of a 31-day devotional on leadership.
Tuesday’s devotion was about humility. “Humility is the foundation for everything,” he told The Undefeated. “And what I’m learning about this team is that we’re focused on building our SOUL.”
SOUL is an acronym for selflessness, oneness, unity and larger purpose, a concept George learned from reading former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy’s book, The Soul of a Team. “I believe if everyone here buys into SOUL, we can build the kind of culture that we need to have success,” George said.
George is sharing the lesson as his team prepares to face Deion Sanders and Jackson State on Saturday in Memphis, Tennessee, in a nationally televised game on ESPN3. In April, George, who had no coaching experience, was hired by Tennessee State to bring star power and energy to a once-storied program that hasn’t made the FCS playoffs since 2013.
“Eddie didn’t have coaching experience,” TSU’s athletic director Mikki Allen said. “But he had a CEO mindset. He is a quick learner and he asks the right questions.”
George has sought the guidance of successful coaches such as Mike Tomlin, Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel, Mike Vrabel and Jeff Fisher. His offensive coordinator is Hue Jackson, a former NFL head coach with both the then-Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals. Yet only experience can make him into a good head coach.
“I’ve been through games as a player, a TV analyst and a fan,” George said. “Now the perspective as a coach is really different because I’m dealing with all the minute details leading up to kickoff.
“I’m just managing the game and letting my coordinators do their thing. And getting my eye trained as a head coach. It’s new territory for me, and like anything else I’m going to miss some spots and I’m going to have some learning moments and successes.”
George and Sanders are inheritors of a rich legacy of Black college football that dates to 1892 when Biddle University (now Johnson C. Smith) and Livingstone College played in the first football game between Black colleges. Since then, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have built a parallel world of college football that has enriched the game and served as a pillar of the Black community. Men such as Grambling’s Eddie Robinson, Tennessee State’s John Merritt and Florida A&M’s Jake Gaither were giants in the coaching profession during the Jim Crow era, but they largely never received the recognition of their white counterparts at predominantly white schools. They led a world unto itself that sent hundreds of players to the NFL. Tennessee State has produced 121 NFL players, more than any HBCU program.
Now George and Sanders are leading the charge for HBCU football programs to become as attractive to the top high school players in the country as the Power 5 conference schools. They are pleased to build on the legacies of these pioneering coaches, but since they were raised in a post-Jim Crow world, they see an opportunity to raise the stakes for Black college football. Sanders often uses his news conferences to air his grievances about the inequities that exist in HBCU programs. While he may recognize the historic inequities and current financial challenges of many HBCU athletic programs, he still insists that these programs ought to have the top-notch facilities, resources and exposure to attract top recruits. Since becoming the head coach at Jackson State in September 2020, the 54-year-old NFL Hall of Fame cornerback has lured two of his sons, Shilo and Shedeur Sanders, to the Mississippi school. Shedeur was a four-star quarterback recruit who chose Jackson State over several bigger programs, and Shilo came from the University of South Carolina, where he played safety.
Coming out of Fork Union Military Academy in 1992, George wasn’t recruited by an HBCU program. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could have national exposure, and it was limited at Black colleges,” said George, who played at Ohio State. “I want to play where my family can see me play. So playing on TV was important for me. So for me it came down to exposure in my decision-making more than anything. I would have loved to have gone to a Howard or a FAMU. I would have definitely reconsidered my decision if they had been playing on television.”
This fall there will be more than 120 HBCU football games on television or streamed over the internet, a record for Black college football. Tennessee State’s full 11-game schedule will either be on TV or streamed through ESPN+. This exposure, George hopes, will alleviate some of the doubts that top recruits have about signing with Tennessee State and other HBCU football programs.
“If you’re talented enough, the NFL will find you,” George said. “I put this college experience up against anybody in the country. The things that we clearly lack are the infrastructure and the facilities, but here you have an opportunity to work on building something new and unique, instead of something that is already established.
“We have the teachers and coaches to take you to the next level. You’re going to be the founding fathers of this new regime. Instead of going to one of these other schools and being one of the great players, why not come to TSU and be the great player.”
This is a vision that he shares with Allen, who was a defensive back on University of Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team. “Eddie and I could see that the bones were here to do something great,” said the 43-year-old Allen, who took the reins of the athletic department in April 2020. “This was a great program for a lot of decades and we’ve had recent success in other sports, but football is the engine that keeps our ship on track and excites our alumni.”
Having played at top schools, Allen and George know firsthand what it takes to build a quality program from weight and strength training to nutrition to the quality of the practice facilities. In less than a year, Allen has raised more than $2 million in private gifts to improve athletic facilities at the university. Like George, Allen was a high school standout who was not recruited by HBCU programs. Allen’s grandparents were TSU alumni and he grew up attending Tiger football games. He loved the school’s marching band and the homecoming festivities, but the allure of a major college program like Tennessee was too much to pass up. “On a signing day we want to get Tennessee State’s hat on the table and in the conversation for the top recruits,” Allen said. “We know that our student-athletes will get the benefit of both our football program and HBCU experience.”
The Black college experience is something that was always attractive to George, who, while growing up in Philadelphia, attended the city’s annual Greek Picnic, which was held by Black Greek-letter organizations. Several of his family members attended HBCUs, but he never went to a game featuring Black colleges until he was a student at Ohio State. Long before he came to TSU, he had an abiding respect for HBCU football.
“Let’s be clear, there are some gifted athletes at the skill positions at HBCUs that are on par or better than most of the athletes that go to the predominantly white institutions,” he said. “But the discrepancy is on the offensive and defensive line. You would have had to be a true aficionado of football to really know this great history, but now what you’re seeing with Deion and I is that more people are looking at HBCUs and there is pressure on the NFL to draft some of these players to give them an opportunity to play at the next level. So it’s a good thing happening right now.”
During his NFL career with the Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys, George played in games against Sanders and has become friends with him over the years. “Prime is Prime,” George said. “You don’t have to say a whole lot. He talked to me about getting into coaching and why it would be good for the culture. He’s always been a trendsetter. I grew up watching him at FSU. He’s still the same and he’ll be that way on Saturday when we play them. My product will go against his product and we’ll take it from there.”
Sanders and George are hardly the first former NFL players to lead HBCU football programs, but they are emerging at a moment when HBCUs are receiving unprecedented attention in the aftermath of the social upheaval that occurred following the deaths last year of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police. In their own unique styles, they are hoping to elevate Black college football to a place unimaginable a generation ago.
On Tuesday afternoon after a long day of practice, meetings and film study, George reflected on the discussion of humility that he had read that morning in his daily devotional. “I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “We’re in this together.” Come Saturday against Jackson State and many Saturdays after that, he will lean on that wisdom as he aims to lift the fortunes of both Tennessee State and HBCU football.
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