It’s now becoming sort of a trend that college football programs, especially HBCU FCS schools, are looking for a new place for head coaches – retired NFL players. Make that legendary NFL players.
The latest occurred when Bethune-Cookman announced an agreement with Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed to be the new head coach.
He joins a small but potentially growing list of NFL stars transitioning to coaching at the FCS level.
Everybody knows about the success of NFL Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders at Jackson State. Sanders went 27-6 in three seasons at Jackson State, including consecutive SWAC championships in the past two seasons. That earned him the head coaching job at Colorado.
Before Jackson State, Sanders’ only coaching position was serving as an offensive coordinator for three seasons at a Texas high school.
What he lacked in coaching experience, he made up for in being Deion Sanders, a person who many young players may not have seen perform as a football player, but saw his work as an NFL Network commentator. He was able to attract top-flight players to Jackson State, and let’s face it, recruiting is the name of the game. That’s not to suggest he wasn’t a great coach, but it sure helped Deion Sanders the coach to have Deion Sanders the famous ex-player right there.
Eddie George, the former great NFL running back mainly for the Tennessee Titans, is beginning his third season as head coach at Tennessee State. George, who rushed for 10,441 yards and 68 touchdowns during his NFL career, had never coached before. Unlike Sanders, there hasn’t been an immediate success. Tennessee State went 4-7 this past season after going 5-6 in his first year. The challenges will continue. The opening game of the 2023 season – at Notre Dame on Sept. 2.
There is every reason to expect George will eventually produce a top-flight program at Tennessee State. Before his arrival, the Tigers had three straight losing seasons, a combined 9-19.
Now it’s Reed’s turn.
He continues to bring star power to Bethune-Cookman, located in Daytona Beach, Florida. The athletic director and head men’s basketball coach at Bethune-Cookman is Reggie Theus, the former NBA star.
Over the past three years, the 44-year-old Reed was a member of the support staff at the University of Miami, where he starred and helped lead the Hurricanes to a national championship as a player. Reed did spend one season coaching in the NFL, serving as an assistant defensive backs coach for the Buffalo Bills in 2016. His time on the support staff at Miami should be a big benefit, especially this past season under Mario Cristobal, who is among the top recruiters in the country.
Reed, with his NFL stardom that included nine Pro Bowl selections and five times being named first-team All-Pro, should be able to attract talented players, not only through his fame, but knowledge of the game. He was always considered among the smartest NFL players.
Yet it’s the fame that will initially be his best trait.
There may be some hardcore football fans who feel that coaches should work their way up the ladder and that former NFL stars are skipping steps. Yet, what a former NFL star can bring to a university is invaluable.
Sanders, obviously is the best example. In HERO Sports’ list of FCS attendance leaders in 2022, Jackson State was on top by a whopping margin, with an average of 42,049. Second place Montana was at 25,298, although it should be noted that Montana was at 100.32 percent capacity. (Tennessee State was 24th in attendance with a 9,811 average).
Sanders may be an outlier. It might be tough for any first-time college head coach (without any clear college coaching experience) to top what Coach Prime achieved, but he showed that a former star player can use that same talent in coaching.
And even though Tennessee State has yet to take off, very few would be mentioning the school without George. He brings a star appeal. Now like any other coach, George and Reed will eventually have to show that they can win.
Reed will be able to recruit in the state of Florida, which should take no backseat when it comes to producing football talent. He will have his work cut out, inheriting a program that has gone 2-9 in each of the past two seasons. Yet nobody should sell Reed or George short for that matter.
(Another interesting story on the FBS level is Trent Dilfer, the former Super Bowl-winning QB who was recently named the head coach of UAB. Dilfer has no previous college coaching experience, but he was a successful high school head coach for the past four years. He also should prosper as a college coach).
Star power is a big thing. When a coach can come into a living room and tell a player he knows what it takes to get to the next level, it’s a huge advantage.
And this trend of noted NFL players joining the college coaching ranks even without much experience should continue to grow, especially for programs seeking not only Ws but relevance as well.