As HBCU football continues its resurgence on the national scene, head coaches with professional playing experience are impacting the sport.
10 current HBCU football head coaches played professionally before entering the coaching ranks. That's almost 50 percent of all HBCU head coaches. If you throw in Grambling State head coach Hue Jackson into the bunch — Jackson didn't play professionally but does have four years as an NFL head coach under his belt — then that number gets to 52 percent.
Highlighting the HBCU head coaches with professional experience is not meant to take away from the other 10 head coaches among the HBCU ranks. Among that group are coaches that have coached teams to conference and division titles and players to all-conference and All-American accolades.
However, the coaches with professional experience stand out given the 0.023 percent chance someone has to play in the pros. That said, let's take a look at the coaches.
New HBCU football head coaches with professional playing experience
Eddie Robinson Jr. | Alabama State
Eddie Robinson Jr. takes over as the head coach at his alma mater, Alabama State, in 2022. As a player, Robinson earned back-to-back SWAC Defensive Player of the Year honors as a linebacker in 1990 and 1991 and became the youngest player ever to be inducted into the SWAC Hall of Fame in 1998 at 28 years old.
Professionally, Robinson was a second-round NFL draft pick, playing in the league for four teams over 11 years. Robinson played in Super Bowl XXXIV during his time with the Tennessee Titans, leading the Tennessee defense in tackles (7) during the game.
Bubba McDowell | Prairie View A&M
After serving 11 years on the Prairie View A&M coaching staff, Bubba McDowell takes over as head coach in 2022. McDowell coached the defensive backs throughout much of his time with the Panthers, a position group that he draws expertise from, thanks to his playing experience.
In college, McDowell played defensive back for Miami (FL), winning a national title with the undefeated 1987 Hurricanes team. He became a third-round NFL draft pick in 1987 to the Houston Oilers. McDowell quickly made his mark, earning First-Team All-Rookie honors from multiple outlets. He later was named to the 1991 NFL All-Pro team before playing his final year professionally in 1995 as an inaugural member of the Carolina Panthers.
Eric Dooley | Southern
Eric Dooley isn't new to the HBCU coaching ranks after coaching at Prairie View A&M from 2018-2021, nor is he new to Southern after a previous stint as an assistant from 1997-2010. However, 2022 will mark Dooley's first year as a head coach at Southern.
Dooley has been immersed in HBCU football since his time as a collegiate wide receiver under the legendary coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling State from 1985-1988, where he won two SWAC Championships. Dooley went on to play professionally in three different leagues. Dooley participated in training camp with the Canadian Football League's Calgary Stampeders, played one year in the Arena Football League with the Arizona Rattlers and played one year in the World League with the Taipei Dragons.
New HBCU football head coaches with experience as an NFL head coach
Hue Jackson | Grambling State
Hue Jackson will begin his first year as a collegiate head coach in 2022, bringing previous head coach experience from the NFL's Oakland Raiders (2011) and Cleveland Browns (2016-2018).
In his first season as an NFL head coach, Jackson finished with a winning record of 8-8, with the NFL's ninth-best total offense. Jackson's second go-around as an NFL head coach wasn't as successful, finishing his tenure in Cleveland with a 3–36–1 record that included the second-ever winless season in NFL history.
HBCU football coaches with NFL playing experience
Deion Sanders | Jackson State
Deion Sanders took over as the Jackson State head coach in 2020, quickly rising up to become one of the most notable figures in the current HBCU sports landscape. Sanders, a.k.a "Coach Prime", won a SWAC championship in his second year as a coach, being named FCS Coach of the Year in the process.
Sanders stands out as the only current HBCU head coach to be a member of the NFL Hall of Fame. Sanders won two Super Bowls in back-to-back years with two different teams in 1994 and 1995. He's often regarded as one of the best players in NFL history and one of the best players ever at his cornerback position. Sanders also had a professional baseball career simultaneously with his time in the NFL and remains the only player to hit an MLB home run and score an NFL touchdown in the same week and the only player to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series.
Rod Milstead | Delaware State
Rod Milstead has been the head coach at his alma mater, Delaware State, since 2018. Milstead played offensive line for the Hornets from 1988-1991, winning three MEAC championships. In his career, he was a three-time First-Team All-MEAC selection and a 1991 First-team AP All-American. Milstead was inducted into the MEAC Hall of Fame in 2021.
After Delaware State, Milstead was a fifth-round NFL draft pick, going on to have an eight-year NFL career with five different teams. Milstead won Super Bowl XXIX during his time with the San Francisco 49ers.
Eddie George | Tennessee State
Eddie George took over as the Tennessee State head coach in 2021, his first time as a coach at any level. Despite his inexperience as a coach, George brought with him a record of success as a player.
Eddie George is the only HBCU head coach to have won a Heisman trophy, taking home the award in 1995 at Ohio State. George was the 14th overall pick in the 1996 NFL Draft, winning Rookie of the Year in his first season. He started at running back in Super Bowl XXXIV and finished his NFL career with 10,441 rushing yards and 68 touchdowns.
Sam Washington | North Carolina A&T
Sam Washington became the North Carolina A&T head coach in 2018 and has since won two MEAC Championships and two Celebration Bowls. He's long been a figure in the HBCU coaching ranks, with experience going back to 1987, but Washington's HBCU career began as a player at Mississippi Valley State.
Sam Washington played defensive back at Mississippi Valley State, often battling legendary wide receiver Jerry Rice in practice. After Washington's final season in 1981, he moved on to the NFL in 1982, signing as an undrafted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Washington finished his four-year NFL career in Cincinnati, ending with seven career interceptions.
Fred McNair | Alcorn State
Fred McNair was named Alcorn State head coach in 2016, the school where he made his mark as a quarterback. McNair earned All-SWAC honors in 1989 before moving on to the next level. He signed with the NFL's Dallas Cowboys in 1990 as a free agent for training camp. McNair then played for the CFL's Toronto Argonauts, winning the Grey Cup Championship. After a brief stint in the World League of American Football, McNair played for 10 years in the Arena Football League.
That's seven total coaches — adding in Robinson and McDowell from above — with NFL playing experiences. In 2021, this number was eight as Morgan State had a head coach with NFL experience in Tyron Wheatley.
HBCU football coaches with non-NFL playing experience
Alabama A&M's Connell Maynor and Florida A&M's Willie Simmons join Dooley as current HBCU football coaches with professional playing experience outside of the NFL.
Connell Maynor | Alabama A&M
Connell Maynor played quarterback at Winston-Salem State, winning a CIAA championship in 1987. He then continued his collegiate career at North Carolina A&T, winning back-to-back MEAC Offensive Player of the Year awards in 1990 and 1991, leading his team to a conference championship in the later year. Professionally, Maynor played 12 years in the Arena Football League, winning four AFL World Championship teams and being named as one of the league's 25 greatest quarterbacks in 2012.
Willie Simmons | Florida A&M
Willie Simmons played quarterback in his collegiate career at Clemson and the Citadel before playing one year professionally in the United Indoor Football League for the Sioux City Bandits.
What does it all mean?
With the recent surge of head coaches with professional experience landing at HBCUs, HBCU football has seen a surge in recruiting talent. Several highly ranked prospects, including the No. 1 overall recruit in 2022, have landed at HBCUs in recent years. Wide receiver Kevin Coleman, a four-star recruit in the class of 2022, said this after he chose Jackson State:
"I really believe in Deion's vision and I wanted to show you can make it from anywhere. The player makes the school, the school doesn't make the player and I like the idea of bringing attention to HBCU's and showing you can shine no matter where you play." (247 sports)
Professional experience from HBCU head coaches helps with player development. Who better to learn from than an athlete who's done it before? Look at Tennessee State for example.
When Eddie George took over the role as head coach, he challenged returning running back Devon Starling to improve his game. Starling accepted the challenge earning second-team All-OVC honors in his first year under George.
"Who better to learn from than a Heisman Trophy-winning, College Football Hall of Fame and NFL running back?" said Starling. (The Tennessean)
The HBCU head coaches with professional experience have seen on-field success in their times at the helm. This group of coaches has won six combined MEAC or SWAC championships since 2016. In 2021, the top five teams (record-wise) in the SWAC all had coaches with professional experience.
Furthermore, the former pros have often found more success than their predecessors, turning around programs in their time as head coaches. Take a look at some of their accomplishments below:
- Deion Sanders led Jackson State to its first SWAC Championship in 14 years in only his second year as a head coach. The Tigers finished 4-8 the season before Coach Sanders' arrival.
- Rod Milstead led Delaware State to a 5-6 season in 2021, its most wins since 2013. Before Milstead, the Hornets had won five games over the last four years.
- Eddie George led Tennessee State to a 3-3 conference record in his first season as a coach in 2021. That marked the first time the Tigers finished with a winning record in conference play since 2016.
- Sam Washington might have taken over a good North Carolina A&T program when he got the job in 2018, but he made history by winning 19 games in his first two seasons, the most of any coach in Aggie history.
- Fred McNair became Alcorn State's first SWAC Coach of the Year winner in 26 years when he took home the award for the first time in 2018, his third year as head coach. McNair won the award again in 2019.
- Connell Maynor led Alabama A&M to its first-ever Black College Football National Championship in his third year as a head coach in the 2020-21 season. That year, he led the Bulldogs to their first undefeated season in 53 years (1966).
- Willie Simmons led Florida A&M to a three-game increase in conference wins as a head coach in his first season in 2018. In 2021, Simmons' fourth season as head coach, he led the Rattlers to their first FCS Playoff appearance in 20 years.
Name recognition and awareness
Coaches with professional experience also bring name recognition and awareness to HBCU football and HBCUs as a whole. You might have seen some of the quotes and headlines from this group of head coaches in recent years that have brought attention to the sport. Yet, an even better indicator of the increased awareness of HBCU football can be found in the TV numbers.
The 2021 MEAC/SWAC Challenge drew an average of 1 million viewers for a 184 percent increase, making it the second-most viewed FCS regular-season game ever.
We thank our fans, supporters, and viewers for this weekends amazing turnout! Setting the bar high for the @CelebrationBowl but we’re ready 😎 #BuildingOnALegacy #AChampionWillRise pic.twitter.com/41Aw15ex7W— Cricket MEAC/SWAC Challenge (@MEAC_SWAC) August 31, 2021
2021's Orange Blossom Classic featured Coach Sanders and Simmons facing off head to head and drew an average of 707 thousand viewers, more than three FBS games during that weekend.
With more eyes on the sport, more wins for their teams and more improvement from their players, HBCU head coaches with professional experience are leaving a lasting impact on HBCU football.