The “in principle” Bethune-Cookman-Ed Reed marriage was finally painfully and embarrassingly annulled.
Reed, the Pro Football Hall of Famer and former University of Miami star, will not be the university’s next football coach. Official word of the annulment came on Saturday when the university issued a statement that effectively announced the end of an infatuation that lasted all of 25 days.
The Reed fiasco is the first casualty for a historically Black college football program in the post-Deion Sanders era. Bethune-Cookman was looking to catch lightning in a bottle as Jackson State had done with Sanders; instead the university now has egg on its face. What the school quickly discovered is Reed is not Sanders, and Bethune-Cookman, which joined the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) two seasons ago, is not Jackson State.
I knew there was trouble in paradise shortly after the university released an optimistic but restrained announcement on Dec. 27: “Bethune-Cookman University athletics has entered into an agreement in principle with the Pro Football Hall of Famer Ed Reed to be the 16th head football coach. “
Typically the announcement of a new coach is quickly followed by an introductory news conference. When no such schedule was forthcoming, I reached out to the school’s sports information director and requested an interview with Reed.
The response: “Unfortunately, we are currently unable to connect Coach Reed for interviews as he and the university continue to finalize his hiring.”
A week later I followed up to see if there were any updates. The answer: “No update at this time. You’ll know as soon as we do.”
I asked a follow-up question: “Is Ed Reed officially on staff? Is it on the clock?”
The answer: “The contract process is still ongoing.”
Soon after, Reed’s frustration with the process – and the university – began to rise into the public eye as he made numerous posts on social media about the state of the institution and his unhappiness with his future bosses.
In a January 15 Instagram Live video, Reed said: “Prime [Sanders] was not wrong about what he was saying. All HBCUs need help because of the people running it. Broken mentalities out here.”
Reed followed that up with a profanity-laced Instagram Live video in which he pushed back against critics of his comments, claiming the players were cleaning up trash around the Bethune-Cookman athletic facility and asserting: ” I have to leave – not even me. under contract you do that.”
He subsequently issued an apology, but it was too little, too late. By then, the university had no doubt realized that it had hired the wrong person (even if only in principle). It was time for an annulment.
On Saturday, in an extraordinary 15-minute video that showed Reed addressing the players and their parents (and which included an appearance by Sanders), Reed said he was an agent of change but that the – the 119-year-old institution “wasn’t ready for change. ” and was forcing him out. Later that day, Bethune-Cookman released a statement confirming that he no longer wanted Reed as head football coach.
Bethune-Cookman University was founded in 1904 in Daytona Beach, Florida, by a young Black woman named Mary McLeod Bethune. Initially called the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, the school went through several incarnations as it grew. In 1923 the school merged with Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida, and became coed, and in 1931 the name of the school was changed to Bethune-Cookman College.
There is something to be said for selling the university and its legacy rather than relying on a charismatic force of nature as Jackson State did with Sanders. Reed and Sanders are as different as night and day.
Sanders is the charismatic two-sport star who played in both the Super Bowl and the World Series. He has maintained a high profile as a television analyst and the coach of his Prime Prep Academy. Jackson State has deep roots in the SWAC and has produced dozens of professional football players and four Hall of Famers.
Reed was a standout player at the University of Miami, had a Hall of Fame career with the Baltimore Ravens and had a brief coaching stint with the Buffalo Bills. At the time of his interaction with Bethune-Cookman, Reed was a member of the support staff of the Miami Hurricanes for three seasons.
Sanders used his success at Jackson State to catapult himself into a job at the University of Colorado. Bethune-Cookman would be Reed’s first opportunity to coach Division I football. Hopefully, it won’t be his last.
For Reed, the lesson learned may be that he needs to become more strategic, more political and diplomatic if he wants to be a head football coach. Being a Hall of Fame player does not automatically qualify one to be a great coach. The lessons for Bethune-Cookman – and by extension the Black college universe – are even greater.
For starters, get out of the business of running celebrity coaches. Find someone with great coaching chops. There are many NFL assistants and assistants at major college programs eager for the opportunity to become head coaches. Many did not play at historically Black colleges and universities. The greatest emphasis should be on identifying candidates who understand and respect the history and heritage of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Last year my alma mater, Morgan State University, hired Damon Wilson to replace Tyrone Wheatley as its head football coach. Wilson played at Bowie State University, spent several years as an assistant at various HBCU programs and became Bowie’s head coach in 2009. He won several Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships at Bowie and stayed there until he accepted the Morgan State job.
Whether Wilson will succeed is anyone’s guess, but as Sanders said repeatedly while at Jackson State, there are outstanding coaches in the HBCU universe.
Jackson State was defeated in back-to-back Celebration Bowl games, in 2021 by South Carolina State, coached by Buddy Pough, and last month by North Carolina Central, coached by Trei Oliver.
When I was a football player at Morgan State, our coach, Earl Banks, brought the team together before practice and talked about how important it was for a Black coach from a white institution to understand the HBCU culture. He was an All-Big Ten guard at the University of Iowa, and often spoke of the isolation he felt as one of the only Black players on the team. Banks began his coaching career at Maryland State, now known as the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, before coming to Morgan State as head coach in 1960.
Banks said it was important for those who came from white institutions to HBCUs to understand the culture, understand what they are getting into and respect those who have spent most of their careers at HBCUs. It was important to avoid the condescension and impatience that often emerge when things do not change quickly or do not go smoothly as they did in white institutions, and to avoid the “savior mentality.”
I don’t doubt that Reed has a good heart, and his heart was in the right place when he did the Bethune-Cookman job. He probably hadn’t done his research and may have thought that simply being a Hall of Famer was enough preparation to take on a rebuilding project at Bethune-Cookman.
Bethune-Cookman’s folks miscalculated, too: They thought they were making a Deion Sanders move. The school received publicity, but I doubt if this was the kind of exposure she had in mind.
In the coming weeks there will likely be finger-pointing and second-guessing over Bethune-Cookman, with the powers that be asking themselves, “What were we thinking?” The president must ask his leadership team, “Who thought this was a good idea?”
Hopefully, as school progresses, a lesson has been learned: Proceed with caution and wisdom. You hunt for a football coach, not a celebrity. Don’t fall into the Deion trap.
William C. Rhoden, former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer at large for Andscape.