Six years ago, Alcorn State University named Jay Hopson as its football coach. The Mississippi native was the first white head football coach in Braves history, and in the history of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, and his appointment stirred enough attention throughout the HBCU community that outlets and observers beyond our campus borders took notice.
Last week, the president at the heart of that hiring six years ago again looked to sports as a catalyst for reformation of the HBCU administrative identity; this time using his athletics director vacancy to make another historic hire. Former University of Kansas Associate Athletics Director Etienne Thomas will now oversee the Thorobred athletics program, becoming what is believed to be the first administrator from a Power 5 conference to make the jump to HBCU Division II athletic leadership.
The immediate benefits to KSU’s leadership in the HBCU sports space are obvious; fundraising and sponsorship relationships, brand enhancement and media coverage of the Division II program have taken a huge leap forward just with Thomas’ appointment to such an important gig in the landscape.
But just as important is that M. Christopher Brown II has twice pulled off an unconventional hire in the most uncommon of places, and shifted the ways we think about the future of HBCU athletics and how they will grow. When Hopson was hired at Alcorn, the only point of debate was the merit of racial infiltration at this particular point in HBCU history. White coaches had thousands of places to get jobs; why, alumni and supporters wondered, did one of our schools have to add to their opportunities at the expense of one of our coaches getting the same shot?
But everything on Hopson’s resume’ read as an ideal hire for SWAC football, and specifically for Alcorn Braves football. A Mississippi native with strong recruiting ties to the region and a coaching philosophy which fit the area’s talent, the school’s identity for style of play, and one which would could help the Braves contend with other growing powers in the division and conference at large.
Dr. Brown basically put his job on making a splash hire, and it paid off. The Braves won early, and even after the president’s departure, eventually won big.
And now it is the Throbreds’ turn. Even after naming an AD who eventually withdrew from appointment for family reasons, there was always a sense that Kentucky State would be the landing spot for a major sports hire. Situated between two Power 5 programs in the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville, there was a sense that somewhere, KSU would find an administrator or coach which would go against the typical format of black college tradition in sports.
We’ve seen it at other DI HBCUs throughout the landscape. Milton Overton going to Florida A&M, Stacey Danley at Alabama State, Bryan Hicks at Alabama A&M and Jason Horn at Xavier of Lousiana. Black sports executives are finding homes at HBCUs after strong showings within PWI programs.
But these names have also been tied to the worst of HBCU leadership stereotypes. Fallings out with alumni boosters and presidents, compliance issues, and fundraising malaise among stakeholders have all played a role in departures and building acrimony against their leadership, even in the face of success.
Thomas puts KSU and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference on firmer ground as a leader in gender equity and opportunity in administration and puts more pressure on Kentucky’s two biggest sports brands to provide similar looks for their sports exec suites.
Not bad for a DII school with a unique racial profile and stationed in an unconventional HBCU city, but working towards big HBCU dreams of success. And it certainly helps that the approach is one we’ve seen before.