By JOHN ZENOR
AP Sports Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — It’s prime time in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Jackson State football coach Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders has emerged as the most high-profile advocate for the league and HBCUs in general, but his colleagues are embracing potential change and celebrating the status quo as well.
Sanders touted the league’s “exponential growth” Thursday at the media day amid a challenging backdrop of name, image and likeness, the transfer portal and conference realignment.
“Something’s wrong with a plant that doesn’t grow, isn’t it?” the Hall of Famer said. “So everything should grow. Everything should progress. Everything should yield returns.
“And that’s my dream and my wish for the SWAC and for all these teams.”
The HBCU league expanded to 12 members last year, adding Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M. Sanders told ESPN that discussions on the possibility of forming an HBCU super conference have started on some level.
Commissioner Charles McClelland said if the SWAC did decide to expand more, it would follow the path of the SEC and Big Ten and “only take a look at schools if they fit our academic and competitive profile.”
“I think that there’s already a super conference in HBCUs, and it’s called the Southwestern Athletic Conference,” McClelland said. “What we can do is continue to grow. So when you’re talking about super conferences, you’re talking about all of the major players within that region, and now I guess you can say nationally, being a part of that league.
“And that’s what the Southwestern Athletic Conference is.”
The SEC is adding Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12. USC and UCLA are set to defect from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten.
New Grambling State coach Hue Jackson applauds the idea of an HBCU super conference. The SWAC and MEAC are home to all but three of the Division I HBCU programs.
“I think we have to do just what everybody else is doing,” said Jackson, a former Cleveland Browns head coach. “Why shouldn’t we?
“If that’s what everybody else is doing to create more capital, more resources in the conference, I think we have to do the same. You have to follow the leader a little bit, and everybody is following the money so we should chase it too.”
Sanders made a splash on the field in leading Jackson State to an 11-2 season and its first league title since 2007. The Tigers averaged more than 42,000 fans at home games, an FCS record
Sanders then brought in the nation’s top recruit, Travis Hunter, who is set to play both cornerback and wide receiver — just like his coach.
“A lot of people come up to me and tell me they appreciate me choosing an HBCU,” Hunter said. “It means a lot to a lot of people.”
Before his arrival, quarterback Shedeur Sanders was Jackson State’s highest-rated recruit. The coach’s son wonders why more top prospects don’t follow suit.
“This is what I don’t know understand about college football players,” Shedeur Sanders said. “It could be anywhere. I already had a name. Travis already had a name. So coming to places like this, people are scared they may be forgotten about.
“You go to a big Power 5, you sit. You sit and you’re not playing, you’re definitely getting forgotten about.”
The SWAC hasn’t been forgotten in the offseason, with help from Sanders. He even challenged Alabama coach Nick Saban — his co-star in commercials for an insurance company — after Saban brought up Hunter in discussing the use of NILs in recruiting. Sanders also has lobbied for more chances for HBCU players to catch the NFL’s eye.
“I think it’s been great for the SWAC, definitely for Jackson State,” Texas Southern coach Clarence McKinney said of Sanders’ presence. “But it’s been great for the SWAC because we have more cameras on us now. we have more eyes watching us.
“People are paying attention to the SWAC a lot more since coach Prime has been in the league.”
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25 Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://apnews.com/cfbtop25