The shift is here!
Deion Sanders covers Sports Illustrated to talk about Jackson State University (JSU) and the rise of HBCU football, SI.com reports.
Sanders joined JSU as a coach in the fall of 2020, looking to revive the small school’s football program to its glory days from the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. JSU is the alma mater of many great NFL players including four Pro Football Hall of Famers and football icon Walter Payton. In his time since, Sanders has catapulted the Tigers to a school-record of 11 wins and earned them their first Southwestern Athletic Conference championship win since 2007. The icing on the cake, just a few days before the end of the season, Sanders secured five-star recruit Travis Hunter, flipping him from his previous commitment as a cornerback at Florida State, Sanders’ alma mater.
“There’s been no hire who made a bigger impact on a program than Coach Prime,” said JSU Athletic Director Ashley Robinson.
While Sanders didn’t have a prior college coaching resume, he did spend some time as offensive coordinator at Trinity Christian High, where his sons Shedeur and Shilo helped secure three Class 2A state championships. Sanders also served as coach for his own youth organization, TRUTH, where he had served for more than a decade. While JSU wasn’t the first university to show interest in the Hall of Famer, Sanders said they were the best fit and showed the most potential. While he wasn’t sure he wanted to take on such a heavy lift, he knew it was the right thing to do and more importantly, he knew he could build a championship-winning team.
“Most people move because of discomfort; you’re forced into transition. I was comfortable…It wasn’t an easy process. It was a godly process. I had just gotten comfortable in my new home, and now it was time to leave for the unknown…Folks are screaming, ‘I believe’ now – but they didn’t [before]. It’s easy to scream now. But I meant that on Day 1,” Sanders told reporters.
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To be fair, Sanders had a lot of experience under his belt that most other college coaches just don’t have. Not only did he play on two Super Bowl-winning teams, but he also played in the 1992 World Series, the only athlete ever to have played in both championships. While fighting against the challenges of a pandemic shortened season, dated fitness facilities, and complications from foot surgery that caused Sanders to have to amputate two toes, he still made all this happen and his expertise and connections paid off.
While Sanders benefitted from his boastful persona and celebratory end-zone dances on the field, as a coach, he provided the structure and old-school coaching that was needed to get players disciplined and on one accord. From banning earrings in the facility, to regulating the color of socks for teammates and practice and games and even making sure players, coaches, and support staff wear suits to games and team functions, Sanders runs a tight ship.
“Old school ain’t earrings on the football field. The guys I loved and adored weren’t like that. My contemporaries were Magic and MJ and those kind of cats. No tats, no facial hair. It was a different era, a different generation. If it worked for them, it can work for us,” said Sanders.
Apparently, it’s working, and those small things make a big difference and for his work, Sanders has earned Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Coach of the Year honors. His son Shedeur, also earned FCS Freshman of the Year honors, racking up 3,231 passing yards and 30 touchdowns. The four-star recruit flipped his commitment from Florida Atlantic to JSU, becoming the highest-rated recruit to commit to an HBCU at the time. Shedeur said he flipped to play for the only coach he’d ever known, his dad, and Hunter said he flipped to play for the only player he’d ever idolized. While elite college coach Nick Saban made public speculation about Sanders paying top-star recruits like Hunter to play for the HBCU, Sanders slammed the accusation and made it a point to note that his goal is to pave a path for all HBCUs.
“We as a PEOPLE don’t have to pay our PEOPLE to play with our PEOPLE,” Sanders Tweeted.
“We never bought Travis. We never tried to buy Travis. Do I want Travis to have NIL deals? Certainly, I do. Do I want Travis to have some of the things his ability can allow him to acquire through NIL? Certainly, I do…To insinuate the only way we could acquire somebody like that is to pay them $1 million…that didn’t sit well with me,” Sanders told reporters.
JSU president, Thomas K. Hudson said Sanders has been “very vocal about the need to elevate all the HBCU football programs” from the very beginning. Not just one for talk, Sanders has extended his reach to multiple other universities, helping Alcorn State secure athletic trainers, working with Mississippi Valley State to find a new practice field, and advocating for HBCU programs to receive a more equitable split with promoters during football classics.
In 2019, Jemele Hill wrote an article detailing the importance of Black college athletes leaving predominantly white institutions in favor of HBCUs. Since then, there has been a sort of exodus, Coach Prime only upping the ante. His impact on the shift is notable, the NFL draft showing no recruited players from HBCUs in 2021 to four recruited HBCU players in the 2022 draft after Sanders pressured the league to diligently scout prospects from historically Black colleges and universities.
Other programs are also looking for their own Sanders, Tennessee State recently hiring former Titan player Eddie George and other Hall of Famers Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, and Marshall Faulk entertaining the idea of coaching at an HBCU. No matter which way you slice it, Sanders’ leadership is lining JSU up to be the next powerhouse and everyone is taking notes. For Sanders, it’s all par for the course.
“Anything you touch you have to have an effect on if you’re that kind of person. It is my objective not to just come to Jackson State and touch Jackson State, but to touch everything nearby,” said Sanders.
Congratulations, Coach Prime! Go, Tigers!
(l to r) Shedeur, Deon, and Travis Hunter. Photo Courtesy of Marcus Smith/Sports Illustrated