Can Deion Sanders revitalize HBCU football at Jackson State?

Deion Sanders shocked college football when he was announced as the head coach of Jackson State. Can he save HBCU football or will it end in failure?

The introduction was, of course, outrageous.

The morning of Monday, Sept. 21, was a momentous occasion in Jackson, Miss. Less than 24 hours before, the FCS program and historically black university had made national headlines across college football. Now they were eagerly awaiting his arrival.

As the band paraded inside the spacious Williams Assembly Center, those gathered inside turned their eyes towards the entrance where the sun from the outside was beaming in. Soon, a police escort of Mississippi state troopers on motorcycles and a patrol car with blue lights flashing and siren blaring entered the arena with the man himself sure to follow.

After a moment, a black Cadillac Escalade broke through the opening and slowly turned towards the stage that had been set up. Dark tinted windows that, if you did not know better, looked bullet-proof, obscured his identity. Making a stop, the car was surrounded by dignitaries waiting to greet him. The passenger’s side door was opened.

It was a reveal reserved for a head of state but for the fans of the Jackson State Tigers only better. It was Deion Sanders.

Standing at the podium, Sanders delivered a speech made with conviction and full of promises, especially success on the field.

“We’re going to win. We’re going to look good while we win, and we’re going to have a good time while we win.”

Deion Sanders previously has described his appointment as a “God move” saying “I believe that God led me here, not man.”

Meanwhile, one of his top recruits has said that a reason why he decided to commit was that his mother had a vision of him playing for Sanders. Another has alluded to the Black Lives Matter movement as motivation for his decision. “We can be a pillar for all HBCUs,” said Sanders, believing that Jackson State could elevate the status of other schools that have been stuck in mediocrity for decades. He even has gone as far as to say that the football program could reduce the crime rate and decrease teen pregnancies in the surrounding area.

Getting emotional, Sanders implored the audience,

“I’m foolish enough to believe; do you believe?”

What is certain is that Prime Time has arrived in Jackson. Since being hired, the man who is a pro football Hall-of-Famer and all-time great has been featured in dozens of articles, along with numerous television appearances and multiple commercials.

ESPN has already announced a deal with Jackson State where almost every football game this spring will appear on ESPN3 or ESPNU. Currently, practically no other FCS teams (other than JSU’s opponents) are scheduled to be nationally televised this spring or receive as much coverage as many are either on ESPN+ or local television. Surprisingly, even North Dakota State, which has been the most successful FCS program for the past decade, has their games behind a subscription paywall on ESPN+.

Meanwhile, Jackson State’s upcoming season is set to be the subject of an upcoming docu-series appropriately titled “Coach Prime” in conjunction with Barstool Sports which Sanders already hosts a podcast on where he first made his announcement as the school’s next head coach.

If you hype it, they will come

With the publicity comes the recruits. Jackson State’s 2021 recruiting class already has broken records as the best class in FCS and the all-time highest at an HBCU in history (or at least since these sorts of rankings have been around in the last 20 years or so).

According to 247Sports, the Tigers ranked No. 86 overall in the country. While this number might not jump off the screen, it is still far ahead of most programs at the FCS level including North Dakota State, and out of 130 FBS programs, Jackson State is ahead of several Mountain West and American Athletic Conference teams — two conferences considered to be the best outside of the Power Five.

The jewels of the class are Jackson State’s three four-star recruits. Outside of the approximately two dozen truly elite five-star prospects around the country each year, four-stars are the next level of talent who are likely to be drafted someday in the NFL. They are the foundation of teams like Alabama, but for almost everybody else, snagging a player of this caliber is cause for celebration.

The most notable of these is Shedeur Sanders, the No. 60 overall recruit according to the ESPN 300 rankings. In case you were wondering, yes, they are related. The son of Deion, he won a pair of state championships in Texas as the quarterback of the high school where his dad served as the team’s offensive coordinator. The younger Sanders is believed to have the potential to be “an impact upper-tier Power Five starter” by 247Sports where he now follows Deion to Jackson State.

The other four-stars include Trevonte Rucker, who Sanders flipped from the University of Florida, and De’Jahn Warren, the top-rated junior college cornerback in the country who was previously committed to Georgia. Warren likely considered the opportunity to play for one of the best ever at his position too good to pass up.

Talent like this does not fall into one’s lap, and yet, Jackson State has as many players rated four-stars and above as roughly half of all FBS teams. Word is getting out too. Transfers have started to roll in from Florida State, Auburn, Tennessee and USC just to name a few.

Will it work?

However, some believe that the hiring of Sanders by Jackson State is a publicity stunt. Sanders is going straight from a high school assistant to a Division I college head coach. Rarely do even the most successful high school head coaches directly transition to this level, and they usually have to work for years as assistants before getting the opportunity for a promotion. While the recruiting certainly has been encouraging so far, can Sanders run a college offense? Most importantly, can he be trusted to essentially guide a business as a head coach?

Some might remember his recent ambitious venture, the failed Prime Prep Academy, a Dallas charter school that emphasized athletics which he co-founded in 2012. With his trademark charisma and charm, Sanders promised a world-class education for his students, but less than three years later, the school closed down due to financial insolvency and a laundry list of lawsuits stemming from mismanagement while he was involved. Many athletes who attended the school were left to navigate their futures on their own.

Meanwhile, HBCUs are some of the most notoriously difficult coaching jobs in the country. Jackson State has not had a winning season since 2013, and with the addition of Sanders, the school has had four head coaches in seven years.

For HBCUs, the decline started when desegregation caused the migration of some of the country’s best athletes to predominately white institutions. The days when the likes of Walter Payton used to play for the Tigers are long gone.

However, the biggest current issue for these universities is funding. As noted in the oft-cited USA Today report on college finances published in 2019, HBCUs are near the bottom of Division I programs in revenue. On average, they generate less than half of the revenue of many FCS programs, and compared to their FBS counterparts, the inequality is much wider. For example, Mississippi State of the SEC brought in $112 million during the 2018-19 college calendar year while SWAC member Mississippi Valley State only produced $4 million (Jackson State was not listed in the report).

Thus, HBCUs frequently have to take “payout games” against bigger FBS programs, often with lopsided results. For football, this usually means taking an annual beating, but for other sports like basketball, this often means enduring repeated embarrassments just to survive.

Despite the paychecks, HBCUs still struggle to cover expenses. Poor facilities and practice conditions persist as major obstacles, especially in recruiting.

The most notable example was in 2013 when Grambling State football, following an 18-game losing streak to NCAA opponents, cited rundown conditions and long bus trips to away games as motivating factors behind a weeklong protest resulting in a forfeit versus Jackson State. Photos soon emerged from the team’s weightlifting and locker rooms that revealed mold on the walls, missing squares in floor mats, and equipment that looked like it had not been replaced since the Eddie Robinson era. Players also expressed concern about improperly cleaned uniforms which increased the likelihood of staph infections. Previously, the school’s athletic department was asked to make cuts to its $6.8 million budget as football was reduced to just $2 million.

Deion Sanders has acknowledged these disadvantages saying,

“Some of the things that I’ve seen thus far early in my tenure are truly unacceptable. It causes a kid not to dream.”

Providing details, he has said,

“When you got to bus 100 kids to an adjacent field probably 10 to 15 minutes away because at the brink or thought of rain, it floods out and you can’t practice on there and then it’s a safety hazard with the drainage as well, that’s not good. And the meeting rooms. You got to walk 400 yards to even have a meeting with the entirety of your team.”

Sanders believes,

“The playing field is horrible. It’s not a level playing field. It’s unacceptable. Thank God that God called me to change the game, to open their eyes, to open the door. Not just for Jackson State, but for everybody.”

Certainly, the early infusion of money from the publicity following Deion Sanders should help. According to the Clarion-Ledger, in the first few weeks following his hiring, Jackson State estimated that the athletic department’s marketing and promotional value increased by $19 million, and with the aforementioned new media deals on the horizon, the university should generate even more.

Is change coming?

But what about the other schools? Fair or unfair, Sanders now is carrying the weight of all HBCUs. Many believe that Sanders will at least bring more exposure to historically black colleges, but can he affect any lasting change?

Many writers and pundits recently have been quick to point out what they believe is the potential emerging trend of a few talented black high school athletes choosing to play at HBCUs. Most often, the decision by five-star basketball star Makur Maker to attend Howard University is used as an example.

Similarly, Trevonte Rucker when announcing his commitment to Jackson State on Twitter included a BLM hashtag in his post.

He has previously mentioned wanting to level the playing field and make history at an HBCU, echoing Sanders’ comments.

For black colleges, the desire possibly is greater. Success in football has been shown to drive enrollment, and HBCUs play an important role in the development of the black professional class in this country. So could we start to see a new, more socially conscious athlete attend HBCUs?

In the case of Makur Maker, even though his intention is to play in the NBA, his decision to attend Howard had to be influenced by the fact that the university is considered by many to be the most prestigious of HBCUs. Frankly, the school is on another playing field compared to other black colleges with alumni that include Kamala Harris and Chadwick Boseman just to name a few.

Meanwhile, for Jackson State, the star power of Deion Sanders continues to outshine the rest of the schools in the SWAC. Unless Jerry Rice walks through the doors of his alma mater at Mississippi Valley State, expect little to change for the rest. Although the fact that some highly recruited black athletes even consider these institutions is perhaps a minor victory.

As always, everything comes down to winning games. For Deion Sanders and Jackson State, this means SWAC championships. HBCUs do not play in the FCS playoffs. Instead, conference titles and Celebration Bowl appearances (along with the associated payouts) are what matter. This starts with beating rivals Alcorn State, the team down the road which has appeared in the last six straight SWAC championship game (Alcorn has decided to opt-out of a spring season, so the wait will have to continue).

In the meantime, Jackson State is scheduled to play NAIA Edward Waters this Sunday at 1 p.m. ET at home as they start an abbreviated spring schedule. For a struggling side, the Tigers draw over 30,000 per game which leads the FCS, but current restrictions surely will result in a much smaller crowd. Game day should sound a little different too as visiting bands will not be allowed in the stadium meaning the battle of the bands will be a one-sided affair. By all accounts, it should be an unremarkable game.

However, for Jackson State and Deion Sanders, it will be the first step after one of the boldest hires in college football history.

The calendar might say that it will be a chilly Sunday afternoon in February, but for those at the historic Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, it will be Prime Time.