Deion Sanders has high aspirations. Never lacking confidence or bravado, he has unwavering belief in his power to perform one of the most dramatic rebuilds in college football. This past Sunday, Sanders won his first game as the new head coach of Jackson State University, the historically Black college that has produced NFL Hall of Famers Lem Barney, Walter Payton and Jackie Slater, as well as two-time All-Pro wide receiver Jimmy Smith.
Sanders guided the Tigers to a 53-0 home win over NAIA school Edward Waters to begin Jackson State’s season nearly six weeks after Alabama defeated Ohio State 52-24 in the College Football Playoff national championship game. In July, the Southwestern Athletic Conference Council of Presidents and Chancellors, of which Jackson State is a member, voted to cancel fall sports for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and approved a plan for a seven-game spring football schedule that began this month.
For Sanders, who officially became the Tigers’ head coach last September, the process of growing the program, and by extension Black college football, is ambitious. At his introductory press conference held the same month, replete with the pomp and circumstance befitting Sanders’ megawatt profile, the first-time college coach proclaimed, “God called me to Jackson State.” He may need a little divine intervention.
Jackson State has not won a SWAC title since 2007, a 14-year drought. Resources are limited and facilities are spartan compared to the 100,000-plus seat stadiums adorned with sparkling luxury suites, sprawling, opulent living spaces, and state-of-the-art training and sports science centers that are commonplace at major college programs.
HBCU athletic departments have a fraction of the budget of Football Bowl Subdivision schools, formerly known as Division I-A schools, such as Clemson and Notre Dame. The historically Black college football programs that are part of the Football Championship Subdivision, the erstwhile Division I-AA, the likes of North Carolina A & T and Jackson State, operate on allocations barely exceeding $10 million annually.
To starkly emphasize the chasm, in the 2019 fiscal year, the University of Texas athletic department had operating revenue of $223 million, the bulk of it going to football. So Sanders knows he will not be luring a bevy of four- and five-star high school recruits to JSU. But he smartly began the program’s reconstruction right in his own household.
His son, Shudeur Sanders, a 6-foot-2 high school senior and one of the top quarterback prospects in the country at Trinity Christian School in Texas, where the elder Sanders was the team’s offensive coordinator before moving on to Jackson State, will be joining his father next season after initially committing to Florida Atlantic prior to his dad’s hire at JSU.
Additionally, this past December, Shudeur’s older brother, Shilo, a redshirt freshman cornerback at the University of South Carolina, announced he was transferring to Jackson State. “Pops said he needed some dawgs! So I’m joining my brother to help change the game at JSU and level the HBCU playing field,” Sanders tweeted.
Marketing is arguably the greatest gift the 53-year-old proud parent has ever possessed. During Sanders’ legendary athletic career as a college All-American, NFL Hall of Famer and Major League Baseball outfielder, he created the famous alter-egos Neon Deion and Prime Time. His cult of personality has continued to make him a popular icon well after his playing days have ended.
After having some personal items, including jewelry, credit cards and a cell phone, stolen from his office during Sunday’s game—the belongings were subsequently returned—a demonstrably angry Sanders used the magnitude of the victory and theft to put the entire JSU campus and Black college football on notice.
“When I talked about quality and raising standards, that goes for everyone—not just the people on the field, not just the coaches,” he said, “and not just the teachers, not just the faculty, but everybody…”