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Head coach Deion Sanders of the Jackson State Tigers before the game against the Alabama State Hornets on March 20 in Montgomery, Alabama. Don Juan Moore/Getty Images
HBCU Football

All eyes on Coach Deion Sanders as HBCU football hopes for a renaissance

With conference realignments, coach Eddie George at Tennessee State and more games on TV, this season will be lit

JACKSON, Miss. – You walk into the coaches’ meeting room at Jackson State and it’s impossible to miss the saying Deion Sanders has painted on the wall in red, white and blue block letters.

“I was called by God to make a difference.”

So what does that mean?

“I was called by God himself. Not the man next to the man, but God himself to come here and provoke change. And when I say change, I mean change. I mean come in one way and leave another. Change. I mean think one way and then think another. Look one way and then look another. That’s what I mean by change. Come in here flat like a dollar and come out four quarters. I mean change.

“Well, you got to be disruptive with a cause, with consistency, with a plan. People generally are not comfortable with change. Change just disrupts a whole lot of comfortability, and oftentimes, you got to be willing to be that guy willing to risk it. Willing to attempt it, willing to secure it, to accomplish your goals, and I’m more than willing, and I’m more than able, and I’m more than capable.”

Sanders has implemented quite a few changes since becoming Jackson State’s football coach 339 days ago.

He’s improved every aspect of the Jackson State program, from what the players see to their training room to new uniforms – they will wear five different uniforms with five different helmets – to a new practice field, so they don’t have to go to a local high school.

The change Sanders hoped to create for historically Black college and university (HBCU) football is also happening. The result is one of the most anticipated HBCU seasons in decades.

It begins Saturday with the Cricket MEAC/SWAC Challenge in Atlanta featuring North Carolina Central and Alcorn State, the only Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) team that didn’t play a spring football schedule.

ESPN and its collection of networks will broadcast 39 games, including the SWAC championship and the Cricket Celebration Bowl. Each team will appear at least once; Jackson State will have eight of its 10 games on ESPN.

“[Deion’s] pizazz and charisma and flashiness as a player really translates in the HBCU landscape,” said ESPN play-by-play voice Tiffany Greene, the first African American woman to serve as a play-by-play announcer for college football on ESPN. “It’s kind of who we are culturally.”

Part of this season’s sizzle is Coach Prime, a six-part documentary series that follows Sanders and the Jackson State football team.

The series, from SMAC Entertainment and Barstool Sports, premieres Sunday and streams through Sept. 2. Episodes will stream at 7 p.m. ET each night on Barstool Sports’ digital, mobile and social platforms, and will be made available on demand immediately afterward.

The show raises awareness of the Jackson State student-athletes and all HBCUs, says Sanders.

Highly anticipated start to the season

Jackson State’s much-anticipated season begins against Florida A&M on Sept. 5 in Miami at the Orange Blossom Classic, resurrected after a 43-year absence.

Former Pro Bowl running back Eddie George is Tennessee State’s new football coach, and Sanders has said former NFL stars such as Pro Football Hall of Famers Ray Lewis, Marshall Faulk and Ed Reed are interested in becoming HBCU head coaches.

Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman have joined the SWAC and North Carolina A&T, one of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s founding members, left for the Big South Conference. Alabama A&M quarterback Aqeel Glass is among the nation’s best FCS quarterbacks and has a chance to get drafted, as does North Carolina A&T running back Jah-Maine Martin.

“There is this perfect storm of everything brewing at the right time,” said Greene, a fourth-generation Florida A&M graduate. “Folks are ready to get out. They’re ready to hit the college football scene and homecomings. We have a really competitive matchup and we have this wave of momentum that’s following Black college football.”

Still, this season is all about Jackson State and whether Sanders’ team can meet the high expectations of the Tigers’ fan base after a 4-3 finish in the spring following a 3-0 start. Their fourth victory was a forfeit over Alcorn State.

The Tigers haven’t won a SWAC championship since 2007 and have just four SWAC titles since 1990. This is from a program that won seven SWAC titles in the 1980s.

Sanders’ team features nine transfers from the Southeastern Conference, including his son Shilo, a sophomore safety who played at the University of South Carolina. Jackson State had one of FCS’ top recruiting classes last spring, highlighted by Sanders’ son, Shedeur, a four-star quarterback, and defensive back De’Jahn Warren. Warren, the nation’s top-rated junior college cornerback, picked Jackson State over Georgia.

The roster, by design, is dramatically different from the one that competed in the spring. Sanders expects to win.

“It’s not just about winning. We’re going to win,” Sanders said. “It’s about making it better for everybody – not just Jackson State. Mississippi Valley State. Alcorn. Grambling. FAMU. I could keep going. This is for everybody. This ain’t just about us. It’s bigger than that.

“You think God just called me to Jackson State to make a change. No, no, no, no. God called me to Jackson State, HBCUs, SWAC, college football at this level, FCS to make a change. This is way bigger than the natural eye can see and fathom.”

Sanders wants to win and send players to the NFL, which will allow HBCU football to be a viable option for elite players for the first time since the 1960s and ’70s, when the best African American football players played at HBCUs because playing at predominantly white institutions wasn’t an option.

None of the 259 players selected in this year’s draft were produced by HBCU schools. In 2020, Tennessee State tackle Lachavious Simmons, a seventh-round pick (227th overall), was the only HBCU selection.

Houston took Alabama State offensive lineman Tytus Howard with the 23rd pick of the 2019 draft. Three other HBCU players were taken in the seventh round.

“What is really a win for me? Is winning the SWAC, but not getting anybody drafted a win for me?” Sanders asked. “We don’t win, but we get some guys drafted. Is that a win for me? Or is winning the SWAC and getting some guys drafted a win for me? No matter what you do, it’s going to be critiqued, but you have to understand what’s the win for you. I know what it is.”

Jackson State, Grambling, Morgan State and South Carolina State each have four players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There are 33 HBCU players in the Hall of Fame, including Donnie Shell, Harold Carmichael and Winston Hill, who were added earlier this month.

“HBCU schools don’t have a megawatt booster base that funds these programs,” said Roland Martin, who hosts the daily streaming news show Roland Martin Unfiltered on YouTube, “but if you create opportunity for players to create visibility at HBCUs, it changes. That changes the ballgame.”

That’s about money.

Sanders leveraged the relationships he created during his NFL and MLB careers to help the SWAC get a three-year sponsorship agreement with Pepsi for all SWAC football and basketball championship games through 2023.

“Until we’re sleeping like they sleep, until we live like they live. We’re not getting the academic resources with all the tutors that they’re getting,” Sanders said of FBS programs. “We want to level the playing field, but gonna quit talking about it and be about it. It’s about a man and a plan.

“Look at all the great programs we have today. They all started with a man and a plan. Look at Alabama before Nick Saban. How did he change Alabama? He was a man with a plan and the rest is history.”

Jean-Jacques Taylor, a native of Dallas, is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL for 25 years and is president of JJT Media Group.