Up Next

HBCU Football

Deion Sanders and Jackson State primed to open their season Sunday

‘Coach Prime’ era begins in Jackson, Mississippi, amid high expectations, national spotlight

This is not your grandfather’s Jackson State football team.

But new Tigers head football coach Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders wishes it were.

Those were the days when the best NFL prospects came from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) – when Jackson State sent guys such as Walter Payton to the Chicago Bears, Lem Barney to the Detroit Lions and Harold Jackson to the Los Angeles Rams.

In the years before full integration, Black colleges were the only places a promising Black player could go to reach his full potential in sports. In this new world order – prompted by a mix of renewed social activism amid the Black Lives Matter movement and a more critical look at the inequities of the multibillion-dollar college sports complex – top-flight Black players are now looking seriously at HBCUs.

So, who better to lead this movement than Sanders, the only man to professionally hit a home run and get a touchdown in the same seven-day period (1989); the only person to suit up on the same day for two professional teams (1992) (Note: He did not actually play in the baseball game); and the only person to play in a Super Bowl and a World Series.

In the modern-day version:

  • Sanders recruits the best class in the history of HBCU football.
  • A slew of Jackson-area barbers show up to cut hair for the Tigers football team.
  • A Subway commercial shows the local football coach intercepting someone’s lunch, and …
  • The town goes all-in to find Coach Prime’s boombox, which was apparently swiped from a pickup truck.

Rashad Milligan, who covers Jackson State for the Clarion-Ledger newspaper, follows Sanders’ impact daily.

“Everything he does is like the talk of the talk,” said Milligan, an Atlanta native. “Back in January, Deion had his boombox stolen, that was talk of the town for two or three days.

“In a community group on Facebook, people were discussing, ‘Why are so many planes flying over the neighborhood?’

“And someone was like, ‘It’s probably the government looking for Deion’s boombox.’ ”

The gigantic portable, music machine was returned safely.

Coach Prime in full effect

The bright lights, the hoopla, the “Prime Time” is in full force in Jackson, Mississippi.

“This is what we bring to the table,” Sanders said this week in a Zoom interview. “That’s something that’s always traveled with me. That’s something that has always been a part of me in every sport, in every aspect of my life. So, why not here?

“It’s going to be like that, and the kids understand,” he added.

Despite potential distractions, Sanders makes it clear what he wants from his players. “Right now, the goal is to be smart, tough, fast and disciplined – each game, each practice, each day.

“We try to achieve three out of those four,” he added. “The ultimate goal is four out of four, but three out of the four is the thing that we’re trying to achieve on a daily basis.”

Jackson State football coach Deion Sanders (right) speaks with players following a scrimmage in Jackson, Mississippi, on Feb. 13.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo

Sanders said he also expects his players “to dominate not only on the field but also in the classroom.”

Step one occurs Sunday at 2 p.m. ET, when the Tigers (4-8 last season) take their home field against Edward Waters College out of Jacksonville, Florida. Neither Sanders nor fans will see the full impact of his recruiting class until the fall, because some recruits played high school or college ball in the fall and are ineligible for the spring season.

Late in the week, Sanders still had not decided who would start at quarterback: sophomore Jalon Jones or redshirt freshman Quincy Casey. The competition was continuing, he said.

Sanders is hesitant to point out potential stars, but the team returns the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) preseason player of the year, junior Keonte Hampton, at linebacker. But preseason All-SWAC senior running back Keshawn Harper is no longer with the team.

Sanders confirmed reports that the defense looks to be further ahead than the offense but says that’s exactly how he wants it to be. But he said that in the spring, with the insertion of some of the new recruits, the two units will be closer in terms of talent level.

For most observers, that’s a nod toward Sanders’ son, Shedeur Sanders, a four-star recruit who changed his commitment from Florida Atlantic to Jackson State after Sanders’ hiring.

Sanders’ older son, Shilo, who played defensive back for South Carolina in 2020, will also make his Tigers debut in fall 2021.

Shedeur Sanders, who says he will use this season mainly as an observer to get used to the speed of the game as he transitions from high school to college, has schooled his teammates on how to survive the Coach Prime School of Hard Knocks.

“Just, do your job,” Shedeur Sanders said. “Just execute. He expects you to go above and beyond. He expects wins. Be a dog, really.”

As far as the hoopla, the media and the cameras, Shedeur – who has on-the-job training in several of Sanders’ reality TV shows – said his teammates are settling down.

“You’ve just got to be yourself,” he said. “Once you start acting out of character, people see that. So as long as you’re yourself, it’s easy.”

His teammates seem to get it.

CJ Holmes, a senior defensive back who recorded two interceptions and 28 tackles in an All-SWAC season in 2019, said the defense will mirror the mindset – and the confidence, it seems – of the coaches.

“We’re going to be fast, smart, tough and disciplined, and we’re going to be flying around doing our jobs,” Holmes said. “We’re going to be one of the best defenses in the conference – and in college football, really.”

Holmes said the defense is growing quickly, thanks to coaches such as defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, a veteran NFL player and coach.

Jackson State football coach Deion Sanders calls out instructions during a scrimmage on Feb. 13.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo

“We’re learning that everybody has a role,” Holmes said. “Everybody can’t be superman and play every position. We’re just growing as a team.”

Holmes said the Coach Prime atmosphere is apparent, but the players just focus on football.

Sanders’ first Jackson State staff also includes special teams coach Alan Ricard, a former NFL running back; defensive backs coach Kevin Mathis, a nine-year NFL veteran who coached the Prime Truth 7-on-7 team; Gary Harrell, who played two seasons with the New York Giants; and defensive line coach Jeff Weeks, who coached linebackers for the Buffalo Bills under Rex Ryan.

Some of the others, such as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Michael Pollock, have extensive high school or college coaching experience.

For Edward Waters coach Greg Ruffin, who worked at Jackson State for six years, serving as recruiting coordinator and running backs coach, Sunday’s game is “kind of a homecoming.”

“It’s not about Deion. It’s not about me,” Ruffin said. “We’re going to take it one play at a time.

“We’ve got a young team. We’re just going to play football. I got to make sure that my best 22 or 30 guys are playing as well as their best 22-30.”

Ruffin said depth could become an issue if the game requires his team to rely heavily on reserves, because the scholarship discrepancy would then favor Jackson State, an FCS school. Edward Waters is a member of the NAIA Gulf Coast Athletic Conference.

Jackson State football coach Deion Sanders (right) watches quarterback Quincy Casey (left) regain his footing as he scrambles.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo

“We’re a smaller school. They’re going to have more depth,” Ruffin said.

Edward Waters went 1-10 last season with losses to two SWAC opponents, 61-0 against Southern and 41-14 against Prairie View.

Ruffin said his team, also known as the Tigers, will bring speed and experience at running back with Corey Hammett and De’Shaun Hugee, and at receiver with Idaho transfer Steavenson Fernand and Southern Illinois transfer Sam Thompson.

The defense will be anchored by defensive end Jaren Wilson, who is 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, and defensive back Christian Hayes, “who plays all over the secondary.”

Sanders says his scouting staff indicates that Edward Waters will not be pushovers.

“Those guys are greedy, they’re tough,” Sanders said. “They do understand this is a tremendous opportunity, and they want to take advantage of this tremendous opportunity. And showcase some of the talent they have, as well as their program.

“It’s up to us to disarm and disable that – to hit them as soon as they get off the bus.”

Sanders sees his program’s mission as impacting athletics far beyond Jackson State and the SWAC. He knows he is pushing the envelope to get HBCUs to go after the top football talent with the expectation that they will be taken seriously.

“The impact could be phenomenal with the exposure of the documentary,” Sanders said. “It can change the culture. It can change lives. …

“It could put a flashlight on what’s been so prominent and so consistent for decades.”

He said the impact is already being felt in that Jackson State’s six spring games are scheduled to be carried on ESPN3 or ESPNU, which can have an impact financially.

He expects more of the same, or even more, in the fall.

“I’m pretty sure when we do what we do, it’s going to be more in the fall and that can translate into revenue – economic value to the university.”

Sanders and his inaugural season will be featured in a documentary series produced by Barstool Sports and SMAC Entertainment, which is co-owned by former NFL star Michael Strahan.

Mark W. Wright, showrunner and director of the documentary, said: “The impact of Coach Prime here is visible everywhere you go. There’s billboards … there’s a Subway commercial. He is very much here. And with him comes visibility to Jackson State, visibility to HBCUs in general.

“When he walks into a room, [whether] it’s a literal room a virtual room or on your TV screen, there’s an expectation that things are going to be different.”

At Jackson State, that translates into players running laps for having the wrong socks or the wrong pants.

“Even though he’s 53 years old, he’s still that dude. And it’s hard to look at him and not visualize him as one of the greatest.

“He’s very much an X’s and O’s coach, and he’s put out the mandate that we’re going to look the part and whatever your expectations were before, it’s going to be higher now.”

David Squires is an educator and digital journalist who lives in the Charlotte area and teaches journalism at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro. He has covered HBCU sports for several decades, first with the St. Petersburg Times and later as editor-in-chief of the original BlackVoices.com and BVQ magazine. He has also worked in news and sports in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Fort Worth and Hampton Roads. His passion is college basketball, and he is a die-hard Tar Heel -- born and bred.