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Deion Sanders can sell recruits on one thing Power 5 schools cannot: community

As Jackson State’s new football coach, the former NFL star has an advantage recruiting for an HBCU

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have produced 29 players who ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Everyone from Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State) to Michael Strahan (Texas Southern) to Aeneas Williams (Southern), but if we’re honest, football at HBCUs is an afterthought these days.

Deion Sanders can change all of that.


Jackson State named him its 21st coach on Monday at an on-campus news conference full of the pomp and circumstance you would expect from Sanders and an HBCU, arriving behind a marching band, police escort and luxury SUVs for his formal introduction.

Before Sanders takes on his first college job, he will finish this season as offensive coordinator at Trinity Christian School in South Dallas, where his son, Shedeur, plays quarterback and has committed to Florida Atlantic.

Sanders replaces John Hendrick, who was fired last month with a record of 6-9. Jackson State, which has not had a winning year since 2013, will start its season with the rest of the Southwestern Athletic Conference in the spring because of COVID-19.

Sanders, the only man to play in a Super Bowl and World Series, has always welcomed challenges.

This is one of the biggest challenges Sanders has ever faced because of the scrutiny that accompanies his new job and the critics waiting for him to fail, in part, because he didn’t take a traditional path to getting this job.

After all, Sanders has never coached at the collegiate level.

Then again, neither had Todd Dodge when the University of North Texas hired him in 2007 after he won three consecutive state Class 5A championships at Southlake Carroll in suburban Dallas.

And neither had Gerry Faust when Notre Dame hired him in 1981 after 18 seasons at perennial powerhouse Moeller High School in Cincinnati, so precedence exists for this type of bold move.

“This is what I’ve been doing my whole life. I’ve been called to take things to another level,” Sanders said Sunday on his podcast 21st & Prime. “What God is calling me to now, I’m ecstatic. It’s my people. It’s my people I get to touch. A multitude of the parents are the same age as me.

“I can’t wait. I’m so excited. I can’t wait to touch the grass. I can’t wait to put that whistle in my mouth. I can’t wait to start drawing up plays.”

The biggest question is whether Sanders can be CEO of a college program and manage more than 100 players, assistant coaches and support staff.

It all starts with his staff.

Sanders said he expects his staff to have eight assistant coaches who either played or coached in the NFL.

They must be grinders, because there’s nothing glamorous about coaching college football. You’re either preparing for a practice, a game or recruiting. Downtime is for other people.

Sanders’ most important staff member will be his NCAA compliance officer because of the organization’s draconian rules. Plus, any prominent player who signs with Jackson State is going to have his recruitment scrutinized like none other.

Now, Sanders made mistakes at Prime Prep Academy, the charter school he co-founded in 2013 that closed after months of controversy in 2015. Among a few issues with the school was financial mismanagement, according to an investigation by the Dallas Morning News in 2016.

Building a school from scratch is something Sanders doesn’t have to do at Jackson State.

Sanders has made it clear he wants to recruit some of the nation’s best players. His name and credentials will get him in the home of almost any recruit.

And no better time exists for Sanders to recruit elite Black athletes to an HBCU.

In June, Makur Maker, a five-star basketball player, committed to Howard over UCLA, and in August, 6-foot-3 twin volleyball players Cimone and Bria Woodard changed their verbal commitment from Texas A&M to Howard.

Sanders has shown his commitment to HBCUs. He announced the HBCU combine earlier this year, which was organized to highlight 50 hand-picked athletes from HBCUs ahead of the NFL draft, but the event was canceled due to COVID-19.

Our country is fractured, and too many folks think it’s cool to cheer for Black athletes when they score touchdowns as long as they aren’t dating their sons or daughters or straying too far off campus.

What if Sanders signed some of the best college football players because he can sell the one thing Power 5 schools can’t: a sense of community and belonging?

At HBCUs, Black students get a sense of community that doesn’t happen at predominantly white schools. History lessons go beyond Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. It can be hard to love yourself when you don’t really know who you are and where you came from.

At an HBCU, it’s cool to be unapologetically Black and embrace all that means.

“Why not? Isn’t this the time?” Sanders said. “Isn’t this the moment? Isn’t this what’s needed? To match what [Jackson State president Thomas Hudson] so eloquently said, it’s a match made in heaven. This is a God move.”

Jean-Jacques Taylor is an award-winning journalist who is currently president of JJT Media Group and has covered sports in Dallas-Fort Worth for 31 years.