Up Next

Jackson State Tigers

Even without Deion Sanders on the sideline, Jackson State keeps rolling

With Gary Harrell as acting head coach, Tigers are closing in on the SWAC division title

JACKSON, Miss. — The postgame congratulatory text from Jackson State coach Deion Sanders to Gary Harrell has become a regular occurrence — and that’s a good thing.

Harrell received a text like that for the third consecutive week after Jackson State disposed of Texas Southern 41-21 on Saturday at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium to win its sixth consecutive game, including three in a row without Sanders.

Sanders is recovering from toe surgery and doctors have ordered him to step away from coaching temporarily.

Harrell, the only coach on the staff with head-coaching experience, replaced him, and the former Howard University coach has made sure Jackson State has remained on track to play for the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) championship.

Harrell has done it by exuding the confidence that comes from having been a head coach before and resisting the urge to replace Sanders’ huge personality.

Not that he could. No one could.

“It has been somewhat — I don’t want to say challenging — when you missing a guy like Coach Prime and how he does things, it puts you a little behind the eight ball because you don’t want to disappoint him,” Harrell said. “He’s a guy who’s going to always be involved and hold you accountable. He’s always watching. When he’s here, his voice is just different and everything just falls in line.

“For us as a staff, it takes a little bit of time to get things lined up. We have to do a better job as far as off-the-field things. How we dress. Everybody has to be in line and we’re kind of drifting a little bit on that front as a staff. We have to get that fixed. When Prime is here, it don’t happen.”

Sanders’ goal when he accepted the Jackson State job in September 2020 was to build a championship-caliber program that would thrive whether he was coaching the team or not.

Well, it seems as though he’s already established quite a bit of the foundation and culture that will help Jackson State win whether he’s on the sideline or not.

The Tigers have won three consecutive games to remain undefeated in the SWAC East, and they lead the East by a game over Florida A&M, who they’ve already beaten. A win in either of their final two games against Southern or Alcorn, or a Florida A&M loss, and Jackson State will clinch the East Division and likely play Prairie View A&M in the SWAC championship.

Harrell has led the Tigers to wins over Bethune-Cookman 42-12, Mississippi Valley State 28-19 and Texas Southern 41-21.

“Everybody knows Coach Prime is still involved every single day, but Coach Gary has been a head coach before and Coach Prime trusts him. That’s why he put him in place,” athletic director Ashley Robinson said after the game.

“Coach Prime has done a really good job changing the culture and instilling it in his coaches. They understand what he wants.”

Harrell decided that as long as he was the acting head coach, nothing would really change about his routine aside from some extra media sessions and at least one phone call from Sanders at the beginning and end of each day.

Harrell, who played receiver at Howard, played two seasons in the NFL and has spent nearly 20 years as a college coach. 

After beating Mississippi Valley State, Sanders wrote on Instagram:

“I’m so proud of my dear friend, Assistant Head Coach, @coachflea [Gary Harrell]. I can’t stop bragging about how good he is and how blessed we are to have him at Jackson State.”

The wins haven’t all been pretty but they all count, and anytime you can win without your head coach is impressive.

“Coach Harrell is built for this,” receiver Keith Corbin said. “Even though Coach Prime is out, he took control.”

Linebacker James Houston said, “Coach Prime put him in that position for a reason. I never doubted him, and I don’t think anybody on the team ever doubted his ability to coach us.”

Understand, keeping Sanders away from Jackson State’s facilities so he can rest and recover has been more than a notion.

”I’ve gotten calls early in the morning to say he’s on the way to work,” Robinson said with a laugh. “It has been very hard to keep him away.

“He’s a very hard worker, and I respect him for that. I love him. He’s more than just a coach to me.”

No one knows when Sanders will return to the sideline.

He’s day to day, but he’s left his football team in good hands.

The texts prove it.

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.