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Jackson State’s success compels Power 5 colleges to come calling on Deion Sanders

Coach has led Tigers to 8-0 record for first time in school history

JACKSON, Miss. — In the last two weeks, 60 Minutes, Good Morning America and College GameDay each have profiled Jackson State University’s football program.

The reason? Coach Deion Sanders.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback has led the Tigers to an 8-0 record for the first time in school history after guiding Jackson State to a school-record 11 wins last season.

Now, Sanders has become one of the hottest names in coaching, being linked to nearly every head coaching vacancy. That’s because he has turned a moribund program that until last season hadn’t won a conference championship in more than a decade into one of college football’s most visible programs.

He showcases every aspect, from discipline to fun, through social media. More importantly, Jackson State is winning in dominant fashion: It has won five games by at least 35 points and four games by at least 40.

Sanders reportedly has drawn strong interest from Colorado and Georgia Tech. Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin on Monday. Harsin finished with a 9-12 record and survived less than two seasons; Sanders is being linked to that job, too.

“That’s a blessing,” he said. “It’s truly a blessing because I don’t think too many African American coaches from an HBCU [historically Black college or university] have been attached to anything from the Power 5, so that’s truly a blessing.”

There’s a lot of noise surrounding the program these days, but that’s OK with Sanders, who always has thrived in the din. These days, he’s teaching his coaches and players to do that, too.

“It’s never the guy that mishandled the noise. It’s always the guys around you that mishandle the noise,” he said. “I’ve always had noise. This ain’t no different than anything else.

“I told the coaches several weeks ago, ‘Let me handle the business. I got this. Don’t ever worry about this or that. Let’s dominate.’ ”

Jackson State is averaging 40.1 points and 478.6 yards, while yielding 8.9 points and 194.1 yards per game. The team will play Texas Southern (4-4, 3-2) at 7 p.m. EST Saturday in Houston.

“Our coaches are dominating. [Defensive coordinator] Dennis Thurman is dominating. [Offensive coordinator] Brett Bartolone is dominating,” Sanders said. “[Special teams] Coach [Alan] Ricard is doing a great job, and they’re recruiting their butts off. Just imagine one more great recruiting class like we’ve had. What are the games going to look like?”

Sanders has been honest publicly about his interest in Power 5 programs. If and when they call, he will listen. 

Understand, though, that Sanders has never been a man obsessed with the future. He prefers to live in the moment because he believes that if he dominates that moment, other opportunities will present themselves.

He’s also loyal to his coaches, most of whom make less than $100,000. Several coaches said they agreed to come to Jackson State without knowing how much money they would make, what title they would have or what school was hiring him. Linebackers coach Andre’ Hart and secondary coach Kevin Mathis also worked with Sanders and his youth football team in the early 2000s. If he leaves, Sanders’ life isn’t changing no matter how much his contract is worth. But the lives of his coaches would change considerably.

Sanders has interviewed with Florida State, Arkansas and TCU. Then, he was telling them what he could do for their program.

Schools interested in Sanders must sell themselves to him these days. He’s succeeding because he’s a combination of old school and new school.

“He sees the big picture. That’s what the great head coaches do,” Thurman said. “He knows exactly what the team needs, and he gives it to them. And off the field, he meets them where they are, and he allows them to be themselves.”

Sanders is a disciplinarian who demands maximum effort for every snap in practice. Earrings are prohibited during team functions, and the players and coaches wear suits when they travel. He forbade his players to leave their hotel this weekend in Houston, where rapper Takeoff, 28, was shot and killed at a bowling alley early Tuesday morning.

But he also allows local DJs to play music at practice, and a film crew shooting a documentary about the team attends most practices and is in the locker room at games. He speaks as easily to a CEO of a Fortune 500 company as he does to rapper Key Glock, who led him and Jackson State onto the field Saturday for their game against Southern.

“I’ve been around a lot of good head coaches. I’ve never been around somebody like him,” assistant head coach Gary Harrell said. “How he manages people. How he manages players and the team. He’s just so consistent from the time he gets here until he leaves.

“He approaches everything he does – no matter what it is – the same mindset. You just don’t see a lot of people who can do that.”

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.