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The signing of five-star recruit Travis Hunter shows how Deion Sanders is impacting the HBCU landscape

As Jackson State and South Carolina State prepare for the Cricket Celebration Bowl, eyes are on Black college football

ATLANTA — The goal for Jackson State coach Deion Sanders has always been to transform the Tigers into a championship-caliber team while changing how folks view football at historically Black colleges and universities.

Well, 450 days into his tenure, he’s done it, on the field and off. And on day 451, he did it again, signing five-star defensive back Travis Hunter on national signing day. He was the No. 2-ranked recruit in the country and became the first five-star high school football prospect to sign with an FCS team since ESPN started its rankings in 2006.

Sanders, an NFL Hall of Famer, takes pride in doing what others said couldn’t be done, like simultaneously playing professional football and baseball.

Or coaching Jackson State and returning it back to prominence.

This week, Sanders was named national FCS coach of the year after leading Jackson State to an 11-1 record and its first Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) title since 2007.

“Everybody didn’t believe. High school guy. Pro experience. Knew the game, but you didn’t understand what I was capable of,” Sanders said after his team won the SWAC title. “It’s not arrogant. It’s not cocky. It is what it is — do not let my confidence offend your insecurities in here today. I promise you we believed. The inner core. The nucleus of this team believed we’d be sitting right here today in this moment. We really did.”

His son, quarterback Shedeur Sanders, was named Freshman of the Year after passing for more than 3,000 yards with 29 touchdowns and only six interceptions.

JSU’s defense, among the best country, led the nation with 44 sacks.

Off the field, though, Sanders’ impact has been even greater because he’s pushed the boundaries for change in the conference and at the national level.

It’s no coincidence that the Cricket Celebration Bowl is sold out.

Folks are coming out to see Sanders on the sideline the same way they did when he played in the NFL from 1989-2000, primarily with the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys.

The Cricket Celebration Bowl, where Jackson State plays South Carolina State (7-4) at noon Saturday at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, is sold out for the first time in the game’s six-year history.

The game has never had more than 35,000 fans but that number has nearly doubled because Jackson State has reclaimed its spot atop the SWAC.

“He put a lot of eyes and a lot of spotlights on our conference,” Mississippi Valley State coach Vincent Dancy said. “He does a great job of marketing this conference and making sure that he’s not only representing Jackson State, but the whole conference so everybody understands that SWAC ball is great football and we can compete with anybody in FCS.”

What Sanders has really done is raise the conference’s profile and make it cool to be part of HBCU football, whether it’s having his celebrity friends in the locker room or on the sideline.

Less than two years after Sanders joined Jackson State, Eddie George became Tennessee State’s head coach. Two-time NFL coach Hue Jackson was just hired by Grambling State after spending a season with Tennessee State as its offensive coordinator.

Could we see former NFL stars Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as the next coaches to get their chance as an HBCU coach? Time will tell, but there is opportunity at HBCUs.

The attention that is attached to Sanders doesn’t mean there wasn’t pride in HBCU football before his arrival.

“He’s doing some great things to help his program,” said Southern coach Eric Dooley. “It helps the conference but the conference has been a great conference for years.”

What Sanders has focused on is making improvements and building on traditions. He has upgraded Jackson State’s facilities and expanded its options for uniforms. At Jackson State, he transformed some rooms that weren’t being used into a training room. A renovated locker room is nearly complete. A new practice field was added in the offseason so the Tigers didn’t have to take a bus to a local high school.

“A lot of that stuff takes money. You can’t just go out and do a lot of the things they’re doing until you go out and raise those funds,” said Bethune-Cookman coach Terry Sims. “A lot of stuff that’s happening down there are his connections.

“There are a lot of great things going on down there, but you just can’t just piggyback on everything going on with them. It’s great what he’s done for this league, because the majority of those things take money.”

Dancy agreed.

“At the end of the day what they’re doing over at Jackson State,” Dancy said, “is totally different from what we’re doing over here.”

A rising tide lifts all boats. It has never been solely about Jackson State for Sanders.

He advocated for all SWAC schools to put players’ names on their uniforms. Jackson State has played several games this season on ESPN. Jackson State isn’t playing against itself, which means other SWAC schools are getting opportunities to shine in front of a national TV audience.

“He’s not afraid to speak his mind [and that] has really helped the conference move forward,” Florida A&M coach coach Willie Simmons said. “We’ve been doing great things in this conference for a very long time and we haven’t gotten the national recognition we’ve deserved.

“He gets a lot of criticism from some people who may not agree with how he does things. As a coach, I’ve watched us get left out of conversations and not have a seat at the table for a long time. It’s a testament to him and others who have gone to bat for us. He’s not alone in that fight.”

Jackson State led all FCS schools in attendance this season, but had done so the last several seasons. So it’s fair to say it has resources other schools don’t. But that’s no different from Texas and Alabama having bigger budgets than Oklahoma State and Missouri.

“He’s trying to get names on the back of jerseys, stay at the best hotels,” Alabama A&M coach Connell Maynor. “Everything he’s trying to do we’ve been trying to do for years, but he’s Deion Sanders.

“There’s only one. There are a lot of NFL players, but only one Deion Sanders.”

Sanders’ presence and Jackson State’s rise will force every school in the conference to improve if they want to compete against the Tigers.

“The SWAC has always been a league that people have known about,” Sims said, “but I think he just came in and with some of his resources and credentials, he elevated some things.”

Now, he’s elevating the talent.

Last year, Sanders signed the top class in FCS, highlighted by his son, Shedeur, the highest-rated prospect at the time to sign with an FCS school.

Sanders and Jackson State shocked the world of high school recruiting on Wednesday, when Hunter switched from Florida State, Sanders’ alma mater, to the Tigers.

From the day he was hired, Sanders has been adamant about trying to sign the best players in the nation.

“Historically Black colleges and universities have a rich history in football,” Hunter said in a Twitter post Wednesday. “I want to be part of that history, and more, I want to be part of that future.

“I am making this decision so that I can light the way for others to follow, make it a little easier for them.”

This doesn’t mean five-star players will suddenly start flocking to HBCU programs, but don’t expect Hunter to be the last one.

And if Sanders gets players into the NFL, which is his goal, then the talent will flow to Jackson State.

“He’s trying to bring better athletes,” said Maynor. “He’s trying to get us three- and four- and five-star players and we have to compete.”

Or Sanders and Jackson State will leave them behind.

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.