Deion Sanders’ appointment as the 21st head football coach at Jackson State University isn’t about publicity. Nor is it just about football.
It’s about opportunity.
Not for Sanders, the two-time Super Bowl champion and Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back—his illustrious playing career coupled with his personality and charisma have opened doors to plenty of those. “Prime Time” is a household name.
Rather, his appointment is an opportunity for the next generation. For student-athletes at Jackson State. For student-athletes across all historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
“We’re employed by Jackson State and the dream and goal is to build Jackson State, but the overall big picture of things is to build HBCUs in general,” Sanders told me. “If we get a five- or four-star kid in another HBCU, I think we won; not ‘we’ as in Jackson State but we won in general because now we’re leveling the playing field. It’s so vital that we shed light on things like why can’t these kids have a bowl game at the conclusion of the season? Why aren’t these kids being invited to the NFL Combine? Why aren’t these kids having the same opportunities other kids are having when you’ve had four Hall of Famers derive from Jackson State University?
“So that means giving it a level playing field—the same type of locker rooms, the same type of academic resources and software, the same type of tutoring, as well as stadiums and fields. Giving that same balance, I guarantee you, you will see tremendous upside coming from HBCUs. It’s very vital that we get that understanding out publicly.”
In August 2019, Ohio State University, the fifth-most valuable college football team according to Forbes, unveiled its newly renovated Woody Hayes Athletic Center. The $7.8 million upgrade to the east wing of the football team’s practice facility included a new kitchen and nutrition area, recovery and rehabilitation area equipped with a cryotherapy chamber and sensory deprivation tanks, a barbershop, full basketball court, golf simulator, and arcade games.
Clemson University, which clawed into the top 25 most valuable rankings in 2019, unveiled its $55 million Allen N. Reeves Football Complex in 2017, featuring a 23,000-square-foot weight room, state-of-the-art training room, lap pool, golf simulator, movie theater, two-lane bowling alley, and barbershop. The university’s Memorial Stadium is also poised for a $70 million makeover.
In 2017-18, Clemson brought in a school-record $40 million in athletic contributions with deputy athletic director Graham Neff telling Forbes: “There is a strong, strong correlation between football success and the contribution increase.”
While Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) powerhouses including Ohio State, Clemson, Alabama, Michigan and Texas continue college football’s never-ending facilities arms race fueled by eye-popping dollar amounts stemming from contributions, income from licensing and royalties, ticket sales, and gaudy TV broadcast deals doled out by their respective conferences, HBCUs aren’t afforded the same luxury of a seemingly bottomless pit of millions.
Outside of those major financial drivers, there is a history of inequitable funding and investments by federal and state governments, leaving HBCUs far behind predominately white institutions (PWIs). Public HBCUs rely on federal, state and local funding more heavily than non-HBCU institutions (54% of overall revenue compared to 38%), according to the American Council on Education. Private HBCUs are more tuition-dependent than non-HBCU schools (45% to 37%) and private gifts, grants and contracts make up a smaller percentage of overall revenue (17% vs. 25%).
According to a 2018 Clarion Ledger story, Jackson State University’s athletic budget for the prior fiscal year was $7.6 million, ranking seventh in the 10-team Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), and 337th out of 347 schools in NCAA Division I.
“The difference has been the resources, definitely,” Sanders said. “When a kid leaves the inner city, he doesn’t want to go back into the climate, thought process and living conditions of the inner city. He wants to be George Jefferson and Weezie—they want to move on up to a deluxe apartment on a campus they couldn’t even fathom. They want to play on national television. They want to know at the end of the day they have an opportunity to go to the next level.
“These kids want to know is there an opportunity at the NFL, at the next level, and can I see that? If they haven’t seen that for some time, they aren’t apt to join a fraternity of football players at a university. As long as they know there’s equality and not only can you go to Alabama and get to the NFL but you can go to Jackson State and get to the NFL as such.”
Sanders and his team have already begun supporting the metamorphosis at Jackson State. The school recently announced a new facilities campaign two weeks after Sanders’ appointment on September 21. Phase one includes upgrades to the Lee E. Williams Athletics & Assembly Center, the JSU Practice Pavilion, and outdoor track adjacent to the Walter Payton Health & Recreation Center.
Jackson State University vice-president and director of athletics Ashley Robinson confirmed three or four more phases are coming down the line to upgrade all athletic facilities. He said alumni giving and sponsorship have both increased since Sanders’ hire.
Not only is the school getting a physical facelift, but Sanders and the 20+ person machine behind the scenes, including Constance Schwartz-Morini, partner and co-founder of SMAC Entertainment, are exhausting their resources and connections with the NFL, Under Armour, Barstool Sports and countless other companies and brands to provide Jackson State with their own bounty of resources.
They are creating a virtual booster club not only for Jackson State alumni and supporters, but everyone across Sanders’ network, including football, baseball, C-suite and more.
As of October 7, Jackson State is no longer a Nike school and is currently in talks to partner with Under Armour, according to Robinson. Sanders has a personal endorsement contract with the Baltimore-based brand.
Schwartz-Morini, who has known and worked with Sanders for more than a decade, said SMAC is in talks with various television networks to develop a show following Sanders’ journey at Jackson State. NFL Films has been confirmed as a producing partner.
“There’s an army, there’s a village that is helping not just Jackson State, but HBCUs,” Schwartz-Morini said. “We want those kids to have the same chance that an Ivy League kid or a D-I kid has. We’re setting up internships with SMAC, the NFL and Barstool. With every partner we have, we’re making sure they have a pipeline to succeed.”
One of those partners, Barstool Sports, is committing a portion of revenue from Sanders’ podcast 21st and Prime and his appearances on Pardon My Take and the Pro Football Football Show to Jackson State and HBCUs. Sanders joined Barstool in August after 14 years at NFL Network as an on-air analyst.
“Barstool is committed to supporting Deion Sanders in his coaching endeavors and is excited to partner with Jackson State,” Barstool CEO Erika Nardini said. “A portion of revenue from the Deion Sanders and Barstool Sports partnership will go to support HBCUs, including Jackson State.”
Jackson State is home to one of the most-storied HBCU football programs in history. The Tigers, who have a 462-302-15 overall record and .603 winning percentage—the latter ranking in the top-25 all-time in all NCAA Division I—have won 18 conference championships, including 16 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), since joining in 1958.
The program boasts 99 NFL Draft selections, 150 alumni who have played in the NFL, and four Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees including Walter Payton, Robert Brazile, Lem Barney and Jackie Slater.
Unfortunately, the Tigers have fallen on hard times lately, going 23-44 since 2014, including 19-30 in conference play. Jackson State’s last winning season was in 2013 when the Tigers went 7-4 overall and 7-2 in SWAC.
Despite the recent struggles, Jackson State features one of the most supportive and loyal fan bases in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS)—the program led the FCS in average home attendance per game in 2018 and 2019, welcoming an average of 33,762 fans per game last season.
Sanders’ hire has reinvigorated current and former students. His introductory press conference featured the school’s Sonic Boom of the South marching band and a police escort that dominated headlines and social media, even drawing the attention of LeBron James, who likened it to “Prince Akeem when he came to America!!”
“We had no idea it was coming,” Schwartz-Morini said. “I think it goes to show how they were the perfect fit because I don’t know any of these other schools would have rolled out the, I believe, blue carpet they did with the police escort and Sonic Boom and all the town coming out. … It’s a celebration which I think we all could use a little happiness in our lives right now.”
That celebration has continued since that announcement as fans showed up in droves outside of Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium at 5 a.m. on October 1—four hours before the ticket office opened—to secure their seats for the upcoming spring 2021 season, which was postponed from the fall due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s bigger than football,” Robinson told me. “To me, I call this one of the biggest hires in the country right now, regardless of what level—Power 5s, mid-majors, HBCUs. Coach Prime is a person who knows what it takes to get to the next level. He can teach that and relate to that. He knows how to connect to young men and women and he knows how to connect with parents. I don’t know if there’s anybody he can’t connect with. He’s a great motivator. Not only does he talk to the talk, he walks the walk.
“… I don’t know a single person who isn’t excited about the things we’ve done in the last two weeks or isn’t excited about Deion Sanders coming to Jackson State University.”
With the campus and City of Jackson buzzing, Sanders is ready for the challenge at hand, both on and off the field. Some have been critical of his hire based on his coaching credentials. While he’ll make his collegiate coaching debut against Edward Waters College on February 21, 2021, Sanders has more than a decade of coaching experience under his belt. As offensive coordinator at Trinity Christian School in Cedar Hills, Texas, Sanders helped guide the coincidentally named Tigers to a 42-3 record and three consecutive Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) titles.
Sanders also plans to rely on his soon-to-be-announced coaching staff, which he says boasts a combined 84 years of NFL coaching and playing experience, and all of whom know Sanders for 10 or more years.
More importantly, Sanders, who has also served on the coaching staff of the annual Under Armour All-America Game for the past 10 years, has helped develop young men and women off the field. After retiring from the NFL, he founded TRUTH, a youth organization that empowers and supports more than 1,100 kids throughout Dallas and Memphis utilizing the power and education tools of sports.
“When I hear someone saying ‘You haven’t coached at the college level,’ well I think I played at the epitome of levels,” said Sanders, who spent 14 seasons in the NFL, holds the league’s record for career return touchdowns, and was named to the NFL 100 All-Time Team. “When you think about it, in high school coaching—which I’ve done for a multitude of years and won championships—we’re not only coaching, we’re cutting the grass, we’re lining the field, we’re making sure that kid gets home from school safely, and we’re making sure that kid stays away from drugs.
“I think the hardest coaching level is really the youth as well as high school. When you get to the next level, especially at the pros, it’s amazing the resources you have. In college it’s the same. I’m not going to minimize it or say it’s easy, but the levels I’ve gone through have been phenomenal and prepared me.”
While Sanders has been known for his fair share of trash talking and gloating during and after his playing career, Coach Prime plans to show—not just tell—his players, students at Jackson State and other HBCUs, alumni, fans, boosters, supporters and even haters that anything is possible when afforded the platform and opportunity, whether that’s higher quality apparel and equipment, field and facilities upgrades, access to more educational resources, internships, networking, and interview skills.
“It’s our challenge to the kids to have them understand this is real, it’s authentic, it’s genuine,” Sanders said. “They gotta believe that we’re going to level the playing field and we’re going to give them the resources, we’re going to give them the exposure, we’re going to educate them, we’re going to guide them, and we’re going to challenge them, but we’re going to make sure they aren’t only able to be professional athletes, but they’re able to be professionals that have a say in their respective communities.
“We’re looking for leaders. We’re going to raise some leaders and guide some leaders and give them all the necessary tools for success. Most of these kids are wonderful arrows, we just have to aim them in the right direction then let them go.”