Deion Sanders Is Leading Jackson State to a Football Title Game

JACKSON, Miss. — Grease-stained brown paper bags filled the counter at Stamps Super Burgers, a tiny burger joint near the campus of Jackson State, and the orders kept coming and coming.

But it wasn’t a change in recipe bringing a spike in orders.

Since the arrival of the university’s high-profile head football coach, the Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, in September 2020, local businesses like Stamps, which Sanders highlighted in an Instagram post, have seen a surge in exposure and business.

Jackson State’s on-field turnaround since Sanders’s arrival has been just as rapid. The program, which plays at the Football Championship Subdivision level in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, was once a perennial powerhouse among historically Black colleges and universities. It had declined in the past decade but vaulted back into national prominence this past season, largely because of Sanders.

After coaching the team through a condensed spring schedule following the conference’s cancellation of its fall 2020 season because of the coronavirus pandemic, Sanders guided the Tigers (10-1, 8-0 in the conference) to their first winning record and first conference championship game appearance since 2013.

Yet almost more than the difference in wins and losses, the effect of Sanders’s arrival at Jackson State has been felt around the university and statewide. Local commerce has spiked as the school has gained widespread attention. The Hall of Fame pass rusher and television personality Michael Strahan, who played college football at Texas Southern, an H.B.C.U., had custom suits made for the football team ahead of the Tigers’ season opener. And Jackson State, as well as other historically Black colleges and universities, have received more national television coverage.

Eight of Jackson State’s 11 regular-season games this fall were broadcast across ESPN’s networks and streaming service. That’s something that Sanders, who goes by the nickname “Prime Time,” promised after arriving in Jackson, not only for his school, but for H.B.C.U.s nationwide.

“We’re going to give these kids exposure,” Sanders, whom the university declined to make available for an interview, said at his introductory news conference in September. “We’re going to put a light on these kids. We’re going to allow them to shine.”

Four hours before Jackson State kicked off against Alcorn State in November, Tigers fans formed a line that wrapped around Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium.

For a long time, the main attraction of a Jackson State football game was either the tailgate or the marching band, known as the “Sonic Boom of the South.” People would come for the band’s halftime show, then trickle out during the third quarter.

That Saturday afternoon was different. An hour before the start of the game, nearly every seat in the stadium, which holds over 60,000, was filled in what the school said was the largest home crowd of the season. Few fans had left by the end of the game.

“I call it the Prime effect,” said C. Daryl Neely, a Jackson State graduate and booster.

He added: “There was at least a collegiate generation or two of people being in, say seventh grade and graduating from high school, and not knowing what it’s like to have 50,000 people in the stands for a J.S.U. game or not knowing what it’s like to want to go to a Jackson State game.”

The Tigers won 11 regular-season conference titles from 1980-98, sharing the crown with Grambling State twice. Since the conference split into East and West divisions after the 1998 season and instituted a championship game, Jackson State has made it to conference title games five times before this fall, winning in 2007. The school was once a pipeline to the pros, sending nearly 90 players to the A.F.L. and N.F.L. from the early 1960s to the early 2000s, including the Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton.

Jackson State has a renowned legacy (it has produced four Hall of Famers) but, like many H.B.C.U.s, it has few resources to compete in talent and facilities with other powerhouses.

In the years before Sanders’s arrival, the Tigers had nine losing seasons from 2003-19. They haven’t produced an N.F.L. draft pick since 2008 and have changed head coaches four times since 2015. Ashley Robinson is the school’s third director of athletics since 2012 after turbulent tenures by his two predecessors. Bringing in Sanders, an unlikely but beneficial hire on a four-year, $1.2 million contract, is the biggest accomplishment of Robinson’s relatively short time at Jackson State.

Though Sanders had no prior college football coaching experience, Neely said he was not surprised by the school’s quick turnaround, given Sanders’ status and professional football career.

He produced the No. 1 recruiting class among Football Championship Subdivision schools in 2021, including 19 transfers and 11 of the highest-rated recruits in program history.

Sanders has instituted a “nonnegotiable” standard at Jackson State, Neely said, emphasizing small details like making sure players are disciplined, punctual and professional and by measuring success beyond on-field results.

“What is a win to us at Jackson State?” Sanders told reporters after the Tigers beat Alcorn State. He has made clear his goal of sending H.B.C.U. players to the N.F.L. (none were drafted in 2021). “If no one goes pro, I don’t feel like we won. If our graduation rate hasn’t increased, did we win? My thought process to winning embodies a whole multitude of things. It’s not just games.”

Sanders is known as much for his flashiness, boisterous personality and ability to market himself as he is for his explosive 14-season N.F.L. career, during which he also played in Major League Baseball. He was a defensive back and punt returner, winning Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.

In retirement, Sanders had worked as an analyst for N.F.L. Network and CBS Sports. In 2012, he co-founded Prime Prep Academy, a charter school in Texas that was supposed to become a powerhouse but instead, was engulfed in financial missteps and academic strife and collapsed after nearly three years.

Sanders at the time accused the news media of racism and a vendetta but his current thinking was not known because he was not made available for an interview.

Before going to Jackson State, Sanders was the offensive coordinator at Trinity Christian School in Cedar Hill, Texas, where he coached his sons, Shedeur and Shilo, who both play for the Tigers.

Even before Sanders moved to Mississippi in 2020, the buzz around Jackson, which has a population of roughly 160,000 people, 82 percent of whom are Black or African American, according to 2019 census estimates, was far-reaching. Billboards with his face were placed around the city shortly after the school announced his hire, and the excitement has extended to the crowds of people who show up to the stadium each week.

“This program has to be, and is historically connected to the city,” Neely said. He added: “And when you get 60,000 people in the stands, that’s when you know you’re back to it being the program of the city.”

Sanders’s quick success in Jackson has provided a peek at how a high-profile face can provide both exposure and opportunity for programs at historically Black colleges and universities that don’t have the same resources as their Power 5 counterparts.

Less than a year after Sanders went to Jackson State, Tennessee State, another H.B.C.U., announced the hiring of former Titans running back Eddie George, who had consulted Sanders before taking the head coaching job.

Neely said while he expected other H.B.C.U.s to seek high-profile coaches who might take the job for reasons other than pay, it’s not the only path to success.

“There are plenty of high-profile, highly motivated, capable coaches, who may not be N.F.L. players but have the same drive and determination and vision that a Coach Deion Sanders has,” he said.

Sanders’s success at Jackson State has prompted rumors that he could potentially be a candidate for Power 5 coaching jobs, but he has insisted this season’s success in Jackson is not the end.

“We’re not finished by all means,” Sanders said in a news conference. “We want to be dominant. We want to finish. Right now we’re in the middle of the sentence. We’re trying to get to the exclamation mark, slowly but surely.”

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