At 54 years old, Deion Sanders is still every bit of “Prime” that he was when he played at Florida State or in the NFL. That same flash and flair and pomp and circumstance still surround the longtime NFL defensive back-turned-college football coach.
He’s not trying to change his personality, either. Rather, he’s embracing it the same way the Jackson, Miss., community has embraced him and what he has done with the football program at Jackson State in just two years.
“I haven’t shed that persona, I think people just grew up,” Sanders told Sporting News. “I’m still Prime — I think people grew up. You personified me because of what I did on the football field and because I was confident. At that point in time, confident Black men weren’t really respected and accepted. I didn’t do nothing to make you not like me, besides high step and dance on a football field. So I think the identification of man changed. That’s really what happened — it’s the maturation of man, not me.”
As the identification of the man — and, perhaps, the perception of the man — has changed, so too has the recent history of Jackson State.
Sanders took over one of the most storied HBCU programs in history. The Tigers have seen 93 players go on to play professionally, including four — such as Walter Payton and Robert Brazile — who have busts in Canton, Ohio. Under coach W.C. Gorden, the Tigers won eight conference titles between 1980 and 1990 and won nearly 71 percent of their games.
But Sanders arrived in Jackson at a time when the program was struggling. The team was 21-40 in the six years prior to his arrival, and hadn’t won the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) since 2007. That all changed under Sanders, and at breakneck speed. He went 4-3 in his first season in 2019, which was cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Small sample size, sure. But it proved to be an indicator of what was on the horizon.
In Sanders’ first full season at the helm, the Tigers are 11-1 and have been ranked inside the FCS top 25 for each of the past seven weeks. More importantly, they won the SWAC and are playing for another Black national championship in the Celebration Bowl on Dec. 18 against South Carolina State.
His team’s matchup with Alcorn State attracted an announced attendance of 58,892 — roughly 3,000 more than the Egg Bowl between Ole Miss and Mississippi State (55,601). The Tigers have among the best attendance of any FCS program, with the SWAC title game outdrawing all of the Group of 5 conference championships.
Sanders had plenty of doubters when he first took the job. Whether they still doubt him now after the success he’s had is of no concern to him.
He’s not out to prove anything or earn any converts, either — unless you play for him.
“It’s not important to convert those people. I just want those people to know that I know they didn’t believe in us, but now possibly they do,” Sanders told SN. “As long as everyone in that locker room and the 11 on the field believe, then we’re straight.”
For however many doubters Sanders may have had, he has had an equal number of supporters. That’s despite Sanders coming in as an outsider to the Jackson community. Now, because of the football program’s success, the city of Jackson is thriving and got a major boost financially.
The Pro and College Football Hall of Famer admits he had never been to Jackson before he took the job. That couldn’t matter less now.
The community has embraced him for winning both on and off the field.
“It means we’ve won. Nobody embraces losers,” Sanders said. “You’ve got to love and they’ve got to feel that spirit, that respect and that you’re for them. They’ve got to feel that you’re for them and that you’re trying to close the gap and take them to another level.”
That’s a tall task, and perhaps a heavy weight to carry for Sanders, his team and his staff. But don’t mistake it for pressure, or overplay its importance.
“There’s no pressure, man. It’s just a game that you win or lose,” Sanders said. “I’ve said it before, pressure is single mama coming home with no father for the kids, and she’s got to make ends meet and she’s got a part-time job and she’s got three kids at home screaming together when they’re hungry. That’s pressure. This ain’t no pressure, it’s just a game.”
It’s a game at which Sanders has excelled all his life, and one in which he said his players also can excel. That hasn’t stopped now that his playing days are behind him: He’s up for the Eddie Robinson Award, given to the top FCS coach of the year.
Sanders had his detractors, given that he had never coached at the college level. But in an area such as recruiting, he said he feels like he can compete with the likes of Nick Saban and Kirby Smart.
His reasoning is simple — why not him and why not Jackson State? Given that he’s been doubted before and excelled, it seems like a reasonable question. And it’s one Sanders has asked his whole life.
“Why can’t I? Why can’t I go out there and be the most dominant defensive back in NFL history? You know, why can’t I be one of the best punt returners to every touch to darn ball. Why can’t I play two sports. Why can’t I do some of the things that I’ve done consistently over 30 years, why am I still presentable and sellable to a (company such as) Gillette?” Sanders said.
“I mean … why not me? Why not us? And I’m foolish enough to believe in everything we do and understanding that we’re doing things for the right reason. We’re here for the right reason. I’m not here for me. I got 100 and a mule at home that I would love to be at but I’m here because God called me to come here. And I’m elated. This is not a job, man. This is this is who I am. This is what I really do.
No players from HBCUs were taken in last year’s NFL Draft. Very few, if any, get a chance to attend the NFL Combine. Sanders said it’s not for lack of talent, but more a lack of exposure.
To combat that, he has tried to get more exposure for the program and for HBCUs in general. It has worked, as Sanders and Jackson State recently inked a sponsorship with Gillette that will see up to $100,000 donated to Jackson State’s athletic fund, something Sanders called “a true blessing for HBCUs.”
“Exposure can magnify a program, it can multiply. It could put it in the position that it can attract other sponsors that can possibly help propel them to the next level. That’s what exposure does,” Sanders said. “A lot of the guys have NFL ability, they just need the recognition and they just need to be seen. These kids deserve a chance, man. What we did this year was unbelievable. We’ve just got to keep doing it on a consistent basis.”
The same is true of coaches, many of whom Sanders said rival their FBS counterparts. Only two of the 28 coaching vacancies so far this cycle have been filled by a Black coach.
“We’ve got some coaches out there that can dial it up. You’ve got some coaches in the SWAC that are unbelievable, next level-type coaches,” he said. “I pray to God that if it’s their thought process that they get the opportunity (to move up) and don’t just fluctuate from HBCU to HBCU when all these other guys get chances and they mess it up and then they get another chance and mess it up. I just wish some of them get the opportunity.”
It remains to be seen whether Sanders — or any of his other successful HBCU counterparts, such as Florida A&M’s Willie Simmons or Alcorn State’s Fred McNair — get that chance to move to the next level. In the meantime, Sanders’ focus remains squarely on Jackson, and doing what he can there to help build that program back up. And not just as a football power, either.
“We’re trying to raise professionals. We make sure these guys are pros no matter whether it’s in the NFL or the CFL or whatever else,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure they’re professionals in life because these guys are smart, tough, learn fast and they’re disciplined young men. And that’s not just something that equates to success in football — it can equate to life.”
That molding of professionals, the off-field exploits, those are the things Sanders said he qualifies as wins more than any result on a field. And in recruiting those players, Jackson said he’s selling everything, not just his “Prime” persona. But he said they “understand what we want and how we go about it, and it works.”
So here’s Sanders, his second season nearing a close, in prime position to not only win a Black national championship but also to keep gaining exposure for his program and all HBCUs. It’s all part of a greater good in Sanders’ eyes.
“The community first and foremost want to believe in something and they want to identify with something that’s real, that’s genuine,” Sanders said. “They want to love and they want to be loved. And they want a product that they can just ride with and be one mind, body and soul with, and I think we gave them that. We’re just trying to win, bring everybody together, and I think we did a wonderful job.”
If the goal is football success, then it’s seemingly mission accomplished for Sanders. If the goal is exposure, then it’s seemingly mission accomplished for Sanders. If the goal is something bigger — something that extends beyond the confines of the football field — then it seems the mission is still underway.
But it’s well on its way.
“People want hope, man, and if you don’t instill hope, how can you win games?” Sanders said. “But more importantly, I think we won the people in the process.”