It has been one year since Deion Sanders was introduced as head coach at Jackson State. To quote the Canadian poet Drake, nothing was the same, since September 21, 2020.
The day that “Coach Prime” officially became a reality was the day that many people who had completely ignored or discarded the 128-year-old tradition of black college football began to at least acknowledge it. There had been and continue to be many former NFL players, some of them even stars, to coach at HBCUs over the years. But there is only one Deion Sanders. This is, after all, the man who achieved a level of fame and stardom normally reserved for quarterbacks as a defensive back. If you look up the word, game-changer in the sports dictionary, you probably will find his photo.
And he became a game-changer immediately at Jackson State. The entire athletic department shifted its brand affiliation from Nike to Under Armour after his hiring. His highly entertaining press conference was followed by a Good Morning America appearance. How many other coaches in college football could pull that off? Probably not even the great Nick Saban.
Coach Prime talked about getting “dawgs” to come to play for JSU from Day One. The type of four-and-five star recruits that wouldn’t consider an FCS school in general, let alone an HBCU. By the time the winter signing day rolled around, he had a collection of FBS transfers and four-star recruits head to JSU with him — including his son’s Shilo and Shedeur.
While getting ramped up for the spring 2021 season, his first as a collegiate football coach, he seemed to make headlines daily. Whether it was hooking up with good friend Michael Strahan to get his student-athletes fitted suits, or making appeals to bowl game officials to invite his FCS HBCU program in the future, Sanders was drawing in people who may not be able to name five teams from any one HBCU conference without looking.
His commentary and the attention that it drew also rubbed many traditionalists in HBCU football the wrong way. How could someone who had no significant connection to HBCU football (although, as Sanders doesn’t mind putting out, his first wife went to FAMU) suddenly become the national mouthpiece for it? Many HBCU fans are happy for the level of exposure his presence has given, while also concerned about the long-term impact of the new world order might be when the ride is over.
And then, the spring season started. We were in Jackson as the Coach Prime Era got started with a blowout win over Edward Waters, and the infamous press conference that followed it. By the time JSU improved to 3-0 after wins over Grambling State and Mississippi Valley State, the team had shown enough media power to have its games broadcast on ESPN2 and ESPN for the rest of the spring season. Even in the three losses that followed, the Tigers remained must-see television despite the majority of Sanders’ recruits and transfers not being eligible to play.
Visibility, from Day One, has been something that Sanders has promised and delivered. His massive social media platform has become a billboard for JSU, one with the attention of people from all walks of life. Sanders has been a vocal supporter of student-athletes being able to profit off their Name, Image and Likeness. And when the new laws went into effect, his players were some of the first to take advantage of the opportunity. Shedeur Sanders just announced a deal with Beats By Dre.
Early into the 2021 fall season, Sanders’ JSU team is 2-1. He’s 5-4 as a head football coach, but he’s already getting mentioned for Power Five jobs. He said on Monday that he’s locked in with Jackson State. But the question remains — how long will that last?
If we’ve learned anything in the past year, it is that trying to predict what the future holds for Deion Sanders and JSU — and HBCU football as a whole — is way less entertaining than watching it all play out.