Deion Sanders’ arrival at Jackson State University in late 2020 was met with mixed reactions from fans and critics, alike. Many felt like the former NFL star was new to the coaching world and was given an opportunity other coaches had been working toward for years. David Risser, a sports writer at TomahawkNation.com, was one of many to express disinterest in the thought of “Coach Prime” heading to JSU, for example. “With zero college coaching experience — much less as a head coach — Sanders is far better suited for his current role as an on-air personality,” Risser stated at the time.
In the beginning, the criticisms were fair. Prior to his arrival at Jackson State, Deion had only served as the offensive coordinator at Trinity Christian-Cedar Hill in addition to a few small head coaching positions at various prep academies. During his tenure at Trinity Christian, the NFL legend was given the unique opportunity to coach both of his sons throughout their high school careers — and he was quite successful at doing so. The team ended up winning three state championships while he was there. Still, he hadn’t proven himself as a true head coach, which cued skepticism when he took over at Jackson State — a D1 FCS football program.
During Deion’s first season, JSU finished with a 4-3 record. But, in just one year’s time, the team flourished with an 11-2 record; a commitment from the number one recruit in the Class of 2022; recognition as the best FCS recruiting class ever; awards for both Coach and FCS Freshman of the Year; and, an FCS attendance record. Not to mention, they went 9-0 against their conference.
The turnaround Jackson State saw was nearly unheard of for an FCS team. Coach Prime was clearly building a foundation based on winning. By bringing in the number one (or number two, depending on where you look) recruit in the Class of 2022, Travis Hunter, and the 58th ranked prospect, Kevin Coleman, the coach had officially put together the best FCS recruiting class in history. It’s quite clear there’s something special brewing in those Mississippi waters, as Hunter (who was previously committed to playing football at Florida State University) flipped his commitment to Jackson State in December 2021. Hunter became the highest-ranked recruit to ever sign with an HBCU or FCS school.
Deion’s son, Shedeur Sanders, was a freshman last season and the starting quarterback for JSU. His success was also instrumental to the team’s winning culture as he finished the season with over 3,200 yards, 30 TDs and the highly sought-after Jerry Rice Freshman of the Year award. After his phenomenal season at Jackson State, Sanders inked a lucrative NIL deal with sports drinks powerhouse Gatorade, becoming the first NCAA football player to do so. His signing with Gatorade was deeper than extra money in his pockets — it set a precedent for future NIL deals amongst HBCU athletes. Sanders made sure to emphasize that point in the official announcement, saying, “It’s an honor to join the Gatorade family and represent this historic moment for HBCU athletes… I can’t wait to work with Gatorade on and off the field to help create even more opportunities for HBCU students and athletes.”
Deion’s positive influence at Jackson State extends beyond just the football stadium. Like many historically Black institutions across the country, JSU is underfunded. With that in mind, razor brand Gillette recently pledged to donate up to $100,000 to the school as part of the launch for a razor the coach helped design. Walmart pledged millions of dollars, with a special emphasis on rebuilding the football team’s practice field. As a part of an initiative to increase access to educational opportunities for the Black community, the company announced: “Walmart is pledging $2.4 million over three years, including investing in case studies, an executive-in-residence program where Walmart leaders will advise faculty on curriculum and lead mentoring circles, and supporting key athletic initiatives including rebuilding the practice field used by JSU athletes. The partnership, initiated by head football coach Deion ‘Prime’ Sanders, is set to benefit all JSU students, including non-athletes and student-athletes alike.”
Alongside financial impact, the coach is influencing the way HBCU sports are seen in society. With a total of 2.587 million viewers, Deion’s Jackson State team brought in some of the highest viewership numbers ever for an HBCU team at the Celebration Bowl. As viewership continues to rise with Jackson State’s fanbase rapidly increasing, lucrative television deals are expected to hit the school and other HBCUs soon.
To top that off, Deion is coming up with unique ways to ensure that his athletes are protected on and off the field. Back in December, he brought in Instagram model and social media personality Brittany Renner to speak to his team about some of the pitfalls of dating as a superstar athlete. Explaining her appearance, the coach stated: “It’s my responsibility as a Coach to prepare my young men for any and everything on the field and off… I brought in @bundleofbrittany to educate them on how the game is played between man & woman at their age & stage. The message may not be for everybody but trust me it’s for somebody.” Renner is known for dating athletes such as Colin Kaepernick, PJ Washington, and Jamal Murray. She’s an expert on how that game is being played, and Coach Prime saw an opportunity for his team to learn.
There’s no doubt about it — the shift at Jackson State has a lot less to do with chance and a lot more to do with Deion Sanders purposefully establishing a culture and foundation based on all-around success. What he’s accomplished with the program in just two seasons is admirable, and he’s left the door open for more opportunities across all levels of HBCU athletics. From the athletes to the coaches and brands, he’s demonstrating that HBCU sports can be as profitable as their PWI counterparts. The NFL legend is not only changing the culture at Jackson State, he is having a positive impact on the culture overall.
It’ll be interesting to see where Deion takes the game next!