Deion Sanders hung up the cleats a while ago, but his infectious smile and personality have continued to draw the spotlight to him with a magnetic force that can’t be reconciled. It is for that reason that his decision to take the helm of the Jackson State football team in 2020 was such a polarizing event, tilting the world of college football on its axis. Following what has been billed as the “Summer of Racial Reckoning,” the two-time Super Bowl champion called the opportunity a “match made in heaven.” The police killing of George Floyd in broad daylight set off a movement of civil unrest and calls to action. One of the appeals was for Black people to “build their own” — in a sense — in efforts to begin to dismantle some of the barriers built by systemic racism. The election of Kamala Harris as the first African American woman vice president, as well as Black Lives Matter protests and unprecedented corporate philanthropy, shined a spotlight on historically Black colleges and universities — or, HBCUs.
Some of the most visible and successful African Americans are professional athletes. No, I’m not saying that’s the only field that Black people can thrive in — just hear me out. Many of the top recruits take their talents to predominately White universities due to the visibility, program history, and facilities. Their success at those programs drive revenue through the roof and allows the top to stay at the top with multimillion-dollar television contracts and facility upgrades. With HBCUs having a history of being extremely underfunded, it’s hard for them to fight for top talent. A huge name like Sanders, a first-ballot Pro Football Hall-of-Famer, could and did entice the higher-ranked recruits to actually give HBCUs a legitimate shot.
“Why not? Isn’t this the time?” Sanders said on his “21st and Prime” podcast back when he took the job. “Isn’t this the moment? Isn’t this what’s needed? To match what our president eloquently said, it’s a match made in heaven. This is a God move.” He was offered the job after Jackson State Athletic Director Ashley Robinson heard rumors he was interested in coaching. It was no coincidence the move was made after Floyd’s murder. “It was relevant,” Sanders told “60 Minutes.” “Because some folks sit back on Twitter with their fingers and talk about what they are going to do, and I wanted to go do it. I want to change lives. Change the perspective of HBCU football, make everyone step up to the plate and do what is right by these kids.” He doubled down on the notion that going to Jackson, Mississippi was his calling from God. He headed down, bringing his sons Shedeur and Shilo with him. Shilo transferred from the University of South Carolina to join his dad and his incoming freshman brother for the 2021 season.
Coach Prime made an immediate impact, leading the Tigers to back-to-back SWAC titles and the school’s first-ever undefeated season in 2022. It had been 25 years since the SWAC championship resided in Jackson. His 27-5 record is one of the best in Division I football history. But the whispers started that he would be departing for a Power 5 program as the season trickled down. In October, during another appearance on “60 Minutes,” Sanders was open and honest about how he would approach such job offers. “I would have to entertain it. Straight up. I’d be a fool not to.” Moments after his team dismantled the Southern Jaguars 43-24, Coach Prime informed his players that he would be leaving to accept the head coaching job at Colorado. He and his family boarded a private jet to Boulder shortly thereafter, setting off a whirlwind storm of think pieces on social media as well as mainstream media. Some labeled him a “sellout” while others applauded his efforts and contributions to HBCUs. Both sides made good arguments, but let’s break it down here.
The systemic barriers that have impeded the progress of HBCUs were not put into place overnight, so they can’t be dismantled overnight — and certainly not by one person. What Sanders did was a start, and it extended far beyond the football field. According to a report from the Jackson State Chamber of Commerce, four JSU home games generated approximately $16.2 million for Jackson businesses, while hosting the 2022 SWAC championship game brought in $8 million. JSU and Sanders were credited with a $30 million impact on the city as the 2021 season concluded. But that’s peanuts to an elephant when you consider the celebrity and corporate donations, television contracts, and other funding spurred by having one of the best athletes in history lead your football program. The facilities were upgraded with the coach pledging half of his $300,000 salary to speed up the remodeling of the football operations space in July of 2022. When he took the job, that was one of the things that stood out to him.
Sanders said he remembered thinking, “How could a public high school in Texas look better than a college?” — and he wasn’t just referring to the football amenities; he was talking about the school as a whole. After reaching out to Walmart, the retail giant built the team a new practice facility. JSU also had a new locker room built. It became routine to see some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment in and around the Jackson, Mississippi campus on game days and for homecoming. ESPN’s “College GameDay” even travelled down for JSU’s first-ever visit from the flagship college football show. It was only the second time ever that an HBCU hosted the show, and the ratings were nearly enough to drive Sanders to tears. “I’m so darn proud of Jackson, Mississippi,” he told HBCU Gameday afterward. “You have no idea… just driving through the crowd on the way to the stage had me darn near in tears, just thinking about where we started from and where we are today.”
Still, we all knew the day would come when Sanders would depart from the JSU program and that the move would be met with its share of skeptics. The $5 million salary offered by Colorado versus the small budget JSU was working with is certainly a driving factor and caused critics to say that Sanders sold out for money. His feet were held to the fire for allegedly misdirecting recruits to HBCUs on the premise that they didn’t have to go Power 5 to be seen or make it to the next level. He even flipped 5-star cornerback Travis Hunter from the school he played for, Florida State University. His three children, Shedeur, Shilo, and Shelomi, all were student-athletes at JSU. It didn’t help that the Colorado football program has been dumpster juice for a while now. Some argued that the move sent the message that a bottom-of-the-barrel PWI was held in higher regard than the crème de la crème of HBCUs. Throw in the fact that Power 5 schools would not give Sanders a shot with him having no college coaching experience or a college degree. He was able to check that box with a bachelor’s degree from Talladega College through the school’s FastTrack Program the month prior to taking the JSU job. Several critics of the move to Colorado felt Sanders used HBCUs and showed disregard for the players that turned down Power 5 scholarships to believe in the mission at JSU.
The Sanders and JSU relationship was a mutually beneficial one, but also one that would elicit an emotional response whether he left now or 10 years from now. One could argue that the wind was let out of the balloon carrying the hope that HBCUs would lessen the gap created by over 100 years of systemic racism. However, that is far too large a burden for one man to bear. Whether you remain a fan of Deion Sanders or not, you must acknowledge that he left the HBCU football landscape better than when he found it. It will take a collective effort to expound on what he started, but it’s not entirely impossible. With high profile athletes like Chris Paul and LeBron James, to name a few, committed to the cause, the goal is still within reach.