From the Basement | Primetime and his Tigers

Mark Keplinger, Sports Editor

Deion sanders
Deion Sanders, outspoken and flamboyant as ever, wore a sweatshirt with “Who is SWAC?” on it after the incident with Eddie Robinson Jr. (Nate Rich)

When Deion Sanders took the job as the head football coach of the Jackson State Tigers, he inherited a mess. Fast forward two years, Sanders has completely transformed not only his team, but also his conference and the perception of Historically Black Colleges and Universities as destinations for top athletic prospects. Last Saturday, ESPN’s College GameDay traveled to JSU. However with his success, rumors of Sanders potential departure to a Power Five program are starting to swirl, leaving many Tiger fans wondering how many more games they will have with their coach.

A two-time Super Bowl champion and one of the greatest cornerbacks to ever play, Sanders’ flamboyant play and personality earned him the nickname “Primetime.” Coach Prime, as he is often called, took the JSU job in late 2020.

Jackson State plays in the Football Championship Subdivision in the Southwestern Athletic Conference — a conference made up entirely of HBCUs. The Tigers have produced incredible talent including Walter Payton, arguably the greatest running back to ever play. Recently though, their story has changed direction, as they have not experienced a winning season since 2013. 

Enter Coach Prime. He addressed the situation of JSU completely, starting with big picture structural issues that affected his program. For example, years of underfunding have left the Tigers with abysmal practice facilities. When asked during a 60 Minutes interview about what the facilities were like, Coach Prime responded, “Horrible. And I am sitting up there thinking, even to this day, how can a public high school in Texas look better than a college? … Forget the darn football facility that whole darn school [looked better]. That shouldn’t be right.”

Sanders reached out to Walmart and was able to secure a $2.4 million dollars investment into the school which will be invested into academics and a new practice field for the Tigers. Pepsi, American Airlines and Procter & Gamble are all new sponsors of either the Tigers or SWAC. The success of JSU has also led to upticks in stadium attendance as well. The combination of these factors has helped alleviate some of the financial concerns the conference and JSU had. 

Next, Coach Prime has changed the narrative on recruitment to HBCUs. Previously, HBCUs did not attempt to recruit the best prospects since they figured the prospects would choose a powerhouse program instead. This happened to Sanders himself; HBCUs did not look at him at all before he ultimately committed to Florida State. 

All of this changed when the No. 1 overall prospect in the Class of 2022, cornerback Travis Hunter, flipped his commitment from Florida State to Jackson State. This huge commitment changed the narrative on recruitment to HBCUs and proved that top level talent are willing to go play for HBCUs instead of taking the traditional path with a Power Five program.

Sanders mentioned how much of a game changer landing Hunter was for the image of HBCUs. “HBCUs just started recruiting the four and five star players recently, because they never thought they could get them [before]. Now they believe,” Sanders said. An example of this was a recent lineman who narrowed down his final two choices to Alabama and Jackson State. Even though he ultimately chose the Crimson Tide, this example shows how big time recruits are seriously considering playing for Coach Prime.

This season, the Tigers are currently rolling. They are currently 7-0 and are dominating the SWAC. Coach Prime’s son, Shedeur Sanders, is a big part of this as he is the team’s quarterback. Shedeur has amassed over 2200 yards through the air for 23 touchdowns. 

Their success has left many teams jealous within SWAC. In an away game to Alabama State, Hornets head coach Eddie Robinson Jr. took exception to perceived disrespect from Coach Prime. After the game when the coaches went to shake hands, Coach Prime went for an embrace but Robinson was having none of it and only accepted a handshake. Robinson put his hand on Sanders to push him away. After the game, Robinson said, “[Coach Prime] ain’t SWAC. I’m SWAC, he ain’t SWAC.”

Robinson is saying that Sanders is an outsider, and while Robinson appreciates what Sanders has done for Jackson State, he claims that Sanders will never truly be a part of HBCU football culture. Sanders responded saying, “Who is SWAC if I ain’t SWAC?”

However, Jackson State fans may not have long to enjoy Coach Prime. He has already mentioned that should a Power Five school come calling, he would entertain the offer. It is hard to imagine Sanders leaving before his sons graduate from Jackson State — Shedeur is a sophomore. However, a big-time program in desperate need of a superstar coach could try and make a play for Sanders.

Regardless of how that process plays out, Tigers fans still have him for this season. They will enjoy a special run from this team and to Coach Prime, the fans will always say, “Thee I love.”

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