One day, Rex Ryan showed up at Jackson State practice. Before a game in the spring, Troy Aikman came by. Terrell Owens, Antoine Bethea, Tyrann Mathieu, Marcus Peters and DeAngelo Hall stopped in as coaches for a camp.
Since Deion Sanders took over the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) program in December, so much has changed.
“We are in Prime Time,” athletic director Ashley Robinson joked.
Famous names are only the beginning. Interest in the program has skyrocketed. The team has been featured by ESPN and will play eight of their 11 games on one of the network’s stations. The flashy and charismatic Sanders is starring in an Aflac commercial with Alabama’s Nick Saban. A documentary, entitled “Coach Prime” that takes the viewer behind the scenes, is now streaming on Barstool Sports.
“He’s brought a national spotlight to Jackson, Mississippi — and all the attention that comes with it,” said Rashad Milligan, who covers the team for The Clarion-Ledger.
The natural question, of course, is why — why would a Hall of Fame player opt to coach at a school like Jackson State? Sanders, 54, had interest in getting into coaching after several years working for the NFL Network as an analyst, but was bypassed by his alma mater, Florida State, and SEC school Arkansas. Jackson State, which has a rich football history having produced NFL Hall of Famers Walter Payton, Jackie Slater, Lem Barney and Robert Brazile and winning 18 conference titles, was looking to make a “splash,” Robinson said. When Sanders applied, he immediately rose to the top of a long list of candidates at the HBCU.
“It would be very selfish of me to have all of this experience, knowledge, wisdom and hoard it and just vanish off the face of the earth without molding the minds of these young men who have the capability of transforming not only their own lives but the communities around them,” Sanders, a two-time Super Bowl champion and eight-time Pro Bowler, said over email. “A lot of people say, ‘Why Jackson state?’ I would respond to that by saying, “Why not?”
It hasn’t taken long for Sanders and his staff, which includes a number of former NFL and college coaches, to excel on the recruiting trail. This year’s team is flooded with the level of recruits you wouldn’t typically see at Jackson State. There are 13 transfers from Power Five programs. Sanders was able to flip highly rated junior college cornerback De’Jahn Warren from Georgia last December and land consensus top-150 prospect Quaydarius Davis, a receiver.
“He’s a guy whose name commands a great deal of respect for what he did as a player and interest from young men who dream to have the half the career Deion Sanders had,” 247Sports director of recruiting Steve Wiltfong said. “He is a household name at Jackson State, and people get excited to hear from him and talk to him and be coached by him.”
One of the big-name transfers is linebacker James Houston IV, who was previously at Florida. His mother, Sonja, was impressed by how well Sanders knew her son. During his high school recruitment, head coaches rarely were as thoroughly prepared as Sanders. He was able to detail how he would help her son reach his goals at Jackson State — whether it was his own football knowledge and endless list of contacts, his assistant coaches’ pedigree or bringing someone in from the outside — and recited specific examples of where Houston had previously fallen short or had made major strides.
“That really went a long way,” Sonja Houston said.
In the spring, Jackson State notched its first winning season in seven years, going 4-3. That, however, included a victory over an NAIA school, a narrow win over winless Grambling State and another win via forfeit. The Tigers were picked to finish third in the SWAC East division.
In July, Sanders made headlines for the wrong reasons. He left his press conference during SWAC media day early because he wasn’t referred to as “Coach.” Milligan was told he couldn’t cover the program that day after a story of his was published about a domestic violence charge against a Jackson State recruit.
“A Clarion Ledger reporter was punished for simply doing his job,” Clarion Ledger Executive Editor Marlon A. Walker said at the time. “The decision to interfere with a working journalist not only is disappointing but also intolerable.” (Milligan still covers the team).
How long Sanders lasts at Jackson State remains to be seen. When asked by The Post, he danced around the question, saying his only focus is on the present. Sonja Houston asked Sanders herself, and he told her turning Jackson State into a winner is “his mission.”
He’s backed up his big talk so far. He’s landed big recruits. Through his connections at Under Armour, the apparel company became a Jackson State outfitter and has supplied new uniforms. Walmart helped fund a new turf practice field and a grass practice field is next. Aflac donated $75,000 to Jackson State as part of its association with Sanders. The football offices are being redone, as part of the new Building Champions Fund.
“He wants to pretty much pull a program that was a middle-of-the-pack SWAC team after having a rich history and make it the best thing in America — the best story in America,” Milligan said. “He wants to be like, ‘look at what I did,’ to everybody who passed up on him. Right now he’s 100 percent locked in to promoting Jackson State and [making] HBCUs into a pipeline to the NFL.”