To deem Deion Sanders’ tenure at Jackson State University a success would be true, but at the same time, it would also be premature to think that Coach Prime and everyone involved from the student-athletes, coaching staff and athletic department to partners like Chevy, SMAC Entertainment and Barstool Sports are ready to sit back and think “mission accomplished.”
While the Tigers went 11-2 in their first fall season with the Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back at the helm, there is still plenty of work to be done on and off the field.
“What we’re accomplishing and what we’re trying to accomplish isn’t easy, although it may look like that from the outside because we’ve had a tremendous amount of success early on,” Sanders says. “It’s what outsiders would equate as success. (SMAC co-founder) Constance (Schwartz-Morini) and I know exactly where we need to go and how we’re going to get there. It’s not easy.
“We’re constantly pushing. We’re constantly challenging. We’re constantly fighting. We’ll continue.”
Sanders’ hiring immediately sent shock waves through the sporting world when he was announced as the 21st head football coach in Jackson State University history on September 21, 2020. Some questioned his coaching credentials. Others thought it was a publicity stunt.
But for anyone who has followed the Tigers and HBCUs since “Prime Time” evolved into “Coach Prime,” they are witnessing a movement, not just a moment.
Visit Jackson, the official marketing organization of Mississippi’s capital, estimates that JSU football had a $30 million financial impact on the city in 2021, nearly double the estimated $16 million from 2019.
Jackson State set a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) attendance record by averaging 42,293 fans at their home games this past season. Richard Shaw, a 1977 JSU graduate and owner of the Jackson-based Dynastics Screen Printing, told Sports Illustrated: “… we cannot keep enough of JSU apparel in supply.”
“A lot of coaches can talk the talk but they can’t walk the walk,” says Ashley Robinson, Jackson State vice-president and director of athletics. “Coach Prime definitely talks the talk and he walks the walk, and he shows you every single day when you see the results of what we’ve done.
“… This is just an appetizer. We still got an entree. We still got a dessert. And we still got to finish with the late-night snack. We still have a long way to go as we continue to build on tradition and blaze new trails at Jackson State University.”
On the field, Sanders guided the Tigers to the first 11-win season in program history, their first winning season since 2013 and first SWAC championship since 2007.
The storied HBCU institution that boasts 99 NFL Draft selections, 150 alumni who have played in the NFL, and four Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees (Walter Payton, Robert Brazile, Lem Barney and Jackie Slater) had gone just 23-44 since 2014. The Tigers went 4-3 during an abbreviated spring season during the height of the coronavirus pandemic before their record-breaking campaign in the fall.
People and prospects have taken notice. Christmas came early for Sanders and the Tigers as cornerback Travis Hunter, the No. 1 overall prospect in the Class of 2022, flipped an early commitment to Florida State University in favor of Jackson State in December. Also buoyed by four-star receiver Kevin Coleman, the Tigers currently have the No. 118 recruiting class—ahead of programs like Hawaii, Kansas and Navy—according to 247sports.com.
“We’re showing now that HBCUs are an option,” Sanders says. “At one point in time, you couldn’t even fathom it, but now it’s a real option for these young men. That’s a tremendous bonus for HBCUs and all FCS schools as well.”
Beyond the box scores and soundbites, a major contributor to showcasing the positive changes at JSU and other HBCUs is Coach Prime, a docuseries co-produced by SMAC Entertainment and Barstool Sports.
New episodes of the series began streaming across Barstool digital, mobile and social platforms on February 22. The six episodes chronicle the Tigers’ historic fall season which included a trip to the Celebration Bowl, Hunter’s decision to join JSU, and never-before-seen footage during the time Sanders was absent from the sidelines and in the hospital as a result of complications from foot surgery. Sanders missed three games and lost nearly 40 pounds during the ordeal.
“What you really see in Coach Prime, especially this season, is that there’s something special here,” says Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini. “There’s something important and meaningful, and that kids who choose to go to an HBCU not only get a great education, but can build their own personal brands, which Deion is a huge proponent and great example of. It also showcases why that school and opportunity is great for them as people.
“The fact that we can shine a camera on that and bring that to life for hundreds of millions of fans is awesome.”
Brands like Chevy, which also works with Barstool and Sanders on other programming, were quick to go along for the ride, serving as an integral sponsor for the series.
But as they say, it takes a village, and Sanders and JSU certainly are building one. Along with Chevy, other prominent brands are stepping up to provide resources, equipment, funding and opportunities on and off the field.
“It’s everything,” Sanders says. “It means everything because we couldn’t do it without them.”
WalmartWMT and Procter & GamblePG pledged $2.4 million to JSU which includes the new football practice field, and also an executive-in-residence program where business leaders will advise faculty on curriculum and lead mentoring circles while creating the JSU Leadership Connection speaker series. Chevy and AflacAFL helped Coach Prime get around after his surgery while Under ArmourUAA and Riddell are contributing with equipment for the players and program.
“As part of our ongoing work with historically Black colleges and universities, we’re proud to partner with Walmart and Deion Sanders to support academic and career enrichment at Jackson State University that will enable tomorrow’s business and community leaders,” says Mindy Sherwood, president Global Walmart and chief sales officer at P&G.
Jackson State is coming off one of the most successful seasons in program history. The university boasts a new practice field and facility, and is undergoing more renovations and improvements to upgrade resources for its students and student-athletes. More and more eyeballs are on JSU and HBCUs than ever before. But the work is far from done.
“The doc is obviously a great culmination to highlight everything going on,” says Schwartz-Morini, who co-founded SMAC with Michael Strahan. “Through this we’ve been able to bring more partners onboard to help, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be, especially with NIL and seeing what a lot of these schools are doing that have such a broad alumni base that are just starting funds to go after recruits.
“We need help, just like the rest of the HBCUs need help. It’s not going to happen just based on retired NFL guys going and coaching there. How can we go out and get the next Walmart, the next Pepsi? These guys have been remarkable stepping up, but it’s not enough. I speak for all the HBCUs because you don’t necessarily have the base that some of these Power 5 programs have and that’s what these HBCUs will need to compete.”