This is the way things were when Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders began his three-year tenure at Jackson State University in September 2020:
Mississippi was – and still is – on the verge of closing over half of its hospitals. The state’s prison system was approaching the level of savagery and brutality that existed at the lowest point of the Middle Ages. And the governor and his henchmen and lady friends were exposed for robbing the public welfare system to give its federal money to the rich while stealing it from the poor for the last dozen years or so. All eight top officials running Mississippi state government appeared to be throwbacks to the era of Ross Barnett.
In addition to that, the City of Jackson was unable to supply its population with clean drinking water, though the residents were still being charged for the water they couldn’t use. Jackson’s garbage collection system was under threat of collapse and was kept in operation for six months because of the generosity of a Black-owned company that wasn’t sure it would be paid. The city’s streets were a mess and remain so today.
Perhaps unaware of the total chaos that was occurring around him three years ago, the always upbeat Deion (formerly “Prime Time,” now “Coach Prime”) Sanders, stepped onto the Mississippi stage and accepted the job as coach of Jackson State University, always inspiring everyone around him with the mantra “I Believe.”
He leaves JSU’s football program with a near-perfect record for 2022, with only the Dec. 17 Celebration Bowl left to possibly mar that perfection.
Yet, for a lot of people perfection is not enough.
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE
Almost as soon as his feet hit the ground on the SWAC campus of Jackson State, miraculous things started happening. The nation’s number one recruit Travis Hunter switched his preference to Jackson State, becoming the highest-ranking recruit to ever commit to an HBCU program. Alabama Coach Nick Saban refused to believe it. He went public saying Sanders and Jackson State must have offered Travis Hunter a lot of money.
Starting out in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, Sanders began working in the special COVID-shorted season in Spring 2021 and ended with a 4-3 win-loss record.
Season 2, however, was a winner, perfect in the SWAC and the winner of the conference.
Jackson State, however, lost the 2021 Celebration Bowl to South Carolina State 31-10.
Getting back on the winning streak that had begun in the fall of 2021, by the middle of the third season, JSU was the most talked-about college football program in the nation.
Contributing writer Fred Batiste took note of the amazing winning trajectory in a December 5 opinion column for HBCU Sports.
“Jackson State hitched itself to the Prime wagon,” Batiste wrote, “getting a lot of free publicity and buzz directly due to its relationship with Sanders. Texas Southern alum Michael Strahan gave them suits and came back during JSU’s homecoming week for an episode of ‘Good Morning America.’”
Then came the Colorado offer and he accepted it.
Towards the end of Deion’s third year, other four- and five-star recruits notified Sanders that they wanted to play for him, whether at Jackson State or at his new base at Colorado.
Sanders suffered a number of indignities while at JSU. After his first JSU victory, he returned to the coaches’ offices to find that his locker had been robbed.
Around the same time, his son, Shilo Sanders, reported that someone had broken into his truck while it was parked in front of the locker room. Deion also reported that someone also broke into his truck and stole a precious memento of value to no one other than himself.
As if the drama of the SWAC Championship game was not enough for the JSU campus, on Dec. 2, the day before the game, authorities identified a dead body found inside a car on campus as a JSU student and captured the suspected killer overnight. The SWAC Championship was played without disruption at Veterans Memorial Stadium, about four miles away from the campus.
Sanders raised the question of missing funds from ticket sales in September 2021, complaining that from what appeared to be a full stadium, only about half the 60,000 capacity was reported, costing him the incentive pay that was due him.
“How can we have 60,000 people in the stadium and you told me we sold out? I checked the receipts and we only sold 28,000 tickets? Y’all better find out who’s stealing because that affects my pocket,” he said.
JSU responded that the university has honored all its financial obligations to Sanders. The matter was not the subject of any further public discussion after that brief exchange.
Another indignity caught on national television was Alabama State’s Coach Eddie Robinson Jr.’s refusal to embrace Sanders after his homecoming loss to JSU.
“You’re not SWAC,” Robinson said, pushing Sanders away with his forearm.
Sanders said in a later interview that several members of Robinson’s football squad had plied him with obscenities as he passed their bench before the game.
One observer says that Deion has demonstrated a true depth of character by not continuing to talk publicly about these issues.
“This really says a lot about who Deion is, if it’s true. Never once did I hear him talk down on JSU or complain about these things. He just went to work and gave it all for the kids at that school. What a guy! Respect.”
Certain HBCU partisans, like Batiste however, won’t allow Deion any slack.
“The Sanders/J-State relationship was mutually beneficial,” he says. “Sanders got the head coaching job experience checkbox marked so he can eventually get the keys to a Power 5 program – his endgame. Jackson State hired him when no Power 5 would touch him, and he had to complete his bachelor’s degree at HBCU Talladega College so he could meet the requirements of being a collegiate head football coach.
“Jackson State benefited the most from the Prime experience. The SWAC indirectly benefited simply because it was the conference Sanders’ then-employers are members of. Some would say the SWAC only got on ESPN because of Sanders, not realizing that the current ESPN deal Commissioner Charles McClelland signed off on was before Sanders took the job.”
Batiste says members of the MEAC, SIAC, CIAA, and other HBCU football programs received no benefits from the national attention given to JSU.
Reporter Rob Jay discussed the situation with some of his co-sportscasters based in Denver.
“People are upset, obviously, because Coach Prime is leaving,” Jay said. “Some are upset and some understand that he wasn’t going to be here long. I’ll tell you what he did. He spoiled a lot of people. Jackson State football was down for a while before he got there. And he instantly turned them into winners. And people got spoiled and aren’t ready to let it go. So, it’s just a mediocre feeling right now.
“People still want him to win. And he will win at Colorado.”
Sanders has remained upbeat and continues to spread his optimism despite the taunts and jeers directed towards him.
As he reviewed a now-viral clip of a presumed JSU female student working strenuously to deface and destroy a mural of the coach painted on a large glass front on the JSU campus, he says he will finish his work at JSU before leaving for Colorado.
“I’m going to bless these kids,” he said on the Young Zeek TV Facebook channel on December 11. “We’ve started something and we’ve got to finish it. We’ve got to finish this thing with the Celebration Bowl and give it everything we have.
“You’ve got to understand why we are doing it. Because most people just depart and leave and get on out of there.”
Who will replace Deion “Coach Prime”?
In a candid interview with veteran sports reporter Rob Jay on “Thee Pregame Show” on Dec. 3, Sanders recommended JSU Assistant Coach T.C. Taylor as the new coach. Athletic Director Ashley Robinson followed his recommendation and announced Taylor as the new coach Tuesday afternoon.
“You either go in-house, with someone who understands the culture and what we created. Not the culture of SWAC, but the culture of what we created here. Or you got to go totally opposite because can’t nobody duplicate what we’ve done.
“People don’t understand what we’ve done because they’re not on the inside. When we leave, that’s when they will start saying, ‘You know, they did that?’ You know he (Sanders) took care of that?’ They won’t know that until we’re long gone.”
Coach Prime will coach the Dec. 17 Celebration Bowl as his final act as JSU head football coach.