I’ll admit I had my doubts. NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders coaching at Jackson State University could be the best thing ever. But, it could also be the worst thing ever. I just wasn’t sure.
In regards to football, the JSU Tigers had been mired in a string of losing seasons since 2014. We tried the “former NFL player model” with Harold Jackson. He was an alumnus. It’s just that he came from the wrong decade. We quickly found out that having played your best years in the 1970s doesn’t quite equip you with the skill-set to coach in the modern day NCAA.
Then, we tried the “grab a coach from another moderately successful Division 1 program” model with Tony Hughes. Things looked promising off the field but on-field brought a similar result: two losing seasons. See, the JSU faithful aren’t a patient bunch, especially since we’d fallen from the top of the conference standings. We had been spoiled on winning seasons and conference titles for years. But in the early 2000s, the rest of the field began to catch up. The university installed a new president, the athletic department made changes, and the on-field product suffered. A once mighty program became the butt of jokes, and Saturdays in the “SWAC” no longer felt the same. Jackson State football has weaved itself into the economic fiber of the city. So, when the Tigers struggled, Jackson struggled.
Enter “Prime Time”. Rumors began to bounce around in early 2020. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, news of the possibility that Sanders would land at JSU quickly moved from talk to a possible reality. And then, it happened. Flanked by a sea of cameras, police officers, and black SUVs (in true Neon Deion fashion), Sanders was introduced as the Tigers’ new head coach. He promised championships. He promised 5 star recruits and future NFL stars. He promised a stadium filled with 60,000 fans. And by God, it sounded good. But that’s where my doubts crept in.
Was Deion Sanders too big a personality for JSU to manage? Could a university, who to its detriment held on too long to a “traditional” mindset, handle the extra press and national attention that Sanders could bring? Could an alumni base that has been thin-skinned when it comes to critiques of the university embrace a coach who didn’t read from prepared statements? Turns out, it was the kick in the pants that JSU needed.
Sanders has brought a new energy, not just to JSU, but to Jackson as well. An energy that was sorely needed. It’s a cocky swagger that we’ve lacked. He’s demanded that his players stick their chests out. He’s pushed for the university to know it’s worth and demand more respect. And he’s used his extensive rolodex of relationships to the city’s favor. We’ve allowed outsiders to drive our narrative for too long. Sanders is showing us that it’s time for us to steer the damn ship.
I saw no bigger indication of this than during JSU’s Homecoming last weekend. Over 53,000 football fans packed into Veterans Memorial Stadium – a record for JSU Homecomings and HBCU attendance. Thousands more packed into the parking lot to tailgate. Traffic stretched for miles on all the roads leading to the stadium. The Fall air was electric! Last Saturday, Sanders helped the city set a precedent. Ticket sales, merchandise, hotels, admission to venues all of it will be at a premium in the future.
We’ve got celebrities coming to town to experience Homecoming. ESPN, Barstool Sports, CNN, you name it, are being seen in town regularly. The world famous Sonic Boom of the South and players are both signing major endorsement deals. It’s lights, cameras, action everywhere. And guess what? Jackson is the big winner because millions of dollars are being pumped into this city’s veins. You can now legitimately make the argument that “so goes JSU, so goes Jackson’s economy”.
We’re watching in real time what one man’s presence has done for a program, a school, and a city. Also, we’re witnessing how transformative the leadership of Thomas Hudson and Ashley Robinson has been. It’s not lost on me the fact that they are both Jackson natives and products of Jackson Public Schools. I’m convinced that it’s what helped this administration deal with the “Deion Effect” and it’s a formula that every entity in Jackson should follow. Hire people from Jackson who are invested in Jackson. Then, allow them to hire people who will, in turn, do the same thing, and get out of their way.
To me, Prime Time has proven his worth in just his second season as coach. His value is extending well beyond the $300,000 a year he’s being paid. If the team continues to win, by next year’s Homecoming, we could be looking at attendance and revenue numbers the likes of which this city has never seen.