JACKSON, Ms. – Grease-stained brown paper bags filled the counter at Stamps Super Burgers, a small hamburger joint near the Jackson State campus, and the orders kept coming and coming.
But it wasn’t a recipe change that caused a spike in orders.
Since the arrival of high-profile college head football coach, Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, in September 2020, local businesses like Stamps, which Sanders highlighted in an Instagram post, have seen an increase in exposure and sales.
The turnaround on the Jackson State field since the arrival of Sanders has been just as rapid. Played at the Southwestern Athletic Conference football championship subdivision level, the program was once a perennial powerhouse among historically black colleges and universities. It had declined over the past decade, but this past season it has returned to national prominence, thanks in large part to Sanders.
After coaching the team through a tight spring schedule following the conference’s fall 2020 cancellation due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sanders led the Tigers (10-1, 8-0 in the conference) to their first winning record and first conference championship game appearance since 2013.
But almost more than the difference in wins and losses, the impact of Sanders’ arrival in Jackson State is felt across the university and across the state. The local trade has increased strongly because the school has received a lot of attention. Hall of Fame pass rusher and television personality Michael Strahan, who played college football at Texas Southern, an HBCU, had tailored suits for the football team ahead of the Tigers’ season opener. And Jackson State, as well as other historically black colleges and universities, has received more national television coverage.
Eight of Jackson State’s 11 regular-season games this fall were broadcast over ESPN’s networks and streaming service. That’s something Sanders, who goes by the nickname “Prime Time,” promised after arriving in Jackson, not just for his school, but for HBCUs across the country.
“We’re going to publicize these kids,” Sanders, who declined to make the university available for an interview, said at his inaugural press conference in September. ‘We are going to draw attention to these children. We are going to make them shine.”
‘Program of the City’
Four hours before Jackson State stepped down against Alcorn State in November, Tigers fans lined up around Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium.
For a long time, the main attraction of a Jackson State football game was either the tailgate or the marching band, known as the “Sonic Boom of the South.” People would come for the band’s halftime show and then trickle out during the third quarter.
That Saturday afternoon was different. An hour before the game started, nearly every seat in the stadium, which can accommodate more than 60,000 people, was occupied by what the school said was the biggest home crowd of the season. By the end of the game, few fans had left.
“I call it the Prime Effect,” said C. Daryl Neely, a Jackson State graduate and overseer.
He added: “There was at least one or two collegiate people who are in, say, seventh grade and graduating from high school, and don’t know what it’s like to have 50,000 people in the stands for a JSU game or not knowing what it’s like to go to a game in Jackson State.”
The Tigers won 11 regular season titles from 1980-98 and shared the crown twice with Grambling State. Since the conference was split into East and West divisions after the 1998 season and a championship game was instituted, Jackson State has made it to the conference’s title games five times this fall, winning in 2007. The school was once a pipeline to the pros, bringing nearly 90 players to the AFL and NFL from the early 1960s through the early 2000s, including the Hall of Fame that carries Walter Payton back.
Jackson State has a distinguished legacy (it has spawned four Hall of Famers), but, like many HBCUs, has few resources to compete with other powerhouses in talent and facilities.
In the years before Sanders’ arrival, the Tigers had nine losing seasons from 2003-19. They have not made an NFL roster since 2008 and have changed head coach four times since 2015. Ashley Robinson is the school’s third director of athletics since 2012 after turbulent tenures by his two predecessors. Landing Sanders, an unlikely but profitable hire on a $1.2 million four-year contract, is the greatest achievement of Robinson’s relatively short stint at Jackson State.
While Sanders had no experience coaching college football, Neely said he wasn’t surprised by the school’s rapid turnaround, given Sanders’ status and professional football career.
He produced the number 1 recruiting class of the football championship subdivision schools in 2021, including 19 transfers and 11 of the highest-rated recruits in the history of the program.
Sanders has set a “non-negotiable” standard at Jackson State, Neely said, focusing on small details, such as ensuring players are disciplined, punctual and professional and by measuring success beyond the results on the field.
“What’s a win for us at Jackson State?” Sanders told reporters after the Tigers defeated Alcorn State. He has made clear his goal of sending HBCU players to the NFL (none were drafted in 2021). “If no one turns pro, I don’t feel like we’ve won. If our success rate hasn’t gone up, have we won? My thinking process to win embodies a whole range of things. It’s not just games.”
Sanders is known for his flashiness, rambunctious personality, and the ability to market himself as he is for his explosive 14-season NFL career, which also saw him play in Major League Baseball. He was a defensive back and punter returning, winning Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys.
When he retired, Sanders had worked as an analyst for the NFL Network and CBS Sports. In 2012, he co-founded Prime Prep Academy, a charter school in Texas that was supposed to become a powerhouse, but was instead engulfed in financial missteps and academic strife and collapsed after nearly three years.
Sanders accused the news media of racism and vendetta at the time, but his current thinking was not known because he was not made available for an interview.
Before going to Jackson State, Sanders was the offensive coordinator of Trinity Christian School in Cedar Hill, Texas, where he coached his sons, Shedeur and Shilo, who both play for the Tigers.
Even before Sanders moved to Mississippi in 2020, the buzz around Jackson, which has a population of about 160,000 people, 82 percent of whom are black or African American, according to the 2019 census estimates, was far-reaching. Shortly after the school announced his appointment, billboards featuring his face were erected throughout the city, and excitement has spread to the crowds who flock to the stadium every week.
“This program must and is historically connected to the city,” said Neely. He added: “And when you get 60,000 people in the stands, you know you’re back on the city’s schedule.”
A formula to follow
Sanders’ rapid success in Jackson showed us how a high-profile face can bring both exposure and opportunity to programs at historically black colleges and universities that don’t have the same resources as their Power 5 counterparts.
Less than a year after Sanders moved to Jackson State, Tennessee State, another HBCU announced the hiring of former Titans running back Eddie George, whom Sanders had consulted before taking the job as head coach.
Neely said that while he expected other HBCUs to seek high-profile coaches who would take the job for reasons other than pay, this isn’t the only path to success.
“There are plenty of high profile, highly motivated, capable coaches, who may not be NFL players but have the same drive, determination and vision that a coach Deion Sanders has,” he said.
Sanders’ success at Jackson State has sparked rumors that he could potentially be a candidate for Power 5 coaching jobs, but he has maintained that this season’s success in Jackson is not the end.
“We are far from done,” Sanders said at a press conference. “We want to be dominant. We want to finish. We are now in the middle of the sentence. We are slowly but surely trying to get to the exclamation mark.”