Round two: FAMU and JSU meet in Miami for Orange Blossom Classic

The Dallas Morning News Deion Sanders

Coach Sanders looking for second victory over famed Rattlers as he “shakes up” college football

NOTE: Coach Prime kicks off second season against Southwestern Athletic Conference newbie, Florida A&M University, for Denny’s Orange Blossom Classic at Hard Rock Stadium, in Miami on Sunday, September 4, 2022, 2 pm CDT. The game is available on several streaming services and also ESPN 2. Promoters hope this game is one that will make it to Dallas, TX in the near future.

When former Dallas Cowboy Deion Sanders was hired as head coach at Jackson State University, you could line up the list of doubters like mile markers from Texas to Mississippi.

Everybody, it seemed, had an opinion. 

The biggest question? Whether the NFL Hall of Famer, called “Primetime,” would use JSU as a ploy, a stepping stone toward a more lucrative coaching gig.

Nevertheless, JSU Athletic Director Ashley Robinson had a vision, albeit an out-of-box one: She wanted to re-energize a once-proud program that produced 93 NFL players and four Pro Football Hall of Famers – Lem Barney, Walter Payton, Robert Brazile, and Jackie Slater.

Problem was, JSU had not had a winning season since 2013 nor a conference title since 2007.

The ultra-confident Sanders, who had never coached on the college level, but also had never failed athletically in his life, saw the light. 

He wanted to change lives—and shake up college football.

“God called me to Jackson State,” Sanders said upon his hiring in September 2020. “Why not? Isn’t this the time? Isn’t this the moment? Isn’t this what’s needed? 

“It’s a match made in heaven. This is a God move.”

Sanders has delivered on his promise. 

Jackson State University is a champion again. The Tigers hold the 2021 Southwestern Athletic Conference title and an undefeated conference record. They fell short of becoming the undisputed No. 1 HBCU football program in the nation after losing to Mideastern Athletic Conference champions South Carolina State in December’s Cricket Celebration Bowl.

It was Sanders’ first full season as head coach.

That season included a victory over Florida A&M University, 7-6, which JSU will face again this weekend in Miami.

Sanders is also won the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) Eddie Robinson Award, which goes to the top college coach in the nation. His son, JSU quarterback Shedeur Sanders, won the Jerry Rice Freshman of the Year Award, which recognizes the leading Division I athlete in the country.

Additionally, Texas Metro News named Sanders “Person of The Year” for 2021.

“We are so proud of Coach Sanders and the work he has done for all HBCUs,” said Publisher Cheryl Smith. “While he is at Jackson State University and doing great things, his efforts have also spilled over and had a positive impact on all HBCUs, and not just the athletes.”

According to Smith, who wrote in her column, other majors are giving HBCUs a second and third look, and “Sanders has such an impeccable work ethic, you have to respect him and his game; while also reexamining your game to make sure you are being at your best and giving your best.”

“We’ve never doubted the greatness of HBCUs and Coach Sanders is addressing issues and calling attention to inequities that need to be addressed. We need more like him!”

For sure, “Coach Prime” has led the world outside of HBCU athletics to pay attention to Black College football: Last fall, ESPN launched unprecedented coverage of HBCU games.

National mainstream newspapers and magazines wrote more stories in one year arguably than ever before of HBCU coaching moves, recruiting activity, the addition of new sports programs, and of million-dollar donations that level the playing field between Black College programs and those at predominantly white institutions. 

Sanders’ move to coaching has even upped the appeal among other former NFL athletes to lead HBCUs programs. 

Since Sanders’ appointment, former Dallas Cowboy Eddie George took over Tennessee State University’s program. And, Hue Jackson, who previously coached the Cleveland Browns, was named last month to lead Grambling’s storied program. 

On Jan. 4, Prairie View elevated former Houston Oiler Bubba McDowell from interim to head coach of the Panthers. 

Sanders has created the “Deion effect” on the coaching landscape at HBCUs. But he’s not done with influencing the broader landscape of college football.

“We’re not finished by all means,” Sanders said. “We want to be dominant. We want to finish. Right now, we’re in the middle of the sentence. We’re trying to get to the exclamation mark, slowly, but surely.”

Still, speed has been a hallmark of Sanders.

A former track star in high school and at Florida State, Sanders set the NFL Scouting Combine record for the 40-yard dash in 1989, breaking the mark in “Primetime” fashion. 

He walked into the stadium, ran a 4.27 without stretching, then sprinted out of the building.

Sanders was picked by the Atlanta Falcons as the fifth overall pick in the 1989 NFL draft, embarking on a 14-year career that included Super Bowl titles with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. Sanders ended his career regarded as the best cornerback in NFL history and one of the greatest two-sport and multi-dimensional players of all time. 

He starred on offense, defense and special teams in the NFL.

Sanders was talented enough—and daring enough—to also play nine seasons in Major League Baseball—all at the same time. He is the only man to have played in both a Super Bowl and World Series and the only one to attempt to play in both MLB and an NFL game—both on the same day.

His speed, charismatic personality, work ethic and resistance to allowing others to tell him “no” all are foundational; they comprise his core values.

Sanders has been impactful at Jackson State both as a coach and recruiter. The latter could create long-lasting reverberations across all of college football.

Photo: Cheryl Smith/TMN Coach Prime and players talk to media after 2021 Orange Blossom Classic victory in Miami

Shortly after arriving at Jackson State, Sanders assembled the highest-rated class in FCS history with 19 transfers and 11 of the nation’s top recruits, including his own son, Shedeur, a four-star quarterback who initially committed to Florida Atlantic University, but flipped to join his father.

Last year, Sanders dropped two bombs.

The first one came on Dec. 15 when Suwanee, Ga. cornerback Travis Hunter, ranked as the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the class of 2022 by 247Sports.com, switched from Florida State University, Sanders’s alma mater, to Jackson State.

“Florida State has always been a beacon for me,” Hunter said in a statement on Twitter. “I grew up down there. That’s where my roots are and I never doubted that I would play for the Seminoles.

“It’s a dream that is hard to let go of, but sometimes we are called to step into a bigger future than the one we imagined for ourselves. For me, that future is at Jackson State University.

“Historically Black Colleges and Universities have a rich history in football,” Hunter continued. “I want to be part of that history; and more, I want to be part of that future. 

“I am making this decision so that I can light the way for others to follow, make it a little easier for the next player to recognize that HBCUs may be everything you want and more,” he wrote. “I look forward to working with the iconic Deion Sanders.”

Fans of Florida State and other predominantly white institutions immediately flooded the rumor mill: Sanders paid Hunter with a name, image and likeness (NIL) deal through Barstool Sports, a company Sanders works with, the critics crowed.

The reality, however, is that major college programs across the country all are using the new NIL rule to lure recruits; and, in effect, it levels the playing field for small schools and players, who now can financially benefit from their own brands. They no longer need so-called “name brand” institutions.

For his part, Sanders shot down the accusation. Hilariously.

“We didn’t pay,” Sanders said on ESPN of the rumors surrounding Hunter’s flip to Jackson State. “We ain’t got no money! A million and a half? I heard a million and a half and I heard Dave Portnoy from Barstool. That’s the biggest lie I’ve ever heard. 

“You know what that is? That means we kicked your butt. We took what was ours and now you gotta make up an excuse,” he said. “Ain’t nobody get no million and a half. I wouldn’t pay my son a million and a half. How am I gonna coach a guy making more than me?”

Instead, Sanders recruited Hunter by being honest and upfront, he said.

“I’m a straight shooter. My coaching staff did a phenomenal job on even getting it to that point so that I can come in and be me,” Sanders said. “But we just shot it straight. We just really ain’t promised nothing that we can’t make happen.”

Hunter’s commitment proved merely to be the beginning.

On Jan. 8, Sanders dropped a second bomb on the college football recruiting world.

St. Louis receiver Kevin Coleman Jr., one of the top-ranked slot receivers in college football’s class of 2022, picked Jackson State over Miami, Florida State, Oregon and USC during the Adidas All-American Bowl broadcast on NBC. 

He did so without ever visiting Jackson State.

“I see everything he [ Sanders] is doing and I want to be a part of it,” Coleman told Sports Illustrated All-American’s Matt Solorio. “Coach Prime, to be coached by a person who has done it before. Why not? He can teach me. He did it on both sides, he did it on special teams and he is a great person with great character. 

“And of course, his son’s the quarterback; so it will be a lot of passes. Things are about to change and I’m going to recruit more guys here.”

Some HBCU outsiders have struggled to see the allure of Historically Black Colleges and Universities – and why young athletes want to play there, even if the coach is a former NFL player. 

Sanders is sharpening this view: He’s changing the future with an eye to the past.

For decades, HBCU athletic programs thrived: They were unmatched, particularly during segregation, in funneling Black athletes to pro sports teams.

With the onset of integration in the 1970s, many Black athletes began joining larger, better funded, and predominantly white university athletic programs which, among other things,  had television contracts.

HBCUs, with their state funds and limited recruitment budgets, found themselves struggling to compete with the promise of such programs.

In fact, in the 2021 NFL draft, no player from an HBCU was drafted. Only one was drafted in 2020, and none were picked in nine separate drafts since 2000.

Sanders vows to use his spotlight to uplift his program at Jackson State and all the rest of the Black college football programs in the nation.

“These guys can play,” Sanders said. “And it’s my opportunity and my task to put the light on the mantle on top of the Christmas tree and allow it to shine because these guys have tremendous gifts. They really do. They just need an opportunity.”

What Sanders has done so far in recruitment and media spotlight could be the great revival of HBCU football. If it works, it might be his greatest feat yet.

And that would be a mission accomplished.

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