Mission possible: Deion Sanders finds his passion leading Jackson State, and early results are positive

The first order of business is getting Deion Sanders’ title right. Is it “Coach” or “Deion” or … whatever happened to “Prime Time”? It’s still there, just adjusted for his current job description.

“Prime,” he told CBS Sports. “Coach Prime is what they call me.”

Yes, they do. In fact, it’s written on his game-day gear. (Can you imagine Alabama’s leader with “Coach Sabinator” embroidered on Nick Saban’s jacket?)

The NFL commissioned one of Sanders’ old Atlanta Falcons jerseys to be altered to include a “Coach Prime” label to welcome him to the profession. The title is also a brand being marketed to the world.

You would expect nothing less from “Neon Deion”. Whoops, there’s another nickname. But if there is one Pro Football Hall of Fame shut down corner who can back it all up, it’s Coach Prime.

Welcome to Week 3 of a life-changing event in the existence of the coach and perhaps the game as a whole.

Sanders last year agreed to coach Jackson State, a moribund FCS program in Mississippi’s state capital. What COVID-19 delayed, it couldn’t cancel. The Tigers are undefeated two games into a spring season postponed from 2020.

With pending NFL free agency and other faceless FCS programs as the only competition in the football space, Coach Prime and his troops might be the biggest football story in the country.

“It usually takes me all week to return all the calls,” Sanders said during a Zoom conference. “I just checked my phone yesterday, and I see Andy Reid. ‘Congratulations on the win.’ … You can see right now there are probably 1, 2, 3 cameras on me right now. We’re doing a documentary as well.”

Close your eyes and try to imagine a Power Five coach sitting behind a desk wearing a gold chain with what looks like a gold-plated whistle. Sanders is not adopting the look. He might as well have it patented. It’s him. The look fits as snug as Neon Deion’s coverage in his, well, prime.

Recruits are flocking. Folks (including in-state colleague Mike Leach) are getting on board, and it seems like Jackson State has the potential to be as wonderful as when Sanders was high-stepping his way to another pick six.

Now try to remember the last hall of famer to start a coaching career like this from scratch and succeed, at least for the moment. Jackson State beat NAIA weakling Edward Waters 53-0 in the opener. Then last Saturday, as a 10.5-point underdog, JSU downed Grambling State for the first time since 2012, 33-28.

Sanders doesn’t let you forget he has previous experience coaching his sons in high school, but this is different. This is a football and entertainment icon on a humanitarian journey who definitely doesn’t need the money.

“What you mean is financially, and I’m complete,” Coach Prime reminded.

That mission? Sanders says historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been undervalued and forgotten. He’s right. When college football was integrated in the 1960s and 1970s, talent was drained away from HBCUs, most of which are located in the South. Historically Black colleges were established in the 19th Century because Black students weren’t welcome at institutions of higher learning.

Schools like Grambling, Southern, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman flourished in football even though FBS schools began to siphon off that talent. Although Sanders was a two-time All-American at superpower Florida State, he felt an obligation.  

That included asking questions like, Why can’t an HBCU program go to a bowl?

“Why couldn’t we go to a bowl sponsored by this particular water brand?” Sanders said, holding a bottle up to the screen. “Don’t tell us what we can’t do when it’s a choice by someone who has a lot of money. I don’t like someone that hasn’t even been to a bowl game telling someone who has been to four at Florida State about a bowl. I know what a bowl is.”

That obligation is not necessarily to use this experience as a stepping stone to a better job.

“Big-time coaches like that think about being in the big time,” Sanders said. “I’ve played in a Super Bowl and a World Series. I’m good. I just want to really make things better wherever I’m at.”

Coach Prime has certainly proved he can recruit. He landed the No. 1 FCS recruiting class before coaching a game. That class included signing the No. 1 JUCO cornerback (De’Jahn Warren, who decommitted from Georgia). Eight other Power Five players transferred, including Sanders’ son Shiloh from South Carolina. Another son, Shedeur, is a four-star quarterback.

If Sanders can get those recruits and the world to notice, who’s to know what’s next? Imagine Sanders taking over at a Power Five program.

It can’t be emphasized enough: There is a dearth of minority coaches at the top. This one has suspended what would surely be a cushy career as an analyst and brand ambassador to prove himself as something else.

For now, to get to Coach Prime, you have to go through SMAC Entertainment. They arrange his interviews. SMAC is a Santa Monica, California-based talent management agency that reps the likes of Erin Andrews, Tony Gonzalez, Wiz Khalifa and Michael Strahan. Snoop Dogg’s “Joker’s Wild” is one of SMAC’s TV productions.

All of the glitz looks a bit misplaced at an FCS program that once boasted Walter Payton. There hasn’t been a winning season at Jackson State since 2013. During the opener, portable toilets had to be trucked in because of water issues resulting from the recent extreme cold snap.

There were 11,000 who came to watch in 44,000-seat Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. They got a look at the Sanders show. Before the game, former teammate Troy Aikman pulled up in a limousine to support his friend.

“I hadn’t seen him in forever,” Sanders said.

The show really came after the game. Sanders seemed to hijack the moment complaining he’d been robbed of personal effects left in the locker room during the game. While there were conflicting reports whether stuff was stolen or misplaced, that was the postgame headline instead of being about the players.

“I didn’t make it about the stolen items,” Sanders said. “I have two kids on the team. This is the first time the kids have seen daddy robbed. So how do I address that with my kids? … How do you provoke change when you slide it up under the rug, when you know everybody dealing with the problem, but you’re the only one with the balls to say it?”

Sanders’ personal items were found before the team departed the stadium.

Following Saturday’s game, Grambling coach Broderick Fobbs took a shot at Sanders, saying, “For us, it’s not about the sideshow and all the other stuff, the bells and whistles.”

“I never said I didn’t respect him,” Fobbs said later.

Too late. Coach Prime already had been triggered.

“I laughed and I smiled,” Sanders said. “I don’t really hold [rival coaches] accountable. They don’t know what they’re getting into. They haven’t received the type of attention from media before, so they get disturbed.”

Consider that Mississippi is now a state that contains Leach, Lane Kiffin and Coach Prime.

It would be possible to balance the state’s budget from revenue produced if Jackson State were able to wedge its way into playing Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Sadly, no games are scheduled. Yet.

“We’d love to play anybody when we’re ready,” Sanders said. “I don’t know if we’re ready right now.”

What is this, Coach Prime talking something less than smack?

For now, we have a promise beyond leading Jackson State and HBCUs. Sanders has guaranteed there will be celebrations after scores. Neon Deion set a good example long before he was Coach Prime.

He has also mellowed these days.

“To even contemplate doing something like that, we have to be up 21,” Sanders said. “Up by 21, I’d consider it.”

Published: 2021-03-12 22:26:44

Tags: #Mission #Deion #Sanders #finds #passion #leading #Jackson #State #early #results #positive

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