JACKSON, Miss. — Deion Sanders sauntered into his first postgame news conference as a college head coach sporting a letterman-style jacket and a nasty snarl.
“This is about to be the best news conference you’ve ever seen,” the Jackson State coach flatly told a group of reporters.
Sanders fumed with rage. He beat upon a table. He raised his voice. He stared daggers at cameras. And he delivered a stirring message: I’ll find the person who stole my stuff.
During Jackson State’s 53-0 win over Edwards Waters, Sanders says that someone gained access to the JSU locker room during the game and stole his belongings. He’d reached into his locker to find no phone, no wallet, no nothing.
He hissed with agitation.
“I’m pissed,” he said during the impassioned news conference.
An hour later, in a bizarre and stunning turn of events, Jackson State officials announced that Sanders’s belongings were never stolen. They were only "misplaced" after being moved for "safekeeping,” a JSU official told Sports Illustrated and multiple other media outlets. The belongings were recovered and returned to the coach, Jackson State athletic director Ashley Robinson confirmed Sunday evening.
But that wasn’t the end of it. In a tweet, Sanders claims his belongings were, in fact, stolen and that his assistant caught the burglar in the act. He further confirmed that in a statement to SI.
So, were Sanders’s belongings stolen or not? Who did it, if so? It is a mystery, it seems, wrapped in a riddle and peppered in utter miscommunication with a dash of kooky. Asked for a response to Sanders’s claim of the belongings being in fact stolen, a Jackson State spokesperson said the school will issue no further comment on the incident. Later on, the university did issue further comment, confirming Sanders’s sequence of events.
And so ended one of the weirdest coaching debuts in college football history.
This was a spectacle of sorts that centered around one man—they call him “Coach Prime”—stalking the sideline in a football game, in February of all months, played at a stadium without running water and in a city only just thawing from a week-long freeze. If that’s not enough, one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, Troy Aikman, made a cameo in a surprise visit, shocking Sanders during a pregame embrace on the field after, presumably, being chauffeured to the venue in a stretch white limousine parked outside of the team’s locker room.
This was much more than a game. It was the opening act of what is sure to be an altogether entertaining marriage, if anything, between a footballing celebrity hell-bent on restoring respectability to Black college football and a downtrodden program residing in the basement of Division I.
On a sleepy Sunday afternoon, in a city emerging from one of the most bitter winter storms in decades, the Deion Sanders era at Jackson State began. In the kickoff to an unprecedented, COVID-19-inspired FCS spring season, Sanders’s Tigers walloped an overmatched NAIA team out of Jacksonville, Florida. JSU scored three and a half minutes into the game, took a 31-0 lead at halftime and coasted in the second half.
Players poured ice water over Sanders as the final horn buzzed, and Jackson State’s famous band, the Sonic Boom, blared from the stadium seats. And then things got weird. Really, really weird.
But forget about the mysterious locker room shenanigans. This was a debut for the ages.
This day was all about Deion, from start to finish. Down on the field, you couldn’t miss him.
While all other Jackson State coaches donned Navy blue tops, Sanders wore a blazing red hoodie, matching his team’s new uniforms. The Tigers emerged out of an inflatable tunnel in all red, from nearly head to toe, with JSU’s primary colors, blue and white, only found on their trademark helmets.
As the coach raced out of the tunnel, two law enforcement officers by his side, the stadium’s public address boomed to the crowd, “Welcome Coach Prime!” and before that, a chaplain included Sanders in his opening prayer, pleading with the Almighty to “bestow your blessings on Coach Prime.”
And if you couldn’t find Deion while seated in the press box high above Veterans Memorial Stadium, don’t worry. The press box announcer made sure, multiple times, to identify his whereabouts. “He’s on the 40-yard line,” the announcer at one point said. “All eyes on Coach Prime Time!”
If you needed more bizarre, Sunday’s game came amid unusual circumstances in central Mississippi, where a week-long winter event crippled the city’s century-old infrastructure, freezing its water pipes. The stadium, in fact, did not have running water. Portable toilets, hurriedly ordered last night by school officials, arrived just in time Sunday morning. Concession stands were cash only, and thick sheets of ice partially covered some stadium ramps.
For the first time in 10 days, temperatures here surpassed 60 degrees. During Sunday’s game, ice from within the upper bowels of the stadium began to melt, pouring water down its 70-year-old concrete walls in a surreal scene only fitting for such a unique day—Deion Sanders stalking the sideline of a college football game in February.
As a coach, Sanders was tame. He was stoic and mostly composed, walking the sideline without fanfare or celebration—far removed from the brashness of his playing days or the audacious social media persona that he embodies. As an offensive play-caller, he was conservative for the most part. Given the opportunity for an early dice-rolling move, he chose to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 6-yard line with five minutes left in the first quarter.
He had spurts of being lively. For instance, he went for a two-point conversion while up 37-0 in the third quarter (JSU didn’t convert). He exchanged hand slaps with nearly every player after each series, and at one point, he turned to a cameraman after a touchdown for a celebratory embrace. In a fleeting and telling moment early in the second quarter, Sanders even stooped to a knee, mid-game, to tie the shoes of one of his players in front of 11,000 watching in the stadium and thousands more on ESPN’s live digital broadcast.
Three hours later, he sat in front of reporters distraught that he was the victim of burglary.
“We’re going to find who did it,” he snarled.
At one point, he slammed his hand against the table before him. “HOW!?” he yelled angrily, before using the incident as a moment indicative of the colossal rebuild he faces. Jackson State, with withered resources, a squeezed budget and declining facilities, hasn’t won a SWAC championship since 2007.
“We talk about quality and raising the standards,” Sanders said. “That goes for everyone, not just the people on the field, not just the coaches, not just the teachers and faculty, but everybody, security, everybody.”
On the field, Sanders’s offense hummed quickly, with a no-huddle, up-tempo spread approach, and his defense didn’t allow a first down until two minutes into the second quarter. Sanders showed off his fancy new toys. He signed what is considered to be the best recruiting class ever for a historically black college and one that ranked better than at least two dozen FBS teams, according to 247Sports. The group included eight transfers from Power 5 teams and both of his sons, Shilo, a defensive back transfer from South Carolina, and Shedeur, a 6-foot-2 quarterback and the highest-rated recruit to sign with an FCS school.
While most can’t play this spring, a handful can. Da’Jahn Warren, the top-ranked junior college player in the country, and Florida State transfer Isaiah Bolden made their debuts on Sunday.
They helped open the Deion Sanders era here with an expected bang. In an unprecedented hire in college football history, Sanders brought to JSU zero college coaching experience. More known for his 17-year NFL career as a former cornerback and return man, he has spent his post-playing days coaching at the high school level and, most notably, dabbling in the media world—a gregarious analyst on NFL Network and CBS Sports who signed a deal as a contributor for the outlet Barstool Sports. Sanders, in fact, has his own podcast on their network.
While many coaches are reserved and private, Sanders is loud and public. Since his hire as coach in September, he’s ruffled feathers and opened eyes here, often broadcasting his problems to millions of followers on his social media platforms. He’s quickly evolved into the trash-talkin’ face of Black college football, possessing more star power than anyone in the HBCU realm in decades, with a goal, he says, of leveling the playing field.
In fact, his pregame message to his players on Sunday was built around Black History Month (February). He touched on the Civil Rights leaders, many of whom called Mississippi home.
“My message was this is black history. Let’s not take this moment for granted,” Sanders said afterward. “God specifically chose the 70 (players) in that locker room to answer the call for such a time like this. This just doesn’t happen—21st of February, 21st head coach in Jackson State history, the No. 1 (signing) class in FCS this year. It just doesn’t happen. This is Black history.
“Even the Caucasian players on the team,” Sanders continued, “I told them ‘Welcome to making Black history.’”
Already, Sanders has thrust Jackson State into the spotlight. Upon his hire in September, school officials estimated that it had received $12 million worth of media exposure. Donations are on the rise and the line for season tickets in the fall wrapped around the football stadium.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Deion and him being here at Jackson State, what he’s doing to do for this program and, in a lot of ways, what he’s already done for this program,” Aikman said in an on-field interview before the game. “And it’s only going to be better.”
JSU is in the process of constructing a new locker room, and the school is expected to replace a worn practice field with artificial turf, much of it through sponsorships tied to Sanders. The city is even considering building the school an on-campus stadium, a long-awaited and talked-about project here.
Giving to the university’s athletic program is double its normal rate, says Greg Manogin, a JSU alum who founded the booster group, the 1400 Club.
“Everyone loves a winner and loves Deion. It’s ‘How can we be a part of this?’” Manogin says.
“He’s instilling something different to get Jackson State out of the malaise it’s been in,” says Chuck Bishop, another JSU graduate. “It’s a paradigm shift that might have caught a few people off guard, but the whole mantra he’s bringing in is music to peoples’ ears.”
The tune playing Sunday—a blowout win in a pandemic-delayed spring season, at a stadium with no water in a frozen city, that may or may not have included a locker room burglary—was something altogether unfathomable, bizarre and, if we’re all being honest, maybe exactly what was expected.
Welcome to the Deion Sanders Era at Jackson State. Hold on for the wild, drama-spewing ride.