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‘We Needed a Deion Sanders': Jackson State United a City on its Way to a SWAC Title Game

On the verge of its first title since 2007, a long drought for JSU fans may finally be snapped thanks to Sanders and a 10–1 season.

JACKSON, Miss. — Near the heart of downtown Jackson, customers park their cars along the sidewalk outside of Dynastics Screen Printing. The longtime company—tucked in between two small Black-owned businesses—is Mississippi’s oldest black-owned screen-printing entity that has served Jackson customers with their promotional needs and screen printing for more than three decades.

As customers enter the store—one that is not as big as three linen closets in length—customers are greeted by a rack of blue, white and red hoodies, sweatshirts, long sleeve T-shirts that are neatly situated next to a framed Clarion Ledger front page sports article of the Tigers’ 34–27 double-overtime loss to Southern University on Dec. 7, 2013, the last memory of JSU playing in a Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game.

Around the corner, up high on the wall sits an autographed picture of one of JSU’s four Pro Football Hall of Famers—Robert Brazile—as the phone constantly rings and a line of customers tightly curved inside and pushing back to the store’s entrance patiently wait for Richard Shaw—the owner of Dynastics—to fulfill their apparel requests.

“I’ve had some good days and I’ve had some bad days but right now, we cannot keep enough of JSU apparel in supply,” says Shaw, a 1977 and centennial graduate of JSU. “With Deion [Sanders] coming here, I wish I could keep up with everything. But, my business has doubled and I thank God for it.”

When Sanders took the job as the program’s 21st head coach on Sept. 21, 2020, he shared his plan for the program—to level the playing field, bring more national recognition to JSU athletes, the university, the Sonic Boom of the South and HBCUs—but ended his plan with a two-word phrase: “I Believe.”

More: The 'Coach Prime' Era Begins at Jackson State

Over the last 15 months, Shaw says nothing has been more in demand than JSU gear. From the iconic J-S-U block hoodies to “I Believe” and “We Believe” T-shirts, these items are hanging up in the store one day and out of stock the next.

But, that’s not all. As several customers perused the racks for their T-shirt size while some remained in line, one customer stepped to the side and asked Shaw if he had any more of the baseball caps with the single letter “J” on it, an item that has also become a popular one in Shaw’s store.

The hats and the apparel featuring the “J” originated from former Tigers longtime baseball coach Robert “Bob” Braddy, who wore them while coaching the baseball team during his era. However, when Sanders came in wearing the cap rocking the “J”, people began to call it the Deion Sanders’ cap.

“Everybody wants one,” Shaw tells Sports Illustrated. He [Sanders] has made so many things marketable. We carry them [the caps] in blue, red and white with the J but right now, we’re sold out.”

Shaw, who has also done other projects such as putting logos on practice jerseys and backpacks for the football team, has seen a lot of great athletes come through JSU. He built lifelong friendships with iconic players—like Brazile (played for JSU from 1971 to '74), Pro Football Hall of Fame running back and NFL legend in the late Walter Payton (’71-74), Jeffrey Moore (’75-78) and Perry Harrington (’76-80)—who played a part in building the foundation and the rich tradition of what the program stands on.

And with Jackson State (10–1, 8–0 in SWAC) one win away from its first ever 11-win season and its first SWAC title since 2007, Shaw says it reminds him of the winning spirit from the 70s.

“These are good days and we are winning like we were years ago,” Shaw says. “But, we haven’t seen our best days yet.”

Shaw is not wrong, especially according to Sanders and JSU athletic director Ashley Robinson.

It has been a long time coming and a journey for fans and recent and longtime alums to see JSU winning games, much like the program did under the coaching tenures of Robert Hill (’71-76), W.C. Gorden (’76-91), James “Big Daddy” Carson (’92-98), Robert “The Judge” Hughes (’99-02) and Rick Comegy (’06-13).

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Historically black universities like JSU served as hotbeds for top-tier NFL talent in the 70s. However, as integration swept through the country allowing athletes to attend other schools and different—now Power 5 conferences—became stronger in assets, television deals, resources and practice facilities, it shriveled a pipeline of dominant athletes attending these institutions.

Jackson State won nearly half of the SWAC’s championships from ’61 to ’96. The program reached its pinnacle in the ‘80s under the late and legendary coach W.C. Gorden, who went 119-47-5 from ‘76 to ’91 that includes a 28-game regular-season winning streak while guiding the Tigers to eight SWAC titles and nine NCAA playoff appearances.

Prior to JSU winning its last SWAC Championship in ’07 in Birmingham, Alabama under Comegy, the Tigers last SWAC title victory came in ’96 under Carson. Since ‘07, JSU has shared or claimed five SWAC East crowns (’08, ’10, ’11, ’12 and ’13) followed by six losing seasons before Sanders’ arrival.

Over the last 20 years, only 26 players from the SWAC have been drafted into the NFL. Of those 26, only four have been first or second-round selections. Between ’60 and ’99 however, 196 players were drafted with 55 of them going in the first or second rounds.

“Back in the 70s and 80s, we had the best athletes,” Shaw says. “If Walter Payton had come along now, we might not have gotten him.”

That’s why Robinson felt a change was needed in the Tigers’ program, one that would put JSU back in prime position to succeed on the gridiron as well as change the outlook on HBCU culture and sports. Robinson was hired by JSU in June ’18 after a resume that included time at Delaware State, JSU, two different stints with Mississippi Valley State, the SWAC office and two stints with Prairie View where he served as the Panthers athletic director from ’13 to ‘18.

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During his time at PVAMU, Robinson built a knack for hiring great coaches. He hired now current Florida A&M coach Willie Simmons—who recently led the Rattlers to an at-large bid in the ’21 FCS Playoffs—and brought in Eric Dooley, the current Panthers’ coach who will face a Tigers’ program in Saturday’s SWAC Championship.

With the hiring of Sanders, Robinson took a chance on an eight-time Pro Bowler, a two-time Super Bowl champion who spent 14 years in the NFL, a familiar face who had been in front millions as a sports analyst for NFL Network and CBS Sports but did not have one ounce of college coaching experience.

Like Sanders, Robinson believed as well. The results of his faith in Sanders have begun to pay off.

“He’s been the biggest hire in the country and he [Sanders] has done a really good job in recruiting but the work is not done yet,” Robinson says.

Since Sanders’ tenure began at JSU, Robinson has been hard at work securing sponsorships and updating and improving facilities as part of the university’s strategic plan that includes JSU’s new turf practice field for football, more academic advisors, updating the Tiger Center—an academic lab and library for student athletes—as well as building on better sports nutrition for his athletes.

“We’re winning but we envision a place that is one of the best among all of FCS, not just the SWAC,” Robinson says. “We want to be the best in all phases when being considered by the recruits and athletes we bring in.”

As the wins piled up on the gridiron for JSU, the victories have caused a ripple effect into Jackson as the city has generated nearly $5 million in revenue each weekend of a home game, which largely comes from JSU attracting record-setting crowds during home games this season.

But large crowds are nothing new for JSU as the Tigers led all of FCS in attendance prior to Sanders’ hire. And, according to Robinson, continuing to build a program that blazes new trails starts with generating more fans inside the program’s 60,000 seat off-campus venue.

“Seeing the smiles on the faces of our alumni and supporters is a feeling that can’t be put into words,” Robinson says. “Seeing JSU when you cut on the TV, in the newspaper, on the radio is what makes me happy. But, the best is yet to come.”

Merely hours away from the big game, Robinson has talked with former legends like Brazile and university alums about their excitement of what a SWAC title this season would mean for JSU. The last time JSU won the title in Birmingham, Robinson was working in the SWAC office. He recalled seeing JSU fans everywhere.

“JSU took over Birmingham,” Robinson says. “I was amazed on how they came in and took over all the hotels for the weekend.”

Robinson believes Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium will be packed with JSU fans and alums on Saturday. Sanders agrees as well. Not only does he want JSU fans and alums to attend, but he also wants all of Mississippi to witness what JSU football has to offer.

“This is an exceptional moment… this moment is about unity… about bringing the whole city together,” Sanders told reporters during the Tigers weekly press conference. “I want to see multi-races in these stands… ain’t nobody else playing, we are on the only show in Mississippi.

“I don’t give a darn what you got on or who you represent, I need you in there [stadium] to see what we do, it’ll be a beautiful thing to come together and support Mississippi, this is Mississippi versus Texas.”

In a matter of 12 months—since Sanders held his first practice ahead of the unprecedented spring ’21 season—it is no secret that the college football landscape has been put on notice by the success of his program. How did he do it?

Sanders and his trusted coaching staff brought in the highest-rated recruiting class, one that marked the first time an FCS program recruiting class ranked in the top 100. He generated a wide net of television exposure in Aflac commercials with Alabama’s football coach Nick Saban, joining forces with Pepsi to create a sponsorship package for the SWAC, assisting with NIL deals for his players, uplifting other HBCUs and expanding his reach beyond the gridiron to impact the Jackson community.

Sanders, a man who had no prior college coaching experience, was recently named the 2021 SWAC Coach of the Year or as he likes to call it “COTY”. He has remained diligent in pursuit of the goals for the Tigers’ program.

JSU is ranked in the top 15 team in the FCS Coaches Poll and the top 25 of the STATS FCS Poll. The SWAC announced nine of JSU’s players to the All-SWAC teams and the program earned a division title within his first two seasons.

Sanders, who believed that God sent him to JSU, has generated a narrative of winning and success that he believes runs deeper than the outcome of a game.

“We’ve won on the field, we’ve won in the communities, we’ve won in the eyes of HBCUs, we’ve won in the eyes of the country,” Sanders said. “We’re just trying to put the exclamation mark on the sentence.”

What stands in between JSU’s exclamation point is a PVAMU (7–4, 6–2 in SWAC) team looking to earn its first SWAC title since ’09. Like the Tigers, the Panthers have had their own championship drought and losing seasons in football. After legendary coach Billy Nicks—who won five black college national titles and seven SWAC titles during his tenures as the Panthers head coach from ’45-47 and ’52-65—retired, the Panthers went on an 80-game losing streak between the ’89 and ’98 seasons.

PV did not win its first game until September of ’98 with only 15 scholarship players. Between ’98 and ’06, the Panthers won 23 games and recorded its first winning season since the ’76 season in ’07.

Dooley, who played under the iconic and the late coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling and coached under Southern’s Pete Richardson, views Saturday’s game as a momentous occasion.

“I’ve been part of this conference for a long time and to see where we are right now, it gives guys like Eddie Robinson, Marino Casem, WC Gorden a reason to smile and look down on us,” Dooley said. “This is what this conference is built on.”

Dooley will look to lead his Panthers to a victory behind the play of quarterback Jawon Pass, who spent two years as the backup to former Louisville star and now NFL quarterback Lamar Jackson before transferring to Townson and later coming to PV.

Pass has thrown for 2,555 yards, 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions, ranked third in the SWAC behind Alabama A&M’s Aqeel Glass and JSU’s Shedeur Sanders. He leads an offensive unit that ranks fifth in the SWAC in scoring (26.8 points per game), third in total offense (402.8), third in rushing yards (166.9), fourth in passing yards while sitting among the top five in first downs, third-down conversions and red zone offense.

“I think he’s a phenomenal athlete and he’s a leader that’s going to have to make some plays,” Sanders said. “We’re going to apply pressure, so he’s going to have to stand and deliver because he’s going to get hit.”

The Panthers also feature a defense that limits their opponents to 26.2 points per game (fourth in the SWAC), ranks third in total yards allowed (321.4) and in the top four in rushing and passing yards allowed behind the play of players like defensive lineman Jason Dumas, safety Drake Cheatum and defensive back Darius Campbell to name a few.

Jackson State enters the title game with eight consecutive wins since their loss to Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 18. The Tigers’ success stems from a tenacious defense that sits atop the SWAC in total points allowed (13.8), total yards allowed (258.3), total passing yards allowed (158.8) and second in yards allowed on the ground (99.5).

Tigers quarterback Shedeur Sanders—who leads the SWAC in completion percentage and efficiency rating after throwing for 2,971 yards, 28 touchdowns and five interceptions—leads a JSU offense that averages the second most points per game (29.2) and the second most passing yards per game (270.1).

However, when the SWAC released its list of postseason honors and all-SWAC teams, the Tigers failed to land any first-team, all-conference selections while the defense racked up four first-team selections in defensive end James Houston, linebacker Aubrey Miller, defensive lineman Antwan Owens and return specialist Isaiah Bolden.

Shedeur and defensive back Shilo Sanders, offensive lineman Tony Gray, wide receiver Keith Corbin III and linebacker Keonte Hampton received second team honors.

Sanders was not happy.

"We don't have not one offensive player? Now how is that possible?" Sanders asked. "And with what this young man [Shedeur] accomplished, forget that he's my son, what he accomplished in the SWAC this year as a freshman. Don't punish him because he's a freshman. Give him what he should have coming. And I just thought he should have been the quarterback."

But, with unfinished business to take care of, Sanders knows his players are ready for the moment.

Winning a championship helps build the Tigers’ program, one that is already expecting another highly ranked recruiting class according to Sanders. But, even with a win on the field on Saturday and more recruits coming in, Sanders wants his players drafted into the NFL and to be successful.

“We got to get these guys to the pros … I know what a pro looks like,” Sanders said. “We’ve got to get them careers, that’s the way I think. “This [winning] is wonderful but these guys got to be part of the solutions around our country. That’s my responsibility.”

As fans file into the Tigers’ stadium for the SWAC Championship game, Shaw knows he will witness a sea of blue and white for the ages. That excitement leaves him confident that his alma mater is headed in the right direction.

“We needed a Deion [Sanders] but he needed us too,” Shaw says. “He was the right fit for us and we were a right fit for him. We need to finish and I hope it is our time to do so.”

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