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Deion Sanders Leaves Jackson State Better Than How He Found It

Sanders is leaving the HBCU landscape for Colorado, but it’s worth recognizing what he accomplished at Jackson State.

Jackson, Miss. — After the 2019 football season, if you raised the possibility that Jackson State would win back-to-back Southwestern Athletic Conference championships within the next five years, that statement would have been followed up with a series of chuckles and an abundance of doubters.

The reception would probably be similar to the sentiment thousands of JSU students, fans and alums felt when rumors began surfacing in the City of Soul that Deion Sanders would become the Tigers next football coach. It was hard to fathom or believe. Yet, on Sept. 21, 2020, Sanders assumed the task of resurrecting a program—in the middle of a menacing coronavirus pandemic—that spent seven years in the SWAC’s dungeon, filtering through four different coaches seeking to restore the dominance the program had enjoyed in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

But on Saturday, in front of 53,754 fans who filed into Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, the celebrity coach—who entered the historic blueblood HBCU program with only high school coaching experience at Prime Prep Academy and Trinity Christian School—guided the Tigers to a 43–24 victory against Southern and earned back-to-back championships for the first time since the 1995 and 1996 seasons.

The mission of a second consecutive SWAC title was accomplished in the true spirit of dominance, the mantra that Sanders preached every time he talked to his team or when the lights shined on him. It doesn’t get much more dominant than JSU (12–0, 8–0 SWAC) racing out to a scorching 26–0 lead at the end of the first quarter, scoring touchdowns on four of its first five possessions on the way to a 33–10 halftime advantage. James “Big Daddy” Carson, the coach who led the program the last time it won consecutive SWAC titles, would be proud.

Jackson State coach Deion Sanders watches players preparing for the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship NCAA college football game against Southern, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022

Sanders roams the field before his final game with Jackson State—a convincing win to clinch the SWAC title and an undefeated season.

Shedeur Sanders, the league’s Offensive Player of the Year, threw three of his four touchdown passes in the first 30 minutes of the contest. Even as Southern gathered momentum in various moments, cutting its deficit to 12 within the final four minutes of the third quarter and outscoring the Tigers 14–10 in the second half, JSU’s defense still registered four sacks collectively on SU’s quarterbacks and came up with big plays that hindered the Jags’ offense to two interceptions, two turnover on down situations and a punt in their five final possessions.

But beyond the Tigers’ command on the field during the game and their mastery of winning over the last two seasons, the perception of JSU football changed. Renovations to the program's athletic department that included a synthetic turf practice field, a great deal of national exposure for the program in appearing on ESPN College Gameday and 60 Minutes on CBS and a sundry of uniforms backed by Under Armour were only some of the changes. 

The A-list artists and celebrities who attended games and sat in the cushy, yet expensive red "Prime" seats on the sideline at the stadium to elevating the spotlight for HBCU players getting exposure to NFL scouts and professional football teams, these were expectations for Sanders. But as the Sonic Boom of the South let off its celebratory tunes as the final seconds rolled off the jumbotron at horseshoe-shaped venue, it rapidly became a tale of contradicting emotions for many. 

For weeks, the Hall of Fame coach had been rumored for several head coaching jobs at schools that include South Florida, Colorado, Auburn, Georgia Tech and Cincinnati. However, less than 24 hours before the Tigers’ eventual win on Saturday and what would be his final time coaching on the gridiron at the Vet, the rumors rang loud in speculation that Sanders was indeed headed to become Colorado’s next football coach.

As Sanders stood below the Boom on the field with his arm wrapped around his girlfriend, Tracy Edmonds, and Shedeur, who stood next to JSU athletic director Ashley Robinson, the reality began to set in for the celebrity coach. The first-ever undefeated season in program history. Even the JSU coaches who many would consider to be on Mt. Rushmore in terms of the program’s success never reached the pinnacle of an undefeated season.

“These gentlemen gave me a tremendous opportunity to coach JSU and I am forever grateful,” Sanders said in the ESPN broadcast during the program’s trophy celebration. Yet, it was juxtaposed with the fact that it was only a matter of hours before the celebrity coach who came to JSU to change the landscape and level the playing field for Black athletes at HBCUs would be jetting to the West Coast, trading hot summers and warm to moderate autumns and winters for the hills, mountains and brutal winters of Boulder, Colorado. 

Forde: In Hiring Deion, Give Colorado Credit for Doing What Other Programs Would Not

In reaction to Sanders’s decision, some–particularly diehard HBCU alums and fans–felt bamboozled and disappointed while others were shocked and sad to see him go.

“I don’t care that he left, it’s how he [Sanders] did it,” said one JSU fan walking off the field.

“He just got off a plane a few hours ago in Colorado, I feel used,” another fan said. “People don't realize that him being here was way deeper than just a game of football.”

Following the Tigers' win, Sanders did not meet with media. Instead, he met with his players at a location on JSU's campus to inform them that he was accepting the job at Colorado. As the news surfaced and ultimately became official, some began to question if Sanders was truly ever "SWAC", dating back to the fiery news conference after the handshake incident in JSU’s game against Alabama State.

But to Sanders, his rationale of ending his journey at JSU and starting a new chapter at Colorado centers on the idea of seeing more successful Black coaches at Power 5 programs as an accent to his hymn for dominance.

“I always questioned things as a player… how can you be so dominant and have to play for five football teams?“ Sanders said in a video to his players announcing his decision to accept Colorado’s offer as the program’s next football coach. “It’s been four or more African American head coaches that has been terminated [at the FBS level]. I haven’t heard not one like a candidate like myself and to me, that’s a problem.

“It’s not about a bag but it is about an opportunity. … If you dominate your opportunity and you treat people right, the bag is gone always come… I’ve never chased a bag. A bag has always chased on me.”

While the ink is very much still wet on Sanders’s new coaching destination, his journey through the hallowed grounds of JSU was special and even one that some will need time to wrap their head around. “He generated a level of excitement that we had not seen in a long time,” says former longtime JSU sports information director Sam Jefferson.

Maisie Brown, a junior political science student at Jackson State, has been attending JSU games since she was a child. The 21-year-old also serves as a highly involved community activist, working with the Institute for Democratic Education in America and the ACLU in Mississippi. In a city plagued by high crime rates and systemic foundational and water issues, Brown says Sanders attempted to give citizens a sense of hope and pushed the envelope in the quarrel between the city and state leadership regarding the vices in Jackson.

“I loved that he used his influence to put pressure on them [leaders],” Brown says. “I am glad he took the initiative, especially in a state that is resistant to cooperation and change.”

As Coach Prime prepares for his transition, where does it leave a JSU program that’s home to four NFL Hall of Famers and a city that felt unified in his presence? Will some members of his current staff stay at JSU while some leave?

Will there be an influx of his players entering the transfer portal? Will the city benefit financially in the way it has over the last two years? Those questions will be answered in the weeks and months ahead. 

However, in addressing his players after the game, Sanders shared that he was aiding the program in finding its successor. Who could follow in the shoes of Deion Sanders?

“My recommendation goes to T.C. Taylor. I hope that is how it goes down,” Sanders said.

Taylor, a JSU alum and former Tigers standout on the football team, currently serves as JSU’s wide receivers coach. Will he get the opportunity? That remains to be seen.

But as reality sets in, the notion of Sanders no longer gracing the sidelines of the stadium, bopping his head to the Boom’s songs or asking for his theme music in the JSU locker room, another chapter in the book of JSU football begins.

Nothing lasts forever. Sanders fully understands that concept, dating back to his days as a player in the NFL, where he played for five teams. He carries that same mentality into his coaching philosophy. “In coaching, you either get elevated or you get terminated,” Sanders said to his players. “My challenge is still to provoke change wherever I am.”

Yet the transition will not be easy for Sanders, either. “This is probably the toughest moment for me because it involves y'all [players on the team],” he said. “Bittersweet.”

But as the cold air blew through the empty stadium, filled with blue-and-white PomPoms and signage in favor of Jackson State defending its crown, the program and the city of Jackson must remain resilient.

An overwhelming majority of observers knew Sanders wouldn’t end his career in a program built on the backs of those like W.C. Gorden, Carson, John Merritt or even potentially be around for the program’s next NFL Hall of Famer, joining Walter Payton and Robert Brazile, who had nothing but admiration for JSU's coach.

“He [Sanders] could have been anywhere in the world but he chose my university,” Brazile says. “He’s doing a great job and true Tiger fans will realize that.”

As a JSU fan, regardless if you’re happy with Sanders’s decision to leave or not, it’s impossible to ignore that he, along with his staff, elevated the program to a place it had never been.

To continue the upward trajectory of the program post-Sanders, resiliency will be key. One final piece of unfinished business lingering on Sanders’s JSU slate—a date with North Carolina Central in the 2022 Celebration Bowl on Dec. 17—will be the culminating moment of his JSU legacy. “The motto was focus and finish,” Sanders said. “We are not done yet. And, we will finish.”

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