When Deion Sanders announced that he had persuaded (Class of 2022) No. 1 overall recruit and two-way phenom Travis Hunter to de-commit from Florida State and join him at Jackson State, a historically black college and university in the deep south, it sent shockwaves through college athletics.
The business of college football as we know it and the power structure that has seen Power 5 Schools generate billions by feasting on the best Black athletes in the country was challenged by one man. This man used his brand to tab Jackson, Mississippi, as the central station for an HBCU revolution.
One day after being named Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year, Sanders introduced Hunter and, in essence, changed the future and upset the apple cart of college football recruiting.
Hunter is an athletic specimen who plays both cornerback and wide receiver. Scouts have likened him to Pro Football Hall of Famer Charles Woodson for his unique two-way ability. Deion Sanders, who also had the skills to play on the offensive side of the ball, can appreciate Hunter’s versatility. Most important to Hunter’s development is that Sanders recognizes him as a young man and not just a jersey number or a revenue-generator.
Hunter Shocked Everyone By Choosing Jackson State
Since March 2020, Hunter had been adamant about his commitment to the Seminoles. In October, he did an interview reaffirming his commitment to what he called his “forever dream school.”
However, Hunter wants to play both receiver and cornerback, and the belief is that Coach Prime is willing to play him in both places. Being able to accomplish his dreams and lay a foundation of success for future athletes was his primary motivation.
Hunter says he can’t wait to play for Coach Prime and the Tigers.
“I look forward to working with the iconic Deion Sanders, and especially along with my fellow Tigers,” Hunter Tweeted. Along with Coach Prime, they have made me feel like I’m already a part of the team. Like I’m home. And I can’t wait to welcome the next class of top athletes into the family of HBCUs.”
Hunter tweeted the following morning, “Time To Make History.”
That’s exactly what Sanders is trying to do.
During his prep career, Hunter put up more than 3,600 receiving yards, 46 touchdown catches, and 19 interceptions. A long, lean corner who can play in any system, he’ll be a difference-maker from the moment he steps on campus.
“Florida State has always been a beacon for me,” said Hunter when further explaining his historic decision. “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.”
Not Just A Spokesman, An Elite Coach
Deion can stand in front of his recruits and use himself to model what they can become if they accept his tutelage at Jackson State.
Sanders has transformed the culture, visibility, and respectability of HBCU schools in just two seasons at the helm. Coach Prime has excelled on the field as a coach, leading JSU to its first-ever 11-win season, first Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC) title since 2007, and a first-ever Celebration Bowl appearance. Sanders also took the SWAC Coach of the Year honors for his efforts.
He accomplished all of this success while also being hospitalized and missing three games as he battled serious health problems stemming from foot/toe surgery. There have been few moments as inspirational as when Deion returned from the hospital with his foot bandaged up, riding a cart around the field and hugging his players in a touching display of emotion.
Disproving The Doubters
The Pro Football Hall of Famer has used his celebrity and influence to become an ambassador for HBCU culture and a crusader for equality and advancement in education for Black students and athletes.
When Sanders first agreed to take the job at Jackson State, many skeptics fell back on the usual criticisms about HBCU programs – lack of funding, facilities and resources, TV and NFL exposure – to seal his fate before he ever stepped on campus in grand fashion with the pomp and circumstance of a king returning home from battle.
Some criticized Deion for being a salesman. A sideshow. Everything but a serious football guy. As far as HBCU football is concerned, Deion and his Jackson State Tigers became the most polarizing show in college sports.
The influence of Coach Prime on Jackson State football, Black College Football, HBCU culture, and the city of Jackson, Mississippi, can’t be understated.
Recruiting? Pundits said he’d never be able to compete with the Power 5 Schools. That hasn’t been a problem. His success has inspired other coaching hires, motivated young black athletes to think and move in an elevated space, and represents a tornado of influence that can only be defined as “The Coach Prime Effect.”
Coach Prime Effect: Doing What Others See As Impossible
The success of Deion Sanders — one of the original poster boys for the 90s fusion of sports, hip-hop culture, and entertainment –has also caused some doubters to publicly apologize for underestimating the power of his purpose and the resiliency of Black people.
Channing Crowder is a former four-star linebacker and NFL pro who played college football at Florida State University. He was named an All-American and two-time First-Team All-SEC.
Earlier this year, via the “I AM ATHLETE” podcast, he voiced his doubts about Deion Sanders’ ability to out-recruit the established predominately white institutions (PWIs).
“I tell you now; I’m not against HBCUs. I’m not a hater or whatever. But Prime, I went to Florida. What can Florida give a kid with the dorms, with the training tables, with the exposure, with the 100,000 people in the game… Y’all cannot compete with teams that have got so much resources, those Power-5, Prime, you cannot compete with those power 5 schools.”
Crowder has joined the long line of short-sighted people who initially doubted the audacity and impact of The Coach Prime Effect but have since changed their tune following Deion’s latest recruiting magic.
Crowder spoke about it on the “The Pivot Podcast.”
“I want to apologize because I said that, I did, and it was very strong. I said there’s not gonna be a top recruit that chooses an HBCU over a Power-5 school, and I want to apologize to Deion because he did pull him. As Deion, he did pull Travis Hunter to an HBCU.”
A Family Affair: Recruiting Is Key
In his first season at Jackson State in 2020, Sanders flipped his four-star QB son Shedeur Sanders from Florida Atlantic. He then nabbed his son Shilo via the transfer portal from South Carolina, making Deion’s HBCU crusade a Sanders Family mission.
Next, Sanders added wide receiver Malachi Wideman from Tennessee and Florida grad transfer James Houston. These recruits played a massive role in the Tigers’ unprecedented success in 2021. They also collected awards along the way. Shedeur was named SWAC Freshman of the Year and the Jerry Rice Award winner (most outstanding freshman in FCS).
Sanders has always had the gift of gab throughout his illustrious career. His ability to make a sales pitch is legendary, as evidenced by his first recruiting class, which ranked 55th in the country and No.1 among Football Championship Subdivision schools — the highest ever for an HBCU program.
Coach Prime continues to stack an impressive array of talent unprecedented at the HBCU level.
Coach Prime Isn’t Holding Back About Adding Top-Level Power 5 Talent Through Transfer Portal
The capper was adding the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit, the aforementioned Travis Hunter, in a shocking early signing day in December. He then added the nation’s No. 4-ranked receiver Kevin Coleman at the All-American Game in January.
Since the start of 2022, Sanders has also landed Keveon Mullins, a three-star tight end who played three seasons at South Carolina. Mullins’ relationship with Shilo played a huge role in his decision to join the new SWAC power.
Coach Prime also reached back to his alma mater, Florida State, and grabbed former 2019 three-star defensive tackle Tru Thompson, giving him and the Tigers eleven transfer commitments for the 2022 cycle.
Power 5 Schools Looking To Steal Deion Away, Others Inspired By His Work
Once Sanders showed the non-believers that he was serious, he became a hot commodity on the coaching front. Sanders has shunned interest from some powerhouse programs such as Florida State, USC, and TCU, hoping to tap into his Black Magic and elevate their universities back to national prominence. His commitment to HBCUs and black college football, however, is unmatched.
“People just thought we were joking when we said, I believe,” Sanders told reporters. “We really believe, without a shadow of a doubt.”
His presence has also influenced other former NFL stars and distinguished football minds to lend their talents to an HBCU program.
Former NFL star Eddie George is head coach at Tennessee State, former NFL safety Bubba McDowell was recently hired at Prairie View, and former NFL head coach Hue Jackson (Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns) is now at Grambling State. Their decision to accept the challenge of building an HBCU program was directly influenced in some way by Deion Sanders.
The landscape and narratives around black college football are changing so much that even Pro Football Hall of Famer and Mississippi Valley State legend Jerry Rice recently hinted that he might give this coaching thing a go after seeing Deion’s success.
“Not until Deion [Sanders], with Jackson State,” said Rice. “Because I felt like I played the game for such a long time. And I was so totally committed. And I just poured everything into my career that I didn’t have anything left. Because, as a coach, you really don’t have a life. I mean, coaching. It is hard, man; it takes up the majority of your time. But yeah, it takes a total commitment. And you got to be all in. So, it started to cross my mind just a little bit, now,” stated Rice.
We’ve talked about culture and coaching when discussing The Coach Prime Effect. Now let’s talk money and local pride, the backbone of every successful college program.
The Deion Sanders Brand Transcends the Field: Revenue in Jackson Burgeoning, Fans Flooding Area
The increased revenue that Jackson State and the city of Jackson has brought in since Sanders’ arrival has been astronomical. The dividends they were seeing pre-Coach Prime doesn’t come close to what is being reeled in now.
In a SWAC title game win over Prairie View A&M, a crowd of 50,128 fans packed Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. That crowd was more significant than any other Group of Five title game crowd and almost topped the ACC and Pac-12 in fan attendance. The Tigers’ average home attendance over six home games this season was 42,293, an FCS record. JSU also had the previous high average, 38,873 in 1997. So the potential for overall growth is always there.
The rise in attendance reflects the revenue growth with Sanders running the football program. When a university football program is excelling, the rest of the athletic department can breathe financially. Also, the student body becomes invested in the program. That’s what’s happening down in Jackson right now.
Deion doesn’t sit up in a glass castle on the JSU campus, sheltered from the realities of the inner city.
The Coach Prime Effect resonates in the classroom and in the Jackson community, an inner-city community that has seen its share of poverty and crime. Sanders pleaded with the 53,000 in attendance at homecoming to stop the violence.
“We gotta stop the killing. We gotta stop the violence,” Sanders said as he addressed a crowd of over 40,000 people.
One Big Party
With crime slowing down in Jackson and JSU becoming a destination spot for elite athletes, it became a party atmosphere during football season as fans from all over the state descended upon JSU for home games.
Celebrities such as Young Dolph, Lil Boosie, and LeBron James have expressed their support for an HBCU education and the exploits of Sanders.
Known as the “City of Soul,” the travel from in-state and out-of-state visitors has picked up, and the city has seen a considerable uptick in revenue and business. Customers have increased for hotels, restaurants, malls, and other amenities, making Jackson the top spot in the SWAC for home games this season.
The revenue jump is felt throughout the city.
Via Visit Jackson, the city’s official tourism council:
“The city (of Jackson) has seen about a $30 million revenue increase, and it can be largely attributed to the on-field success of a once-proud Jackson State Tigers football program. This is under the direction of the great Deion Sanders, whose core values of trust, discipline, toughness, and belief in a higher power has led the charge.”
ESPN and Pepsi Deals
In addition to TV deals with ESPN and content deals with unlikely partners such as Bar Stool, Deion’s presence was instrumental in the SWAC securing an endorsement deal with beverage giant Pepsi. The agreement is for three years, which means Pepsi will be the main beverage sponsor for all SWAC football and basketball games through 2023. The deal also underscores Pepsi’s commitment to partnering with HBCUs and fostering black talent.
Coach Prime’s had a long-standing relationship with Pepsi dating back to his days as a Hall of Fame NFL cornerback in the 90s. His good standing with Pepsi reflects his ability to reach across the table, transcend racial barriers and get deals done for HBCUs.
It’s been a huge culture change in and around JSU for sure, but it’s also happening with HBCU athletics as a whole. Visibility and notoriety have exploded throughout the SWAC, MEAC, and the once-discredited Black college football community. They now feel like they matter, and that’s a direct reflection of being associated with Deion Sanders.
Deion Sanders’ presence at Jackson State University has not only raised the national profile of the school and made it a destination of choice for potential four- and five-star players but changed the narrative about the worthiness and quality of an HBCU education.