FCS Football: Will Deion Sanders Meet High Expectations at Jackson State?

Coach Prime’s hiring brings buzz to struggling SWAC program

The media blitz surrounding Deion Sanders' hiring as Jackson State's head football coach is resembling a fierce pass rush, with pressure emerging from all directions.

 

Everybody's talking about Sanders, and rightfully so, but is too much being suggested too soon for him and the Tigers? Sanders has never coached on the college or pro level and his new program hasn't won a Southwestern Athletic Conference title since 2007 nor finished with a winning record in the last six seasons.

 

However, you won't find a five-year rebuilding plan or talk of a learning curve in Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson State and Coach Prime — an offshoot of his "Prime Time" nickname as a Hall of Fame player — have promoted an "#IBelieve" campaign to propose better and brighter days ahead.

 

Fittingly to Sanders' flashy and confident style, his introductory event on Sept. 21 was more a celebration. He told a raucous crowd, "We're going to win, we're going to look good while we win, we're going to have a good time while we win, and we're going to do this professionally. But I believe this is going to be a marriage made in heaven."

 

National interest in the 53-year-old's hiring has been high, with famous football friends sending well wishes on social media. The media attention has spanned from appearances with ABC's "Good Morning America" and the Paul Finebaum radio show to stories spanning from Sports Illustrated to Forbes. The school estimates its athletic department received what equates to $19 million in marketing and promotional value in the first four weeks after the hiring, according to The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson.

 

Sanders and Jackson State are talking the talk, too. Coach Prime told SI, "I want to restore HBCU football" — a lofty claim considering there are nine other programs in the SWAC, including Alcorn State, Grambling State and Southern programs that have combined to win the last seven titles, and 11 other HBCUs in the FCS outside the conference.

 

On social media, Jackson State football says it's seeking four- and five-star high school recruits, although such players are rarely signed by even the best FCS programs, and the school is asking who will be the Tigers' next NFL draft pick, even though there's been only one in the last 20 drafts.

 

Jackson State easily led the FCS in home attendance average in 2019 (33,762), but despite the team's 4-8 record last season, the school went ahead and raised the prices of different season-ticket packages as much as 33 percent since the summer. Sure enough, ticket sales have been strong.

 

The payoff with Coach Prime would have to come sooner rather than later if his tenure at Jackson State isn't long-term. His Tigers' position could be viewed as a stepping-stone to a larger-profile and higher-paying job. He previously spoke with officials at Florida State, where he played collegiately, and Arkansas when those Power 5 schools had coaching openings.

 

Plus, the NCAA has come calling, on Oct. 23 announcing the program has been put on two years' probation for certification and recruiting violations prior to Sanders' arrival.

 

The Sanders era is scheduled to begin on Feb. 21 when Jackson State hosts Division II Edward Waters at what should be a rocking Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. The Tigers had a young team last season and lost only a few key seniors, so the potential for a turnaround is high.

 

Of course, the media blitz hasn't left much room for anything but winning with Deion Sanders.

 

— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.

 

(Photo courtesy of Jackson State Athletics)

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