When Jackson State hired Deion Sanders to be its head football coach in September 2020, I thought it was a Tim Tebow plays minor league baseball kind of deal. You know the type: Some team at the lower levels of a sport brings in a famous and questionably qualified former athlete, generates publicity that helps sell a bunch of tickets, and doesn’t particularly care about the results. After all, most Division I college football head coaches have coached college football before. Sanders had only previously coached in high school with … unusual results.
A year later, we can safely say that Coach Prime is not Tim Tebow. (For starters, Deion knows how to hit a baseball.) In 2021, Sanders signed the highest-ranked recruiting class that Jackson State or any school remotely like it has ever landed. With a roster full of prized talent, the Tigers went 11-1 and won their conference championship for the first time since 2007. They went undefeated against other teams in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), and they’ll take part in Saturday’s Celebration Bowl, the de facto national championship game for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Sanders won the Eddie Robinson Award, given to the best coach in the FCS; his son, Shedeur, won the Jerry Rice Award, given to the best freshman in the FCS. Jackson State broke the FCS attendance record by averaging more than 42,000 fans per game.
Then on Wednesday, Sanders pulled off one of the most remarkable recruiting feats in recent college football history. On National Signing Day, he watched as the top-ranked prospect in the Class of 2022 flipped his commitment from Florida State—Sanders’s alma mater—to Jackson State. Cornerback Travis Hunter stood on a stage behind a row of hats from major-conference schools—Florida State, Auburn, Georgia—and threw them all into the crowd before committing to play for Jackson State:
For years, the top high school football talent has been funneled toward the biggest, best-funded programs in the nation. They have the best facilities, the most visibility, and the clearest pathways to a future in the NFL. But in 2021, the NCAA finally allowed players to make money off their name, image, and likeness rights. Sanders swore that he would make sure his players started getting paid at midnight on the day the NIL rule change went into effect. Sure enough, on July 1, Jackson State defensive tackle Antwan Owens became the very first college player to ink an NIL deal. Although Hunter isn’t allowed to sign any deals while he’s still in high school, rumors are flying about who could pay him.
Fearmongers spent years arguing that allowing college athletes to market themselves would simply consolidate power at the schools that are already powerful. Instead, in the first year the new NIL rules were installed, the best high school player in the country signed with an HBCU. What makes a player more marketable? Doing the same thing everybody else has done for decades? Or forging his own path by playing for someone who may be better at selling himself than anybody in the history of modern sports?
When Jackson State hired Sanders, it brought the school attention. But in college football, attention is never just for attention’s sake. Attention brings talent. Talent brings wins. Wins bring more attention. Come Saturday, fans shouldn’t watch Jackson State play in the Celebration Bowl simply to gawk at Deion. They should watch Jackson State because the Tigers are good as hell—and they’re about to get even better.
When people talk about HBCU football, the first thing they often bring up is the bands. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, head to the Southern University Human Jukebox YouTube page and come back in a few hours. When Power Five conference schools schedule games against HBCU teams, they often pay for the bands to come along with them.
Of course, predominantly white institutions brag about their game-day experiences too. The expression goes that Ole Miss has never lost a party—but nobody takes that as a dig at the SEC. It’s only when people talk about HBCUs that praising the game-day experience is a sneaky diss at the quality of the actual football. “This is what Black college football has come to in the eyes of the world at-large,” wrote HBCU Gameday in 2015, “a high-stepping marching band and a blowout loss.”
Black college football is its own self-contained world. It has its own national championship and its own polls. It even had its own video game, with a Guitar Hero–style mini game in which you play music with the band. Sometimes this separation feels like it’s done by choice—a move to honor and celebrate the unique experience of HBCU athletics. But other times, it feels as if HBCUs are excluded from the rest of the sports world. In the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, HBCUs almost always play in the First Four rather than the main bracket. No HBCU players were taken in the 2021 NFL draft, and no HBCU players have been taken in the NBA draft since 2012. The FCS awards Sanders and his son won this week are named after HBCU greats, Eddie Robinson and Jerry Rice, but Deion is only the second HBCU coach to win the Robinson Award, and Shedeur is the first HBCU player to take home the Rice Award.
HBCU coaches are almost always left off the high-money Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) coaching carousel. The only SWAC coach ever to be hired by a current FBS team is Jay Hopson, who left Alcorn State to take over at Southern Miss in 2015. Hopson was also the only white head coach in SWAC history. To summarize: Zero percent of Black SWAC coaches have been hired by FBS schools, but 100 percent of white ones have.
Once upon a time, some of the greatest players in the history of the sport played at HBCUs. Walter Payton lined up for Jackson State, as did three other Pro Football Hall of Famers (Lem Barney, Jackie Brazile, and Jackie Slater). Jackson State has the 14th-most Hall of Famers of any college program, tied with Florida State, Georgia, Stanford … and fellow HBCUs Grambling and Morgan State. But that era is gone. When ESPN’s Bill Connelly ranked the 30 greatest HBCU teams of all time in August, only two teams on his list were from seasons after 2000.
That change has happened for a good reason. The past era of HBCU football mainly existed because white schools in the South refused to have Black men on their football teams. It took until 1972 for SEC football to fully desegregate. Now, per the NCAA’s demographic database, 57 percent of football players in that conference are Black.
But when HBCU programs have had to compete against those from big-money college athletics, they haven’t had much of a shot. From a financial standpoint, the gap between HBCU and FBS power-conference programs is enormous. In 2019, Jackson State made $6 million from its athletics—less than half of the FCS median of $16 million. And, of course, the FCS median is dwarfed by the totals accrued by SEC programs, which get annual payouts of $45 million from the conference—and that’s mostly from media rights deals, and doesn’t even factor in money associated with game-day revenue, merchandising, and sponsorships.
HBCUs are not just outmatched from an athletic perspective, either. They are also “chronically underfunded,” and that lack of funding prevents Black progress in academia and other fields. In 2019, Jemele Hill wrote in The Atlantic that elite Black athletes can help address that issue by attending HBCUs, proposing that an influx of Black talent to HBCU athletics would boost the revenues and profiles of these institutions. But there seemed to be little hope for this happening. Hill spoke to Kayvon Thibodeaux, the top 2022 NFL draft prospect out of Oregon, who took and enjoyed a visit to Florida A&M. Yet Thibodeaux told Hill that the decision for top prospects is “about money,” and that “unless HBCUs upgrade dramatically, I don’t know if things will change.”
The last Jackson State player taken in the NFL draft was Jaymar Johnson, a sixth-round pick in 2008. The last quarterback drafted from an HBCU was Tarvaris Jackson, a second-round pick in 2006. There was a first-round pick from an HBCU in 2019—Tytus Howard, out of Alabama State—but there was a span of more than a decade in between Howard’s selection and the previous HBCU first-rounder, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in 2008.
For the first 20 years of this century, it seemed that elite football prospects had stopped going to HBCUs. Then along came Deion Sanders.
It still seems unbelievable that Deion Sanders could be a great coach. Great athletes often flop as coaches, from Magic Johnson to Wayne Gretzky. “Play like I did” isn’t exactly a great approach to teaching. And Sanders succeeded on the field more effortlessly than basically anyone ever. He might be the last athlete to star in two major sports in the United States; he also might be the last NFL star to play major roles on both offense and defense. He could skip football training camp to play with the Atlanta Braves and still go on to be an All-Pro cornerback; he could skip the final month of the MLB season to play with the Atlanta Falcons and still go on to hit .500 in the World Series.
Sanders has almost always had enough talent to accomplish the things he’s tried, and he’s had enough charisma to succeed even when he doesn’t. Take his music career. Sanders could not sing. He could not rap. It’s unclear what his true musical talent was supposed to be. But you’ve surely heard his song “Must Be the Money”—it’s part of his Aflac commercials with Alabama head coach Nick Saban, played by an imitation of an HBCU band. Do you know how much swagger it takes to release a song of yourself mumbling off-key and have it be turned into the hook for a national advertising campaign 30 years later? Infinite. Infinite swagger.
(Incidentally, Sanders and Saban had nearly identical coaching seasons: Their teams both lost one game, won conference titles, and are ranked no. 1 in polls heading into a chance to win a national championship.)
That charisma has carried Sanders through the beginning of his coaching career. He has an undeniable ability to connect with athletes, even those born well after he retired from both football and baseball. Although this is Sanders’s first job as a college coach, he has a track record of getting top talent to play for him. In 2012, he founded a high school called Prime Prep Academy. As it turns out, Sanders was not an effective school administrator, and the school folded within a few years amid a flurry of fraud and bankruptcy cases. But Prime Prep did attract a lot of excellent athletes, from future NBA players Terrance Ferguson, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Jordan Mickey to current Baltimore Ravens wide receiver James Proche. Later, Sanders was the offensive coordinator at Trinity Christian School in Cedar Hill, Texas; again, he put together a roster filled with star players, and his team won three state titles before it was kicked out of its league. “They’re just head and shoulders above everyone else right now,” a rival coach told The Dallas Morning News. “The players they have and the players everyone else has are not on the same level.”
At Jackson State, Sanders has once more put together a roster that’s so good it seems to have been dropped into the wrong level of the sport. The Tigers have outrecruited all the other HBCUs … and all the other schools in the FCS … and some schools from the largest and most powerful conferences in the FBS. In the 247Sports 2021 composite team rankings, Jackson State ranked 55th, between Indiana and Kansas State, and ahead of schools like Arizona, Purdue, and South Carolina. The next-highest-ranked FCS school was down at 128th. And that ranking included only incoming freshmen and junior college transfers. Sanders also landed 19 transfers from FBS schools, including 13 from Power Five teams.
The result has been brilliant: An FCS team full of FBS-quality talent hitting peak after peak while demonstrating just how good an HBCU program can be. Malachi Wideman, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Tennessee who was once rated as a four-star prospect in both football and basketball, led the SWAC with 12 receiving touchdowns this season. He racked up 169 yards and four touchdowns against Bethune-Cookman on October 23, seeming like the biggest and fastest player on the field. James Houston, a transfer from Florida who switched positions from middle linebacker to defensive end, led the FCS in forced fumbles and finished second in sacks. He demolished opposing quarterbacks, and had a pick-six in the SWAC title game. There are also Sanders’s sons: Shedeur, who thrives at quarterback, and Shilo, a transfer from South Carolina who wears his dad’s no. 21 and led the team in interceptions while playing cornerback.
In SWAC play, the Tigers outscored opponents by a combined 279-117. Watching them feels like watching a resurrected dinosaur walking around, Jurassic Park–style. We were told that this sort of thing was extinct—but it’s here in front of us, and it’s glorious.
Following Hunter’s surprise decision on Wednesday, the college football world is asking two main questions. The first is how Jackson State would fare against FBS competition. The Tigers’ lone 2021 loss came against Louisiana-Monroe, an FBS team that gets 85 allotted scholarship spots compared to FCS schools’ 65. But Sanders’s squad led the Warhawks heading into the fourth quarter before losing 12-7. If the Tigers had held on, it would’ve been the first win by a SWAC team over an FBS foe since 1985.
The second question is what comes next for Sanders. He reportedly had an interview with TCU in November; most coaches deny this sort of thing, but Sanders responded to inquiries about the TCU vacancy by explaining how other schools were pursuing him too. Broadcasts once openly speculated how Sanders could be the next coach at USC. And he’s routinely been linked to his alma mater, Florida State—talk that grew louder on Wednesday after Sanders flipped Hunter from its recruiting class.
But HBCU teams do not exist to be compared to predominantly white institutions, nor do they exist as a developmental ground for future coaches at big-money schools. The rest of college football has made that clear for decades, shutting these programs out from their world and ignoring the men who coach them. The most interesting thing about what Sanders has done at Jackson State is not what happens next. It’s this beautiful and unexpected thing that’s happening at an HBCU right now.
This season’s interest in Jackson State football has not come out of nowhere: This program was a sleeping giant, and its fans have been waiting for this moment for decades. Even though Jackson State hadn’t won a SWAC title since 2007, the Tigers led the FCS in attendance in both 2018 and 2019. With Coach Prime, the fan base has exploded. Jackson State averaged more than 42,000 fans a game this year. Going back to 2003, which is as far back as the NCAA has available data on its website, no other FCS team has even averaged 30,000. More people attended this year’s Soul Bowl between Jackson State and Alcorn State (58,892) than the Egg Bowl between Mississippi State and Ole Miss (55,601).
The Coach Prime experience has produced something remarkable: an HBCU team playing to its fullest potential in front of huge crowds in games that are nationally relevant. Appreciate how it looks, how it feels, and how it means so much to so many. There’s no way to know whether anyone else can replicate this—but Prime Time was never about the future. And in the present, Sanders and Jackson State are the best story in college football.