Deion Sanders is not your average college football coach.
But after all, he was not an ordinary college athlete at Florida State nor was he a second-rate cornerback in the NFL. Sanders’s prowess was transcendent. The eight-time Pro Bowler exemplified dominance, spunk and embraced a vantage point that demanded elite-level play.
But those traits did not come by coincidence for the Pro Football Hall of Famer. His “old-school” football philosophy, one that stems back to his youth football coach in the late Dave Capel, is a pivotal reason why he has not only become a successful coach at Jackson State but a towering figure for hope and a beacon for change in Jackson, Miss., a city filled with a dense African American population underscored by areas of ravaged infrastructure, poverty, crime and, most recently, a prolonged water crisis.
Despite the city’s daily adversities surrounding the program, the man known as “Coach Prime” is building a powerhouse FCS program at JSU. After the Tigers’ 22–14 homecoming victory against Campbell, No. 6/9 Jackson State (7-0) made a statement to the FCS. “It was a big challenge for us,” JSU athletic director Ashley Robinson said. “It really showed people we are a top-10, top-five FCS team. That’s why we scheduled this game.”
It took nearly four decades for another JSU coach to match the best start in the program’s history. The late and legendary W.C. Gorden was responsible for leading the Tigers to a 7-0 mark in 1983. At that time, Sanders was 16 years old, two years shy of entering the doors of Florida State as three-sport athlete.
Traditionally for homecoming, JSU competes against a more favorable opponent that would nearly all but guarantee the Tigers and fans a win. But between Robinson and Sanders, the two wanted things to be different this season, so Robinson reached out to Campbell coach Mike Minter, former NFL safety for the Carolina Panthers.
When the decision was made that the two teams would face off for JSU’s homecoming, it meant that the assurance of a win against a cupcake opponent was out of the question. “We chose to give someone [Campbell] a stage that deserved it… a team that was very comparable to what we have,” Sanders said in the postgame news conference.
Campbell, the current leader in the Big South standings, entered a vibrant Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon averaging 30.5 points per game, 435.5 yards of total offense and converting 41% of its third-down conversions.
Like its offense, Campbell’s defense was robust as well, allowing only 25.3 points, 356.8 yards of offense and having recorded 10 turnovers prior to Saturday’s loss. But in front of 51,596 fans who were at one point stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic outside the Tigers’ den, waiting in long lines for a ticket to witness the unorthodox homecoming matchup or indulging in the best of Southern barbecue in October, the Fighting Camels’ momentum —a three-game winning streak entering Saturday—was brought to a halt.
But make no mistake, it was not an appealing win by Sanders’s standards. But, it was an important one.
Hoping that his team would avoid its infamous slow starts in the first half, Jackson State moved the ball down the field but failed to get touchdowns in red-zone situations. Instead it settled for three field goals from kicker Alejandro Mata and gave up a touchdown to Camels dual-threat quarterback, Hajj-Malik Williams, to take a 9–7 lead into halftime.
Minter’s scheme of not letting Tigers quarterback Shedeur Sanders orchestrate a five-star masterclass on the Camels’ defense was working. Instead, the quarterback found himself using his legs more in seeking to make plays as well as Campbell stopping JSU from earning a third-down conversion in the first 30 minutes of action. “I am going to make somebody else beat me, not that guy [Shedeur Sanders],” Minter said after the game.
However, in classic JSU fashion, the third quarter brought about a spark for the Tigers’ offense. Sanders, who finished 23-of-31 for 233 yards in the game, connected on a 48-yard strike to D.J. Stevens to give JSU one of its two touchdowns in the game. But the ugliness in the win managed to boil over into second half as the Tigers had two costly turnovers—a fumble by running back JD Martin and an interception by Shedeur Sanders looking to connect with two-way star Travis Hunter—in the red zone.
Hunter, who had not played since the Tigers first game of the season against FAMU, made his debut in a JSU home game, recording four catches on five targets for 24 yards. Sanders admitted that he wanted to feature Hunter more in the offense in Saturday’s game but got to aggressive in the process.
“We went to him [Hunter] one too many times,” Sanders said. “We shouldn’t have done that. Shedeur [Sanders] knows better than that and that won’t happen again. But you got get Travis the ball. A talent like that, you got to find ways to get him the ball.”
While JSU gave up 121 yards to Campbell in the first quarter, the Tigers limited the Camels to 129 yards of total offense in the second half, added a touchdown from Sy’veon Wilkerson, who finished with 116 of the Tigers’ 178 rushing yards in the game before allowing Campbell to score its second touchdown in the final minute of the game.
“We overcame adversity,” Sanders said. “I know it may not look good but a W is a W and sometimes you have to take a W and move on.”
A Tigers homecoming win coupled with Deion Sanders and the program being featured on 60 Minutes and ABC’s Good Morning America, Shedeur Sanders featured in a one-on-one interview was a recent highlight. And with GMA’s Michael Strahan and A-list celebrities that included rappers Snoop Dogg and Rick Ross and members from the popular STARZ series P-Valley showing support for the program, it’s hard not to admire what the Tigers’ coach is building at #TheeILove. But more than anything, JSU defeated a quality FCS opponent in Campbell in a festive setting that three weeks prior dismantled the MEAC’s North Carolina Central in what could be one of two favorites to compete in this year’s Celebration Bowl, a postseason clash between the MEAC and SWAC.
As the most important month of the college football season approaches, JSU’s combined record of its remaining opponents is 13-9 with all the programs still very much alive in the race to compete for a SWAC title. But before starting November’s slate of games, the Tigers face Southern (5-2, 3-1) at home in a fierce rivalry known as the BoomBox Classic that will generate more than Saturday’s season-high attendance mark.
As it stands now, the clash between two iconic HBCUs could potentially be a preview of this year’s SWAC title game should both teams earn a berth in it. The championship game is held at the venue of the conference team with the highest ranking that qualifies for the title game.
That spot currently belongs to Sanders’ squad. While the JSU-SU title game is only a possibility, it is one that Robinson would be a fan of.
“It would be right here in the Vet,” Robinson says. “It would bring revenue into the city. A strong JSU football team means a strong city of Jackson. I saw that growing up as a child. What other event in the city could you have over 50,000 people. We work together as one.”
Rick Comegy, the last Tigers football coach to lead JSU to its a winning season and its last SWAC title (2007) prior to Sanders, said next week’s game could be special. “Everybody’s going to get their money’s worth,” he added. “It is not going to be a real big blowout unless the defense can’t handle what Jackson State is putting out there.”
Many believe JSU will win out the remainder of their conference schedule. If Sanders continues to stay focused on dominance in all aspects of the game, an undefeated season for the Tigers could be in sight.
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