JACKSON, Miss. — Two days after Deion Sanders celebrated his first victory as Jackson State’s football coach, he addressed his team after its worst practice of the year.
He minced no words.
After all, Sanders had already stopped practice twice – once so they could run gassers and again so they could do up-downs – and banished one player from the field.
His players, it seems, were a little too giddy about their 53-0 win over NAIA Edward Waters last Sunday and Sanders didn’t like their energy as they prepared for their game against Mississippi Valley State, which was postponed Thursday because of COVID-19.
Sanders wanted his players to understand their victory represented only a tiny step toward their ultimate goal during this unusual seven-game spring season. The Southwest Athletic Conference moved fall 2020 sports to the spring because of COVID-19.
“I see so much potential but you have to want it every practice. You have to want it every day,” Sanders told the team. “One darn game, and we think we’re great because we beat a team we should’ve beat.”
Jackson State hired Sanders, a first-time college coach, on Sept. 21 to return the Tigers’ program to prominence.
Jackson State has produced four members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including Walter Payton, and from 1971 to 1999, Jackson State won at least nine games 11 times.
But Jackson State hasn’t won the SWAC title since 2007 and hasn’t played in the championship game since 2013. In the past seven seasons, Jackson State has had five coaches and a 23-44 record.
Sanders’ job is to change all of that, while the world watches.
Sanders, arguably the best cornerback in NFL history and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is taping a reality show about the experience, which is why his office is wired with six microphones. Two cameras and a videographer capture his every move throughout the day.
A social media manager handles his Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram accounts posting a minimum of three times on each account every day, while his personal assistant manages Sanders’ daily schedule of interviews and appointments.
Sanders has produced millions in free publicity for Jackson State, while signing the top FCS recruiting class.
Sanders’ son, Shedeur, a four-star quarterback from Trinity Christian-Cedar Hill, is the highest-rated recruit to ever sign with an FCS school.
Shedeur was expected to join his father at Jackson State after de-committing from Florida Atlantic. The surprise is when De’Jahn Warren, the nation’s No.1 junior college cornerback, flipped from Georgia on signing day.
“This is the turning point for HBCU football to finally get the recognition it deserves,” said quarterback Jalon Jones, who completed 17 of 19 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns in the opener.
“We really believe that what we’re doing is really changing people’s mindset on how they view HBCU football. It’s huge to be a part of this team and this history.”
Sanders’ debut victory took an odd turn when Sanders announced at his postgame news conference that some of his personal belongings had been stolen from his office.
After it was suggested publicly the items had been misplaced, Sanders tweeted out they had indeed been stolen and a staff member had witnessed the theft.
Later that evening, athletic director Ashley Robinson issued a statement saying Sanders’ belongings had been recovered and the security protocols would be examined.
Sanders has been involved in coaching from the moment he retired from the NFL after the 2005 season.
His motives have remained the same, transforming lives and creating the same opportunities for others that he had as a child in North Fort Myers, Fla.
That was his mission when he created TRUTH Youth Academic & Sports, a non-profit organization designed to introduce kids to football and baseball and keep them off the streets.
And that was Sanders’ plan when he co-founded Prime Prep with D.L. Wallace in 2013.
The school, mired in controversy, closed in 2015. A 2016 Dallas Morning News investigation revealed several issues with the school, including financial mismanagement.
These days, he’s trying to transform an entire football program one player at a time. He focuses on football, while Robinson and his staff handle everything else.
“I enjoy the challenge of implanting what I have into somebody. That’s a tremendous challenge, but I like it, I love it,” Sanders said. “I need challenges in life. They keep me motivated.”
Jackson State went 4-8 last season. Sanders’ first task is teaching the importance of practicing hard every day.
Sanders’ practice battles against Hall of Fame receivers Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin are legendary. On Sundays, fans cheered for the interceptions and the touchdowns.
What they never saw was the hours of film study.
“People don’t understand Prime the player,” Sanders said. “You only saw him one time a week and you thought life was a dance, but it wasn’t a dance. It was a rehearsal – that’s why I knew how to dance.”
Sanders was a flashy player, but he’s an old school coach.
He doesn’t allow his players to wear earrings at the facility or pants that sag below their waists.
“I always tell them to be professional and have class,” Sanders said. “I always tell them, would you get on a plane if the captain looked like that?”
On gameday, every player wears the same color socks, shoes and accessories.
Those who don’t feel Sanders’ wrath.
“He’s an extreme individual,” said offensive coordinator Jason Phillips. “When you’re worrying about what guys are wearing from their shoestrings to the top of their head, that’s attention to detail.
“That’s who he is. If you’re gonna be around him, he demands that same attention to detail.”
Sanders’ Pop Warner coach, Dave Capel, taught him the importance of preparation and education. From North Fort Myers High School coach Ron Hoover he learned toughness, heart and discipline. Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews showed Sanders the importance of film study and technique.
“I’m a little old school mixed in with a little new school,” Sanders said, “with a whole lot of truth mixed in with no nonsense.”
Sanders wants to make historically Black colleges and universities a legitimate alternative for elite high school football players.
Talk to African American students who have attended HBCUs and they’ll tell you it’s liberating to unapologetically celebrate their culture, while learning about the important contributions African Americans besides Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington Carver and Rosa Parks have made to America.
Experiencing that while playing high-level football that could lead to an NFL career could be a game-changer for college football. Sanders conveyed that to his players in the locker room before their first game.
“This is your time. It didn’t just happen for me to come here and I’m the 21st head coach and we played on the 21st,” said Sanders, who wore No. 21 during his 14-year NFL career.
“Can you understand God chose you to make history? Don’t take this opportunity for granted. Prepare for the moment. This is real. This is history that you’re making.”
Jackson State has the infrastructure to become a destination spot for elite players.
It has one of the largest HBCU alumni bases, and the 38-year-old Robinson is one of the country’s best young athletic directors because of his ability to get projects funded and completed.
There are plans for a new locker room and a couple of additional practice fields to be completed before the fall season begins. A dining hall and training room have already been created from unused space.
A phone call from Sanders to Magic Johnson, who owns Sodexo, a global catering business, dramatically lowered the catering bill and upgraded the cuisine.
The team ate grilled chicken breasts, seasoned green beans, cheddar mashed potatoes and breadsticks for lunch one day last week.
“It’s a pivotal moment for HBCU football because Coach Prime has all eyes on HBCU,” said Isaiah Bolden, a Florida State transfer. “We want to show we can play on the same playing field and produce the same players as other schools produce.”
To facilitate the process, Sanders hired several assistant coaches familiar with his mentality.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, the former Cowboys defensive back who spent four seasons as an NFL coordinator, coached Sanders in Baltimore. Secondary coach Kevin Mathis played with Sanders in Dallas for three seasons, and Phillips played with him in Atlanta.
“All the guys who made it to the Hall of Fame are like him,” Mathis said. “They take the little things so seriously. That’s what makes them different, and he takes that approach to coaching.”
Linebackers coach Andre Hart has coached with Sanders for more than a decade.
“He thinks obstacles are supposed to be there and he’s supposed to dominate them,” Hart said. “I don’t think he ever thinks he’s not supposed to win no matter what.”
The phrase “IBELIEVE” adorns every T-shirt, sweatshirt, baseball cap and beanie the players and coaches wear. It’s a concept Sanders borrowed from his Florida State days.
“You have to change the thought process to change the culture and it starts with belief,” he said. “Believing that you can go pro, believing that you can graduate, believing that you can own a business, believing that you can be a real father and believing you can have a successful relationship and marriage. That’s not easy when the world is up against you.”
Jean-Jacques Taylor, a former SportsDay columnist, is the host of the JaM Session podcast, which can be heard Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays on Apple, Spotify and wherever you get your podcasts.
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