When Deion Sanders took the head coach job at Jackson State in 2020, there were folks who were happy to see the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee get the opportunity. There were others who immediately questioned his qualifications for head coach at the college level.
They questioned his commitment to being a leader of young men and to some degree his acumen.
Right away he showed that swagger and charisma he displayed on the professional football fields and baseball diamonds his entire playing career. He also showed a dedication to developing each of his players as men.
Of course there were those who wondered if he could really make a difference at an HBCU. They were skeptical as to his ability to completely transform the talent level and negative perception surrounding Black college football.
Sanders had moderate success during his time as the head coach of Prime Prep football, a charter school under his name in Texas which ran from 2012 to 2015 but closed amidst mounting debt and other factors.
He then became the offensive coordinator at Trinity Christian-Cedar Hill in 2017, bringing along sons Shedeur and Shilo. Prime had a ton of success, helping lead the team to multiple state titles, and used his connections to elevate many players into the college football pipeline.
His brand visibility, personal relationships through every level of the sport and his recruiting potential played a huge role in him landing a college job.
Spring 2020-21 Season
With COVID-19 not allowing a typical fall football season in 2020, Sanders began his coaching career in the 2020-21 SWAC Spring season.
Jackson State was competitive and even finished third in the East division, going 4-3 overall and 3-2 in conference, with a few humiliating losses mixed in.
Sanders’ celebrity and bold promises immediately boosted the media presence and resources for HBCU football schools.
The mediocre success on the field was attributed to Sanders not having time to recruit players to fit his system. The pandemic combined with him taking the job in September was problematic.
Those problems didn’t last. As soon as sports got back to some normality, Coach Prime hit the recruiting scene like he was jumping a receiver’s route back in his heyday.
What he had in store for the 2021 season was a loaded group of signees and transfers via the liberated transfer portal. He got the highest recruit in JSU history in his son Shedeur Sanders, a four-star QB who was originally committed to FAU.
His other son, Shilo, a defensive back, transferred in from another strong football program in South Carolina.
Stellar Recruiting Class| The Tides Change
Sanders landed the No. 1 recruiting class in the SWAC and HBCU football. His class ranked 55th overall in FBS football. It included five four-star recruits and seven three-star recruits. Shedeur was the bell cow of the class and is the backbone of this year’s team.
The dual-threat slinger has led JSU to a 6-1 overall record (4-0 in the SWAC) while tossing 17 touchdowns and just one interception this season. Sanders is also completing a whopping 72 percent of his passes.
The 2022 recruiting class is currently at zero recruits, but Sanders and his staff are currently working hard to land some of the nation’s top players.
They have offered 55 student-athletes, with numerous four- and five-star prospects in the mix.
Deion Sanders is MAKING WAVES as a head coach 🗣 @DeionSanders
Florida commit Javonte Gardner just FLIPPED to Jackson State…
JSU now has the best recruiting class EVER at an HBCU 💯 pic.twitter.com/eHDkIWpefW
— Overtime (@overtime) December 18, 2020
Maturation Of Coach Prime | Carrying The Torch For HBCU Football
The more experience one gets the better they become, which has been the case with Deion Sanders as a maestro on the sidelines. During last year’s SWAC spring season Sanders seemed to be out to prove he belonged.
Some of his in-game tactics were questioned as well his X’s and O’s. A lot of the criticism was laced with jealousy because he was Deion Sanders and commanded more attention than anyone else in HBCU sports.
So does his team.
Deion Sanders is the greatest college football coach of all time and you can tel Nick Saban and Bear Bryant I said it https://t.co/BosubN0HS4
— Parlay Papi (@NellyToldYa) October 17, 2021
The pressures on former NFL legends to succeed in Black college football is immense. Many have failed due to lack of resources, unsupportive administrations and other issues.
When Deion stepped on the scene, he was intent on proving that he was more than just a face. His eagerness to prove himself led to some questionable personnel decisions early on.
For instance, his two QBs from the spring didn’t have the passing ability or weapons around them to throw the ball as much as Prime had them throw it, and it led to many turnovers.
With his son Shedeur at the helm, acting as an extension of his father’s offensive philosophy, JSU’s aerial attack has taken off.
Shedeur Sanders named to Jerry Rice Award watch list; awarded to top freshman at the FCS level 🏈
— Jackson State Athletics (@GoJSUTigers) October 27, 2021
Shedeur has a nice crop of receivers like Malachi Wideman, a four-star transfer from Tennessee who had four touchdown grabs in last week’s lopsided (42-12) win over Bethune-Cookman. Also it seems as if Sanders is trusting his staff with more responsibility.
Now every game is a movie.
Veteran Savvy/NFL Experienced Coaching Staff
Dennis Thurman (Defensive Coordinator)
Sanders assembled a respected and knowledgeable coaching staff upon his arrival in Jackson. With this JSU Tigers squad looking dominant on defense, it’s only right to talk about defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, a well-respected defensive mind with over 32 years of experience.
— Noah Newman (@NoahNewmanWJTV) March 15, 2021
He guided defenses in the NFL for the Jets with cornerback and future NFL Hall of Famer Darrelle Revis. Thurman also orchestrated the defense under Rex Ryan in Buffalo, and he played a huge role in the development of All-Pro cornerback and 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore.
Gary “The Flea” Harrell (RB & WRs Coach)
Flea is known for his time as HBCU Howard University’s all-time leading receiver (now second all-time), catching passes from great Jay “Sky” Walker at Greene Stadium.
— CL Sports (@CLSports) October 22, 2021
But he’s also a dynamic running backs coach with ties to many HBCUs. He served as head coach of his alma mater for five seasons beginning in 2011, with a career best season of 7-4 in 2012.
Flea also held the offensive coordinator position at Bowie State and Morgan State. Prior to coming to Jackson State he worked under former Florida Atlantic and current Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin. Sanders calls him his right-hand man.
Jason Phillips & Michael Pollock (Offensive Coordinators)
Sanders installed Jason Phillips and Michael Pollock as co-offensive coordinators. And with good reason. Phillips has a background dealing with wide receivers, so he designs the passing game, and Pollock is a QB guru who develops the signal callers and does run game installation.
Jackson State coaches Michael Pollock and Jason Phillips discuss Grambling win, upcoming game against MVSU https://t.co/Mg19PQSWJL
— Tiger Talk with the 1400 Klub – The Podcast (@TigerTalk1400) March 14, 2021
Phillips caught passes of former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Andre Ware in college and has been an assistant at Utah State, Oregon State, Kansas, Southern Methodist, Baylor, Texas State, and Houston.
Pollock is a longtime prep coach with ties as head coach to high school powers Lincoln County and Valdosta High.
Deion has put together a coaching staff that can compete with any Power School in the country. As JSU’s talent pool continues to rise and NIL money allows more elite high school recruits flexibility in deciding what college they can attend and still get paid, the blueprint for sustained HBCU success is being created in live time.