After three seasons with the Tigers, Coach Prime is off to Boulder to boost the Buffaloes. Boardroom looks deeper at the lasting significance of Sanders’ run at JSU.
“I’m still replaying that second to last play… it don’t seem like that was real,” Deion Sanders said in his postgame press conference on Dec. 17. “Coach Prime” was referring to a dropped pass in overtime by Jackson State tight end Hayden Hagler on third down that would have put the Tigers within one point of sending the Celebration Bowl against North Carolina Central double-overtime. On the next play, the NCCU defense forced an incompletion, ending the annual HBCU showcase.
The conclusion was not the climatic finish Deion and the Tigers had hoped for. All season, the JSU defense had been its strength, but this time, it permitted the Eagles to gain 500 yards of total offense and control time of possession significantly (38:09). The Jackson State offense sputtered at times, but Shedeur Sanders — Deion’s 20-year-old son and the Tigers’ starting QB — engineered two crucial drives to take the lead and tie the game before coming up empty in OT.
Now, Coach Prime and Shedeur depart Jackson for Boulder, Colorado. (Travis Hunter and wide receiver Kevin Coleman are both expected to join them, too.)
With one era closing as another begins, it’s time to take stock of the lasting significance of Deion Sanders’ three seasons at JSU and the ways in which it’s changed the college football landscape in the name, image, and likeness era.
The decision to leave Jackson State after nearly 28 months on the job has been a target for scrutiny, and the loss to North Carolina Central will not change many minds as it relates to the Hall of Famer’s departure for the University of Colorado job. Ultimately, I contend that Coach Prime’s time at Jackson State will be remembered for the positive jolt he brought HBCUs while still acknowledging that it did not last as long as so many hoped it would.
Several key questions have arisen as to why Sanders would leave Jackson State for a destination that, while in the FBS Power Five, has had one winning season in the last 10 years. One of the popular theories is money: The Buffaloes will pay Sanders $29.5 million over five years; at Jackson State, Sanders signed a $1.2 million contract over four years. Sanders dispelled this claim in his final postgame press conference on Sunday afternoon.
“To even fathom the fact that I would do something for money… that blows my mind. When I’m reaching in my pocket paying for stuff, did I do that for money? Money don’t move me, I move money,” Sanders said.
Moving money has never been an issue for Sanders. Under his rein, Jackson State opened a new football facility, the Tigers’ locker room was upgraded, multiple players earned NIL cash, and even as of April 2021, he had already generated an estimated $185 million in advertising value and exposure to the university according to a school spokesperson.
Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff even held off on negotiating the conference’s new media deal to wait for Sanders’ to be announced officially as the Buffaloes’ nest head coach. “We knew some other information was coming, including the announcement of Coach Prime. Why would we do a media deal before that? … He absolutely adds value to the league.”
So, if the cardinal reason behind Sanders’ exit from JSU isn’t the $5.9 million annual figure he will begin to make next year in Boulder, what is it?
In his final pregame press conference, the now-former Jackson State head coach spoke about some of the obstacles he faced at the school.
“The things that I want to accomplish, I can’t do it by just being a darn football coach and winning games. It is so much more that I can’t do because that is not my occupation. I’m a football coach and a darn good one and name one thing that we haven’t accomplished that I said we would, but until we address these underlying issues that nobody wants to talk about ain’t nothing gon’ change. Football yes, but what else is gon’ change? And I’m a change agent. That is what it’s all about to me…
“When we leave you are going to find out about what all we did. Because they don’t really talk about the positivity until we go. You’ll find out what all we did for Jackson State and all we wanted to do for Jackson State. I just pray to God for all that getting, get some understanding on change and where change really starts — and it does not start in the football department.”
The comments were camouflaged. They were not quite clear enough to identify precisely whom Prime was talking to, speaking about, or the nature of the adversity he and his program faced at Jackson State. Knowing Sanders, this is by design. His time with the Tigers was spent shining light on HBCUs and the people within them more so than it was used to show the inequities these schools face in the broader college sports landscape and the countless ways those obstacles make success all the more difficult.
At times, he did talk about disparities related to finances, facilities, and quality of life for student-athletes, but they were never his focus. The only time he mentioned Jackson State’s athletic budget in this last week’s pregame press conference, for instance, was when he was asked why the Tigers chose the Celebration Bowl over the FCS Playoffs — the answer was money. Sanders said traveling to play in potentially several postseason games was beyond the limits of the current JSU athletic budget.
It will be up to successor TC Taylor to continue to take the torch from Sanders and keep the trendline moving in a positive direction as it relates to those very real challenges.
And so, the Jackson State chapter in the Book of Coach Prime has concluded. More than anything else, his three seasons shined an unprecedented light on historically Black institutions and their athletic programs, attracting a boatload of resources to JSU, and achieving within the SWAC conference, but a box that remains unchecked is that of a mythical HBCU national championship — he has North Carolina Central this year and South Carolina State in 2021 to thank for that.
(Don’t think Coach Taylor and his new staff won’t have that fully in mind entering the 2023 season and beyond.)
The final word on this breakthrough run for JSU will premiere on Amazon Prime Video in four-part docuseries simply titled Coach Prime. The first two episodes will debut on Dec. 29.
After the series wraps, a new era officially begins in Boulder.
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