Deion Sanders coached Jackson St. to victory on Sept. 5 against Florida A&M. (Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
STUDENT ATHLETES

Eddie George vs. Deion Sanders: HBCU Football’s Newest Rivalry Begins

On Saturday, Prime Time’s Jackson State meets George’s Tennessee State at the Southern Heritage Classic in Memphis.

With more teams playing on national networks, schools moving conferences, and former NFL icons getting head coaching jobs, the world of HBCU football sure feels like it’s getting bigger. Two of the teams at the helm of this growth spurt are a couple of Tigers: Jackson State University and Tennessee State University.

Jackson State started off the season the way they wanted to, beating FAMU in the Orange Blossom Classic last weekend. Tennessee State lost to Grambling in a close one, 16-10. Now, the two teams are set to meet Saturday night in Memphis in the Southern Heritage Classic, a college football tradition that goes back more than 30 years.

Ahead of the uniquely enticing matchup, Coach Prime has spoken highly of George. “He’s going to provoke change each and every day he’s on campus,” Sanders said on a SWAC conference call on Tuesday. “He’s a winner. That’s who he is. That’s who I understand how he is [and] how he gets down.”

In terms of the magnitude of the game, getting national streaming exposure on ESPN3 early in the season brings the potential for positive, sustainable buzz.  “Having George and Sanders as coaches in itself brings a certain glamour to the game,” Irwin Kishner, co-chair of the Sports Law Group at New York law firm Herrick Feinstein, told Boardroom. “This has created some sort of buzz, and hopefully for them, it translates into more eyeballs, more attention, more recruits, more donations, and so forth.”

Jackson State: Primed & Ready

The Tigers of Mississippi have been a spectacle of college football ever since Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders was hired as head coach last year. He made his coaching debut earlier this year when the South Western Athletic Conference (SWAC) elected to play its 2020 football season during the spring of 2021. 

The team ultimately finished 4-3. Winning their first three games, losing the next three, and accepting a forfeit in what would have been their final matchup against Alcorn State. Since then Sanders hasn’t stopped working to find JSU the best recruits available.

In fact, Jackson State had the nation’s 55th-ranked 2021 recruiting class according to 247Sports, the highest of any HBCU — and even higher than schools with athletic budgets that are astronomically greater than the Tigers’.

The four schools finishing right behind Jackson St. in 247Sports’ 2021 recruiting rankings all spend millions more on their football programs.

Sanders has been outspoken about bringing change to HBCUs and how to push them back to the forefront. “I have to make sure they’re on [YouTube] so they can be exposed,” Sanders said on former NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall’s I Am Athlete podcast. He and Jackson State debuted the Coach Prime video series on Barstool Sports. The series details the life of the players and coaches at Jackson State.

As of this writing, each episode of the series has over 80,000 views, with the peak episode hitting 265,000.

“If they succeed or if they do moderately well a show that garners national interest should have a very positive effect,” said Kishner. “There’s a whole cycle and system that’s created if you’re able to get a higher recruiting class. You’ll get better TV deals, better streaming deals, better sponsorship deals, better facilities, and more money.” 

Even now, however, being a member of the JSU Tigers comes with amenities. Sanders made assurances to his team and multiple media outlets that his team would be set when the NCAA allowed student-athletes to profit off their name, image, and likeness as of July 1. Members of Jackson State have signed pacts with Three Kings Grooming (a Black-owned hair product shop), Workforce Software, Simply Crowns, and Madison Healthplex Performance.

And to top it all off, Sanders’ own son, Shedeur, inked an NIL deal with Apple-owned Beats by Dre. As part of the deal, Beats gifted headphones to every member of the team.

Tennessee State: Tigers on the Trail

On the opposing sideline are the Tigers of Tennessee State. Former Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George took the reins of the Nashville-based HBCU in April. George’s debut last week was spoiled by Grambling State when the Tigers lost 16-10. 

George hasn’t been on the job as long as Sanders, so his recruiting efforts haven’t quite bore fruit yet. Tennessee State signed three players to land the fourth-ranked 2021 recruiting class in the Ohio Valley Conference according to 247Sports. (For reference, only one OVC school had more than six committed recruits — Austin Peay signed 22.)

“We have someone that is magnetic, someone we know young men will gravitate to but someone that can instantly get buy-in,” said Mikki Allen, Tennessee State’s athletic director in an interview in June. “We’ve seen donation revenue have an uptick. From a revenue generation standpoint, I think that where we are and the hire that we’ve made has gotten individuals wanting to support more than they have been ever before.”

Still, only one thing will have a truly lasting impact for both schools at the end of the day: winning.

“Let’s not undersell it. Having a winning program is going to garner attention,” said Kishner. “If one of these programs starts to take off and becomes undefeated or has real legitimate stars on the program that go relatively high in the draft, that in it of itself will produce great things.”

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