I wouldn't blame Jackson State football fans for feeling sick as they watched coach Deion Sanders hand out the same one-liners Sunday that he once gave in Mississippi.
We all heard them.
About Sanders being called by faith to go to Colorado. About Sanders having a new mission in front of him. About him bringing his quarterbacking son with him.
But here's the problem: For three seasons, since bringing his Prime Time persona to Mississippi's capital city in 2020, Sanders hasn't just been the Tigers' coach. He's been our coach in the Black community. The coach who has shone more light on the triumphs and struggles at Historically Black Colleges and Universities than any coach in decades.
I don't blame JSU fans for feeling hoodwinked after living through Sanders’ own personal Truman Show, making the rules as he went along. When he announced he was leaving Jackson State for Colorado on Saturday, after leading the Tigers to their second straight SWAC Championship, Sanders was no longer our coach.
He became just another coach.
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No longer our coach
By going to Colorado, Sanders lost his chance to provoke change where it is needed most: At grassroots levels in Black communities across America, such as here in Jackson, where the murder rate is climbing, the city's infrastructure is failing and the need for impact is high.
Sanders, with seemingly endless resources — and infinite reach on social media — could have become a modern-day Eddie Robinson, the legendary Grambling coach whose name still means something in the Black community, where staying power too often is too rare.
Sanders is an unapologetic Black man in the way he dresses, talks, and carries himself. For millions of disadvantaged minorities growing up looking for hope and help to move past a bleak situation, Sanders' success meant something. He showed bettering a situation could be done. But as a coach at JSU, he was able to begin teaching young men how it can be done as well, through the life lessons and skills in marketing that Sanders has mastered as much as how to backpedal and play bump-and-run coverage on Saturdays.
Sanders says he still plans to impact the lives of young Black men at Colorado, and I believe him. But the comparison might as well be one apple talking to one orange. According to The Hunt Institute, a Durham, North Carolina-based independent nonprofit entity that aims to inspire change in education among policymakers, about 33% of undergraduate college students nationwide are first-generation students. At HBCUs, that number jumps to 52%. In other words, the opportunity to impact that segment of the population trying to move on from negative outcomes is much greater in Jackson than in Boulder.
With Sanders putting on a Colorado hat, the HBCU community lost a beacon. And that's true whether you liked Sanders' approach in the SWAC or not.
Think about the visibility Sanders, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, helped bring to the city's ongoing water crisis. Or the effects of the 2021 ice storm, when Sanders went viral after being helped by the Jackson Fire Department. Or every time he talked about leveling the playing field among HBCUs and the highest levels of college football. Sanders was a megaphone for Mississippi, the Black community and HBCUs.
Just another former coach.
Is Deion Sanders still SWAC?
This has the potential to end badly for Sanders. He must win at Colorado, and win big, and he already has proclaimed that he will.
Colorado is doing its part to help. With only two winning seasons since 2006, the Buffaloes are starved for a winner, already making promises to Sanders to relax standards for bringing in athletes from the transfer portal.
In the big leagues of college football, everything Sanders does will be scrutinized and dissected. There will be no rally cries of “If I ain’t Pac-12 than who is.” And the my way or the highway mentality Sanders brought to Jackson State only works if wins follow. Anything less is a quick ticket out of town.
Sanders, to his credit, knows that. But for a coach who never has chased the bag — his words — leaving Jackson so soon will be a flashpoint in his legacy.
"In coaching, you get elevated or you get terminated," Sanders told the Tigers on Saturday.
Indeed, Sanders will either succeed in Colorado, making good on the five-year, incentive-laden $29.5 million deal with the Buffaloes, or he'll be the easy target for detractors who view his time in Jackson as nothing but charity. The same critics who also say that Sanders was a pretentious outsider who claimed to be SWAC but didn't give it enough time to see it through.
To that point, nobody blames Sanders or any Black coach for bettering their situation, earning more money, chasing the bag or cashing in on their success. As Sanders pointed out Saturday while telling his JSU team he was leaving, there aren't enough Black coaching candidates at the highest levels of college football.
Changing that is his newest mission, and it's a good one.
But it's also fair to question whether he ever completed his mission at JSU, of leveling the playing field among HBCUs and creating lasting change for underserved students and academic institutions.
Sanders won big at JSU. But five years from now, will there be any lasting impact from Coach Prime's time at JSU?
He certainly won't be viewed as our coach.
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: How Deion Sanders hoodwinked everyone by bolting for Colorado football