Deion Sanders is the only college coach outside of the FBS who would be invited to share a commercial set with Nick Saban for a few days. And that's the point of him being at Jackson State.
When Sanders made the surprising move to coach Jackson State last year, it was a match with more than football in mind. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) don't have the same resources or get the same attention as major college football programs like Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide. Most of them don't have Sanders, a Hall of Famer who was one of the most charismatic athletes of all time. Most schools won't have a coach starring in a series of Aflac insurance commercials with Saban. Aflac, a longtime supporter of HBCUs, donated $75,000 to Jackson State's athletic department and will be a supporting partner of Deion Sanders’ Football Camp
Surely Jackson State, the alma mater of Walter Payton and a historically successful program, wants to win at football. But hiring Sanders can be more about results. For Sanders, it was an opportunity to lift HBCUs.
"An opportunity came, and I prayed on it and thought about it," Sanders said in a phone interview. "With the social climate of our country, it was the right time. It was a call from God."
Almost a year into the job, Sanders is still energized.
Deion Sanders living life of a college coach
Coaching is a hard job. Sanders was doing just fine at NFL Network without the 5 a.m. wake-up calls he has now as a college head coach.
"4:45, actually," Sanders corrected.
It was an opportunity that came unexpectedly, but the challenge appealed to him.
"I didn't wake up and say, 'I want to go to Jackson State University,'" Sanders said. "I don't think I'd been to Jackson, Mississippi in my life. I don't think I'd even driven by Jackson, Mississippi in my life."
The jobs outside of the FBS are different. You're dealing with a lot more than football, and doing so on shoestring budgets. Sanders knew what he was getting into, studying the school before he took the job, but this wasn't his alma mater of Florida State and it surely wasn't the NFL.
"You never know everything in the kitchen until you get in the kitchen," Sanders said. "You look in the cabinets, check in the refrigerator and say, 'OK, this is what we have to work with.'"
The resources weren't great. But Sanders has a cache that gets him on the phone with powerful people. He said he started calling CEOs when he got the job. He got new uniforms for the team from Under Armour. He said he called Riddell about helmets. Walmart helped fund a new field. Nothing against any other coach at that level, but most first-time coaches can't pull that off. And Sanders was happy to do the work.
"I'm built for this, man," Sanders said. "I don't have anyone make a call for me. I pick up the phone myself.
"There's so many things that go into a job at an HBCU. My hat is off to these coaches who have been doing it for many years."
You can be cynical if you want, and we'll see how the Sanders experiment goes. Most coaches at that level haven't reached the pinnacle of sports and fame, and their early morning wake-up calls are to survive in a rough business. Sanders insists he's no different than any other coach that way.
"This is who I am my man," Sanders said. "People got caught up with 'Prime' and with the persona and they never understood me. I want to help my fellow man and motivate them."
As he enters his first full fall season as coach, kicking off against Florida A&M on Sept. 5, Sanders has no regrets.
"I love it. I 100% love it," Sanders said. "I haven't worked a day yet."
Sanders wants to provide 'hope'
When Sanders announced he was going to Jackson State last September on his podcast "21st and Prime," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones came on the show (again, this is not your normal FCS coach) to congratulate him.
"You are special, and you're going to have a lot of young people benefit from that," Jones said, via the Clarion Ledger "I mean it. It's a great move."
While football is important to Sanders and he talked about picking Saban's brain during the commercial shoot ("That's a dream for any coach to even be in the same room as Nick Saban, much less spend a couple days with him," Sanders said. "He dropped a few gems I'll never forget"), most of the conversation has nothing to do with Xs and Os or upcoming games. He is focused on guiding his players, whether it's to the NFL or the real world. He knows what he wants to give them.
"Hope, man. Hope," Sanders said. "When you go to Alabama, Georgia or one of those powerhouses, you know if you got it, you're going to make it in the pros. Why can't that be us? Why can't we think like that? Why can't that be our reality? To know, if you're a baller you will get drafted by the NFL.
"Why can’t the same be true for these kids in business? Why can’t they go to the workforce and make six figures right away? Because they’re smart and they’re going to work their butts off for you."
While Sanders will get more attention than anyone else in the SWAC, life at Jackson State is far from the Super Bowls, shoe commercials and music videos. Why would Sanders give up a comfortable life for all-day film sessions, practices and recruiting calls to either high school football players or companies he's hoping will help upgrade the standards at JSU? He says simply, he wants to be a mentor.
"This is really who I am," Sanders said.