Deion Sanders’ greatest strength is also his greatest weakness.
“Prime Time,” who is arguably the greatest defensive back to ever play football, was a world-class athlete. He single-handedly turned the cornerback position into the glamorous and high-paying position it is today. “Neon Deion’’ had to be loud, brash, and unapologetic to get fans, front offices, and marketers to pay attention to his skill set, as his position was overlooked in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It’s part of what made him great, besides his legendary talent, and it’s how he changed the game for the better.
But that doesn’t mean that recipe will work as a Division I football coach at an HBCU, where Sanders’ ego was on full display Sunday afternoon after his Jackson State Tigers defeated Edward Waters College 53-0 in their season opener.
“This is about to be the best news conference you’ve ever seen,” Sanders told a group of reporters, according to Sports Illustrated.
Watch that clip and pay attention to what you’re seeing and hearing. It’s all about Deion. It’s not about the offense, defense, or special teams. It’s not about his team, which is playing in the spring due to COVID-19 wrecking collegiate sports. It’s not about a group of teenagers that took the field despite playing in a stadium that didn’t have running water and featured portable toilets, because of the freezing temperatures that swept through Texas and Mississippi last week. It’s about a millionaire talking about how his possessions were stolen before he could even take a question about how his team performed in their first game.
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This is what happens when you throw a coach — that before Sunday didn’t have any college experience — a pep rally-like introductory press conference featuring a marching band during a pandemic.
Now, what did or didn’t happen with Sanders’ things will always be a mystery. There were earlier reports that claimed that Sanders’s stuff wasn’t stolen, just misplaced. It led to Jackson State releasing a statement.
Sanders, on the other hand, is adamant that his possessions were stolen.
Just last month, Sanders reportedly had a boombox stolen from his car. Days later, Sanders posted a video showing that the radio had been returned, along with a note from the thief. Two robberies in two months. And the only reason we know about them is that Sanders willingly made it public knowledge.
Sanders has been in the news a lot lately, as he left NFL Network in August to join a downmarket blog, where he plans on delivering “faith, motivation, and spiritual guidance.” That same month, Sanders called out the unpaid athletes who opted out of sports due to COVID-19.
But even if all of that wasn’t enough, along with what took place on Sunday, to make even the most optimistic person cautious about how Sanders’ tenure at Jackson State will turn out, his past already makes him a cautionary tale.
Underneath the hype that’s come with Sanders’ arrival in Jackson, people are ignoring the fact that a man with no knowledge of how to run a program has been handed the keys to one of the most historically successful schools in HBCU football history and expected to instantly turn things around. Sanders has already made the media rounds, discussing what he intends to accomplish at JSU without anyone bringing up his troubled past when it comes to amateur sports.
In 2019, he was the offensive coordinator at Trinity Christian-Cedar Hill when the school was kicked out of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools after a slew of probations and violations. In 2016, the Dallas Morning News examined Sanders’ “Prime Prep,” which was an epic failure, as he was once fired, re-hired, fired, and re-hired again at the school. And a few months ago, the Washington Post profiled multiple student-athletes from the school that had their lives upended for their involvement with it.
In college sports, a head coach and their ego, prowess, and personality are synonymous with their programs and school. Think Coach K at Duke, John Wooden at UCLA, Nick Saban at Alabama, Eddie Robinson at Grambling, Geno Auriemma at UConn, and Pat Summitt at Tennessee. Kids come to their schools to play their style and learn from them.
The difference between those coaches and what Sanders is doing is that they’ve all consistently won over decades, and he hasn’t. Because on Sunday, after Deion Sanders won his first game as a college coach, in a blowout victory over an NAIA school that went 1-10 last season, it took him almost two minutes into his postgame press conference to talk about anything other than himself.
Jackson State University is definitely getting a crash course in crisis management.