If there’s one thing no one can ever doubt about Deion Sanders, it’s his passion for mentorship. Sanders is constantly lending a listening ear, providing motivational advice and pushing kids to thrive and succeed. He’s relentlessly sponsoring, teaching and promoting youth, something that traces back so long ago that he helped Dez Bryant when he was at Oklahoma State.
And it’s the hope of FCS Jackson State University, which hired Sanders as head coach this week, that his affinity for helping youngsters leads to a boom for the proud program. Jackson State plays in the SWAC, boasts Walter Payton as its most distinguished athletic alum and has catapulted in the past week from a football afterthought to the conversational forefront. We’ll see if that ends up being a good thing.
Sanders arrived at his Jackson State news conference as you’d expect, a parade of sirens, the band playing at full pitch and a sponsored Cadillac with Coach Prime in the back. “God called me to Jackson State,” Sanders said.
The arrival of Sanders, who was a high school offensive coordinator for his son’s team this season, also comes with a cautionary tale. The last time Sanders lent his name to a high-profile venture tied to a school it ended in infamy.
Sanders co-founded Prime Prep back in 2012. And it closed in the middle of the school year in January of 2015 amid a hailstorm of controversy, lawsuits and mockery from the educational space.
It’s difficult to overstate what a complete, unmitigated and over-litigated mess Prime Prep became. It left behind a trail of angry parents, unpaid bills, countless lawsuits, broken promises and the rare educational hat trick of local, state and federal investigations. While Sanders wasn’t the superintendent or principal, he lent his name and star power, which led to a level of scrutiny the school couldn’t uphold.
It’s unfair to say Sanders’ stint coaching at Jackson State will be a mess because of what unfolded at Prime Prep. But it’s also fair to say that Jackson State better not take for granted that Sanders will have all the details covered.
“I would be less worried for them because he’s in the business that he knows best as a football coach,” said Michael Soto, associate vice president for academic affairs and professor of English at Trinity University in San Antonio. “I just hope that they are prepared to support him with the day-to-day operations of a football program off the field.”
Soto saw first-hand the unusual excitement that can occur when Sanders lends his celebrity to a cause. He was on the Texas State Board of Education when Prime Prep applied for a charter in September of 2011. He was one of the few dissenters who voted against it when the charter passed. He recalled in a phone interview with Yahoo Sports on Tuesday the board members asking Sanders for his autograph and pictures at the hearing.
The only positive thing that unfolded after their approval, in retrospect, was the fodder Prime Prep gave local investigative journalists. Sanders was fired and rehired twice from the school, reportedly cited for misdemeanor assault and treated reporters looking into the school as if they were invisible.
It had all the ingredients – a high-profile co-founder, a complete lack of competent infrastructure and enough lawsuits to make Judge Judy blush. (A thorough accounting is here from the Dallas Morning News, and be prepared to clear out some time.)
When it came to Prime Prep, Sanders was high on publicity and low on accountability. A general theme of disrespect for protocol and authority emerged, including being dismissive of accurate accountings of Prime Prep’s demise. "That's the dumbest thing I've heard all year," he texted the Dallas Morning News at one point.
A former executive director of Prime Prep told The New York Times: “The high school was chaos. Academics didn’t even play second fiddle.”
Sanders wasn’t in charge of the day-to-day at Prime Prep, but he did fight for its charter, lend his name to it and coach. Soto saw it all coming from a country mile away.
“The people who dashed it together had very little experience with education, let alone a highly regulated public school environment,” he said. “Deion was brought in for the glamour and the glitz. He’s the only reason that application even received a hearing. And he’s certainly the main reason why the state board approved the charter.”
That same name, smile and charisma is the main reason Sanders is the head coach at Jackson State. Sanders brings Hall of Fame playing credentials and is still in the top one percent of the top one percent of most recognized athletes in America.
But he’s also generally under-qualified to be a college coach, and there are already plenty in the college space who are curious how he’ll do at a place that generally isn’t resource rich. (Sanders was reportedly involved in searches at Arkansas and Florida State last year.)
The publicity will come, and the recruits will likely follow. But will a solid program be built?
Quincy Avery, a former player at Morehouse and a highly regarded quarterback trainer, said he’s unsure if Sanders knows what he’s signing up for. Sanders played at superpower Florida State, which operates in a different universe than Jackson State.
“Budget and budgetary issues that are going to come up,” Avery said when asked what will surprise Sanders the most. “He thinks college football is one way. Black college football is actually another.”
Avery said that if he had a player he trained choosing between Jackson State and a peer like Tennessee State, he’d tell them to choose Tennessee State. He said Jackson State was “reaching for attention” in hiring Sanders and is skeptical of the results.
“I don’t think he understands the level of detail needed to coach at that level,” Avery said. “It’s just so much deeper than trying to talk to kids. It’s detailed work, in terms of game planning, preparation and scouting.”
Prime Prep also had a high-profile basketball component when it existed from 2012 to 2015. Emmanuel Mudiay, who went on to be the No. 7 pick in the NBA draft, played there as did a host of others who went on to play college basketball. The school struggled with NCAA eligibility issues, and a Prime Prep board member told The New York Times it was “common knowledge that athletes received grades they needed to keep their eligibility,” the paper reported.
ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla lives in Dallas and keeps close tabs on the recruiting world. He admired the ethos Sanders brought to Prime Prep. “I don’t quibble with the idea that he was helping young people,” Fraschilla said.
But he added a note of caution to Jackson State, that if Sanders is operating the program at 30,000 feet there needs to assistant coaches and staff to handle things on the ground. “Make sure you have the coaches around you that handle the day-to-day details,” Fraschilla said.
If you don’t, the sordid details will get magnified. That’s the blessing and curse of Prime Time as Sanders’ failed prep school venture showed – everyone is watching.
All eyes are now on you, Jackson State.
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