SWAC football is looking for ‘Prime Time’ exposure

Deion Sanders is the most recognizable name in a conference that is gaining its share of attention of late. Known as Prime Time, the Pro Football Hall of Famer will coach his first game at Jackson State when the SWAC kicks off its spring 2021 football season on Feb. 27.

Sanders has yet to coach a game at the historically black college. But the SWAC, which this past summer added Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman as members, is garnering attention not only from top high school football players but major television networks.

“We anticipate ESPN to cover several of our spring football games,” SWAC commissioner Charles McClelland said. “We’ve had other networks call with a high level of interest in broadcasting SWAC football. We do think that we’re going to be able to give the nation a full dose of SWAC football.”

Hired in September and on the job since the first of December, Sanders has hit the ground running in recruiting and settling in for what is his first head coaching job on the college level. Sanders has commitments from 12 FBS transfers in trying to revive JSU. Even one high school recruit went the route of calling Sanders’ mother.

“I’m biased, but I feel we have the best staff in college football,” said Sanders, who calls himself Coach Prime. “And then having me to close it, that’s a heck of a combination. Now we’re starting to get (recruiting) calls like crazy. I can’t wait for you to see what we’re going to put on the field.”

Sanders’ Tigers are picked to finish fourth in the five-team Eastern Division in the preseason poll of the league’s coaches. Alcorn State is the overwhelming choice to claim its seventh straight division title. Last season, the Braves won their fourth league championship in six seasons, knocking off Southern 39-24 for the title.

Southern is tabbed to win the Western Division. Prairie View A&M under coach Eric Dooley is picked third and Texas Southern under coach Clarence McKinney fifth.

Sanders, whose contract with JSU is for $1.2 million over four years and includes incentives, said he answered a calling from high above to take over Jackson State and improve the lot for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which fall behind the financial resources of many FCS schools.

“It’s not a level playing field,” said the 53-year-old Sanders, a 14-year NFL cornerback and return specialist who has coached at the high school level as well and worked in media since retiring from pro football in 2005. “Thank God, God called me to change the game, to open their eyes, to open the door. Not just for Jackson State but for everybody. I love the challenge, but if these kids had the same playing field, I guarantee more would matriculate to the next level.

“But it’s not, and that’s why I’m here: to balance this thing. Because some of the things I’ve seen are unacceptable. And it causes a kid not to dream, not have that passion because he doesn’t see no end result that’s promising for him. That’s not going to happen under my watch. They deserve better, and they’re going to get better.”

More Information

SWAC football poll

The predicted order of finish for SWAC spring 2021 football as voted on by league coaches, with points and first-place votes in parentheses:

Western Division

1. Southern 90 (14)

2. Grambling State 86 (4)

3. Prairie View A&M 67 (2)

4. Arkansas-Pine Bluff 46,

5. Texas Southern 31

Eastern Division

1. Alcorn State 93 (14)

2. Alabama A&M 77 (4)

3. Alabama State 63 (1)

4. Jackson State 60 (1)

5. Mississippi Valley State 37

Sanders is just one piece in the SWAC’s effort to raise its profile beyond the six states that have conference membership — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama and Arkansas.

“We have an ESPN partner that we’re now in talks in trying to expand our footprint, expand more linear games, as well as putting more games on the digital platform,” McClelland said. “We want to expand the brand.”

The SWAC has a proud history, boasting coaches Eddie Robinson (Grambling) and Billy Nicks (Prairie View). Former players include Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Walter Payton (Jackson State), Michael Strahan (TSU) and Doug Williams (Grambling State).

The league has led FCS in attendance in 42 of the past 43 years.

Sanders’ hiring has reawakened the SWAC’s history and put the league at the forefront of FCS teams.

“It has let the nation know what we’ve known in the Southwestern Athletic Conference all along — that this is a competitive league,” McClelland said. “We are on par with all other FCS leagues, and I would argue that we can compete against some Group of Five leagues.”

For the spring season, each of the 10 current SWAC teams will play six games — all in conference with three at home, three on the road. Jackson State is the only school to play an additional game out of conference. Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M will start SWAC competition in the fall of 2021.

“COVID-19 is going to dictate everything that we do,” McClelland said. “We’re going to continue to move forward with football, and we’re excited about football.

“We do anticipate some stoppages. We have a contingency plan. The good thing within the Southwestern Athletic Conference is we’re not participating in FCS playoffs; we are participating only in the SWAC Championship Game. So it gives us greater flexibility to be able to make adjustments as far as stoppages are concerned.”

The SWAC opted against playing a fall football season in 2020 because of the pandemic. McClelland said it was the correct call for the league.

“It was 100 percent a great move,” McClelland said. “We were able to learn a lot of lessons based upon what other conferences were going through. There were a lot of dos and don’ts.”

But the games in the spring won’t have the traditional large crowds. Fan participation and attendance will be governed by each institution and its local health officials.

“The Southwestern Athletic Conference is committed to moving forward,” McClelland said. “(But) the games are not going to look like they’ve looked in the past.”

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