NASHVILLE — Deion Sanders has been all over national TV, putting Jackson State in the spotlight every time his insurance commercials air. At Tennessee State, hiring Eddie George has had a similar effect.
Thanks to their high-profile football coaches, Jackson State and Tennessee State are reaping benefits ranging from bigger crowds to more interest from top recruits to companies wanting to tap into all the hype, making deals with both universities and players under the new name, image and likeness rules.
Just as officials at the two historically Black universities hoped.
"It's just reestablishing our football brand that was so dominant for many decades and just restoring that," Tennessee State athletic director Mikki Allen said of George. "He's been everything that I could ask for in a head coach."
Allen said Tennessee State's enrollment already is up, and four- and five-star recruits are looking closely at George and the Tigers. The Nashville program hosted 317 recruits one weekend.
Tennessee State has had corporate interest from companies including The General, Best Buy and bottling sponsor Coca-Cola. A six-figure gift from trucking company Western Express started a new weight room project for the indoor complex.
The program also has partnered with OpenDorse to help athletes who have signed NIL deals with restaurants, vendors, barbershops and cellphone companies.
"There's a lot of brands who want to be connected, obviously, to our head coach," Allen said. "But then I think a lot of that star power that he has has transferred over to our student-athletes in the sport of football."
The Southwestern Athletic Conference, home to Mississippi's Jackson State, ranked 17th nationally through Oct. 31 among leagues for NIL deals tracked by OpenDorse. The SWAC also will be looking at both attendance and TV ratings to see how that might translate into new packages and more money.
"Deion Sanders coaching has brought more notoriety from a Jackson State perspective," SWAC commissioner Charles McClelland said. "Clearly, the conference benefits because if they are looking at Jackson State playing another institution, that other institution continues to get that benefit as well."
Attendance is also up. With Sanders, Jackson State averaged 41,633 at home games this season. That's a jump of 6,605 per game from 2019, the last full season before the coronavirus pandemic and a year before Jackson State hired Sanders in September 2020.
Sanders' son Shedeur, the team's starting quarterback, got his own endorsement deal with Beats by Dre. On the field, Sanders has Jackson State (10-1) playing in the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game on Dec. 4. Tennessee State (5-6) just wrapped up its season.
"This is a tremendous feat," Sanders said on a recent SWAC coaches conference call. "People just thought we were joking when I said we believe, but we really believe without a shadow of a doubt."
The former Florida State and NFL defensive back — Sanders is in the halls of fame for both college and pro football — had a head start on George, going 4-3 earlier this year in the pandemic-delayed spring season.
George — the 1995 Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State who was later a running back for the Tennessee Titans team that reached the Super Bowl in the 1999 season — was hired in mid-April to revive a program with 13 Black national championships after three straight losing seasons, including 2-5 this past spring. He guided Jackson State to its longest winning streak since 2016, four straight Ohio Valley Conference wins for the first time since 2013 and its best record since 2017.
The enthusiasm around George has not translated into a boost in attendance for Tennessee State. Its largest crowd was in Memphis as part of the Southern Heritage Classic against Jackson State and Sanders. George's team did draw 8,627 for a homecoming win over Murray State, but averaged only 4,022 for four home games. That's down from an average of 8,787 over seven games in 2019.
"The only way that I can get people in the stands is to put a winning product on the field," George said. "That's it. I mean, of course I was disappointed in the fact that we didn't have fans, but that's due to the lack of success. So I have to do my part."
That's why Tennessee State will be hiring a recruiting director and improving equipment through a deal with Under Armour. George wants offices, meeting rooms, training rooms and a weight room housed in one building to streamline operations and save time.
Sanders and George have been successful enough to have their names surface for other jobs. George was linked to Akron, while Sanders reportedly interviewed with TCU while recovering from complications after foot surgery.
The man known as Coach Prime said never believe rumors, though, especially when he's been in a hospital after complications from surgery. Sanders said TCU and others are interested in what's going on at Jackson State.
"They're trying to figure out the formula," Sanders said. "There ain't no formula, man. It's loving on these kids, challenging these kids, holding these kids accountable. Making sure they maintain themselves to be smart, tough, fast and disciplined. That's the secret. Not everyone has this recipe."
That's what George wants to build as quickly as possible, and he has let his players know changes are coming.
"I don't know if you watched 'Game of Thrones,' but winter is coming," George said. "Winter is coming, and it's time to get busy."