The recently opened Homewood Suites Hotel by Hilton in Fondren obvious believes Deion Sanders will be good for business.

When Jackson State snagged Deion Sanders as its football coach, the theory was: If we hire him, the fans will come.

Thursday morning provided overwhelming evidence JSU officials were correct.

When ticket sales opened for the unusual 2021 spring football season at 8 a.m., the line of fans numbered in the hundreds and wrapped around the parking lot at the south end of Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. Many in line were multiple ticket buyers.

Rick Cleveland

That line included 64-year-old Gwendolyn Bennett of Prentiss, who arose long before dawn to make the one-hour drive to get her tickets. “I’ve been a true blue Jackson State fan since the 1960s,” Bennett said. “Regardless of whether we win or lose, I’m true blue but I’ve never been more true blue than I am right now.”

The hiring of Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Famer was announced Sept. 21 and has ignited an unprecedented buying spree for JSU season tickets. Yes, Jackson State often has played before home crowds of 50,000 or more, particularly during the W.C. Gorden coaching era in the 1970s and ’80s when the Tigers were perennial SWAC champions. But those were mostly walk-up crowds. There have never been lines, months ahead of time, to buy season tickets. Not five months before the season. Never.

Jackson State fans are super excited about Deion Sanders, shown here just during his introduction as head coach.

“This is why we made this move,” Thomas Hudson, interim JSU president, said, taking a break from greeting the ticket buyers. “People have been here since 6 a.m. I can’t say I expected this, but we knew there was a lot of excitement. Today has been amazing.”

Sanders has never coached a college game as an assistant or head coach, never assembled a coaching staff, never decided whether to kick off or receive. None of that seems to matter to JSU fans, who believe Sanders’ football experience and success at the highest level will attract top-flight recruits and result in more victories for a program that has been in the dumps lately.

Emmanuel Muhammad

“I’m ready to see Jackson State win again,” said Emmanuel Muhammad, who was a guard of Rick Comegy’s 2007 JSU SWAC Championship team and stood in line for tickets for more than two hours Thursday. “The excitement is real and it is growing. I’m especially excited to see what Deion can do.”

Muhammad, 32, who teaches health and physical education at Callaway High School, said he didn’t at first believe the rumors Sanders was going to be named as JSU’s head coach.

“But as soon as it was official, I was on board,” said Muhammad, who looks as if he could still play. “To be honest, I expected today to be like this. People are excited.”

No doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the high demand for tickets. Current state restrictions limit crowds to 20% of capacity for college games. That would mean a limit of approximately 12,000 for The Vet.

“We’re hoping and anticipating that limit will be raised before next spring,” said JSU athletic director Ashley Robinson, who has received widespread high praise for the hiring of Sanders. “Actually, we are hoping it will be 100% by then.”

Back in July, the SWAC became one of the first NCAA conferences to postpone the football season to the spring. Jackson State is scheduled to open on Feb. 21 against Edward Waters College, an NCAA Division II team out of Jacksonville, Fla. After that, the Tigers will play a seven-game SWAC schedule that will include four more home games.

Jackson State was the NCAA FCS Division attendance leader in 2019. Nevertheless, attendance has dwindled since the glory years when JSU won or shared eight SWAC titles between 1980 or 1990.

Thomas Hudson

Said Hudson, the interim president, “If today is any indication, we are heading in the right direction. It’s an exciting time for Jackson State, for Jackson and for Mississippi. This is great for the city, great for Jackson restaurants and hotels. A strong Jackson State means a strong Jackson and a strong Mississippi.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.