Jackson State coach Deion Sanders walks the sidelines at the Southern Heritage Classic against Tennessee State on Sept. 10, 2022. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian via AP)


What to make of the Eddie Robinson Jr.-Deion Sanders dust-up last Saturday in Montgomery? Was it good for the SWAC? And, by the way, is Deion Sanders SWAC? (Robinson says he isn’t.)

Let’s take the last question first. Right now, Deion Sanders — Jackson State’s Coach Prime — isn’t just SWAC; he is the face of the SWAC. He’s the SWAC Daddy. He owns the league.

Rick Cleveland

Jackson State has won 12 straight SWAC games. Most haven’t been close. Last Saturday’s confrontation came after a 14-point JSU victory. That was exceedingly close by 2022 JSU standards. The week before that, JSU whipped Mississippi Valley by 42. The week before that, Grambling went down by 42. Earlier this season Florida A&M, undefeated in the league otherwise, lost by 56 to Jackson State.

Was what happened last Saturday good for the SWAC? Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes. It was national news, SportsCenter stuff. TV’s talking heads all discussed it at length. Recruits around the country saw it. You can’t buy that kind of publicity. The last time the SWAC got that kind of national coverage was when, well, it was when Deion Sanders went out and signed the nation’s No. 1 football recruit, Travis Hunter, who had previously committed to Florida State. (You should know that Jackson State has achieved its 5-0 record essentially without the ridiculously talented Hunter, who was injured in the season-opening romp over Florida A&M. He is expected to play again soon.)

READ MORE: In trouncing of Grambling, Jackson State appears the class of the SWAC

Let’s get back to the Sanders-Robinson controversy. For those who don’t know — and I don’t know how you could have missed it — Sanders and Robinson met at midfield for the traditional postgame handshake after JSU’s 26-12 victory at Montgomery. Sanders reached out with his right hand and said “good game.” Robinson shook his hand, but when Sanders appeared to pull him in closer for a hug, Robinson shoved Sanders back with left hand and turned away.

“What was that?” Sanders said, appearing stunned. He then turned and walked off the field. The war of words ensued in respective postgame press conferences with Robinson questioning Sanders’ SWAC bonafides. “I’m SWAC, he ain’t SWAC,” Robinson said, to which Sanders responded,“Who is SWAC if I ain’t SWAC?”

Sanders, ever the showman, showed up at practice this week with a new, blue hoodie that asked on its front, “Who is SWAC?” On the back of the hoodie came the answer, “I am SWAC.”

The hoodie was a big hit on social media, where Sanders has more than 1.3 million followers on Twitter alone.

Frankly, the postgame dust-up was rather tame in the overall scheme of things. That sort of confrontation happens nearly every week in college football. This wasn’t anything like a much less famous SWAC coaching brawl that happened more than half a century ago when Jackson State’s Bob Hill and Alcorn’s Marino Casem tore into each other in full-scale, bare-knuckles brawl at midfield before the game, a fight over which ball would be used. (Yes, that really did happen.)

The more pertinent question these days: How much longer will Deion Sanders be SWAC?

After all, he interviewed for Power Five jobs in the offseason. He is already being touted for several jobs that have come open or probably will come open this season: Georgia Tech, Auburn and Arizona State, among them. Those jobs will pay millions more than what Jackson State can afford to pay — if money is what drives Coach Prime.

My guess is that it’s ego, more than money, that drives Sanders. He has excelled as a player at every level of the sport — and, for that matter, two sports. In two fall seasons, he has shown he can dominate the SWAC. My next guess is that he wants to prove himself at the highest level as a coach, to play for national championships at the FBS level and to possibly move on to the NFL.

Believe this: Sanders does not lack for confidence that he can do all that.

Of all the possibilities, Auburn would appear the best fit for what’s next. Of course, that job isn’t open — yet. Entering Saturday’s game at Ole Miss, current Auburn coach Bryan Harsin has lost six of his last eight SEC games and is now 9-10 at Auburn overall. On the Plains, that won’t cut it.

What makes Coach Prime even more desirable is what he presumably would take with him, including his quarterback and son Shedeur Sanders, a sophomore who has thrown for 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions and possesses the poise of a fifth-year pro. He’s the real deal. And then there’s Hunter, who was pursued heavily by Auburn before he eventually stunned the college football world by signing with Jackson State.

Regardless, these next few weeks will be intriguing where Coach Prime is concerned. He is SWAC — indeed, he is the face of the SWAC — but for how long?

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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.