Before the end of Jackson State's season opener against South Carolina State, Tigers players tracked down first-year head coach T.C. Taylor and doused him with liquid to celebrate his first win at the helm of the program.
When the 37-7 victory was sealed, players skipped around the field, whooped with excitement and embraced Taylor — drenched clothes and all — as he looked up at the final score. Jackson State fans who traveled nearly 400 miles from Jackson, Mississippi, to Atlanta belted “T.C.” chants as the Tigers' new leader exited the field.
“When I started hearing them say that, it took me back to my playing days,” said Taylor, a former Jackson State quarterback and receiver, “because I can remember that then. I’m like ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is coming around again.’ I'll never forget that moment.”
Taylor took over the Tigers program when former coach Deion Sanders left to coach at Colorado after the 2022 season. Taylor is now tasked with leading a program with a rich history and expectations of success into a new era. Many of the Tigers' most touted players followed Sanders to Colorado, including starting quarterback Shedeur Sanders, a projected NFL first-rounder in defensive back/receiver Travis Hunter, and a handful of other All-Southwestern Athletic Conference players.
“Everybody’s been asking me, ‘Are you ready?’” Taylor said. “I’m like, ‘Just put the ball down. We’ll show you what we’re talking about.’"
Two games into the season, the Tigers have shown that they have the pieces to remain competitive in the SWAC despite losing a lot of talent, but rebuilding takes time.
After dominating the conference that past few seasons, the Tigers were picked to finish second in the SWAC's east division behind Florida A&M. Only one player, tight end D.J. Stevens, was selected to a preseason All-SWAC first or second team. Jackson State had 12 all-conference players in 2022.
A week after their victory over South Carolina State, the Tigers lost to Florida A&M 28-10 in the Orange Blossom Classic, and it seems teams have had the Tigers circled on their schedules.
“(Those) boys have been riding high for the past two seasons,” said Rattlers receiver Marcus Riley, who returned the game's opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. "They’ve been the Alabama of the HBCUs. We had to calm them down a little bit.”
Sanders, the NFL Hall of Famer and MLB All-Star known by many as “Prime Time,” vaulted the Tigers and historically Black colleges and universities into a national spotlight with his unapologetic optimism, fanfare, and, ultimately, his ability to win.
After five losing seasons in seven campaigns before his arrival, the Tigers went 27-6 under Sanders and won two SWAC Championships. They played in nationally televised games and earned lucrative donations from celebrities and sports stars like hip-hop artist Ja Rule and Hall of Famer Michael Strahan.
The result was unprecedented national attention for historically Black schools as more celebrities donated their money and resources, and top recruits, like Hunter, signed with HBCUs.
“Although Deion has gone on to Colorado, he has given a chance to explore Black colleges," said Dr. Derrick Lester, a Florida native who runs an organization that helps send boys to college, “and not just explore it, but let people know that there’s nothing wrong with going to Black colleges.”
For all of the attention that Sanders, who received a degree from the HBCU Talladega College in Alabama, brought to historically Black schools, there was a section —
“In some cases, some people may have seen him slightly bigger than the program or even bigger than the conference," said Dr. J Kenyatta Cavil, a professor at Texas Southern who focuses on HBCU athletics. "He sought out the limelight. It wasn’t just for him, but to spread the light across Jackson State — I would say even the SWAC and HBCUs. But for some people, they’re not used to that and may live a more quaint lifestyle. For some people, that can get a little unnerving.”
Taylor's lowkey personality, is quite different from that of Sanders, though they both ultimately had the same goals for Jackson State. Sanders endorsed Taylor when he announced to the team that he was leaving.
“My recommendation goes to T.C.,” Sanders said during a Tigers team meeting last December. “They know how I feel about T.C. I would love for someone in house. I hope that's how it goes down. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for this man.”
A native of McComb, Mississippi, who played quarterback then receiver at Jackson State from 1998-2001, Taylor has been embraced as a home-grown product.
He grew up attending games at the Tigers' Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium before donning the navy blue and white colors himself. He has been a part of the Tigers' coaching staff since 2019.
“The broader perspective of people that are internal to SWAC, that live it day to day and lived it for a long period of time, they just see him of that essence,” Cavil said. “Everything that they associate with (the SWAC), that’s who he is and what he is.”
Taylor has been busy building on what Sanders produced over the past three seasons.
“We talk about the way coach Prime has built things,” Taylor said during a team meeting at the end of the 2022 season.
He looked at Sanders.
“I love this man. I love his vision," Taylor said. "Through sickness and health, he did his thing. I wanted to mimic that. I chase that every day.”
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll