Jackson State’s Ashley Robinson is on a mission to return Tigers to their glory days
The hiring of Deion Sanders typifies his outside-the-box approach to rebuilding
JACKSON, Miss. — Listen carefully, and the hurt still resonates in Jackson State athletic director Ashley Robinson’s words.
Robinson didn’t understand why Jackson State didn’t offer him a basketball scholarship 20 years ago, and these days it makes even less sense to him.
“It was very personal. You look at it now. The Lord works in mysterious ways,” he said. “I’m at my destination. I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
The disrespect, real or perceived, motivated Robinson as an 18-year-old senior at Murrah High School, and it drives him now.
That’s just his personality.
The good Lord taught him all about forgiveness; forgetting is an entirely different proposition.
Robinson makes no apologies for being that dude. You know, the person who uses every disappointment as an opportunity to prove folks wrong.
Tell Robinson he’s not good enough to make the “A” Team as a high school freshman, and he’ll become a senior starter who averages a double-double.
Tell Robinson he’s not good enough to earn a basketball scholarship to Jackson State, and he’ll become Mississippi Valley State’s all-time leader in assists, while beating the Tigers seven times in eight games.
Tell Robinson he’s not experienced enough to be Jackson State’s athletic director, and a couple of years later the administration will be thrilled to hire him, having watched him turn Prairie View’s moribund program into a winner.
So no one should be shocked he was bold enough to pursue Deion Sanders as Jackson State’s football coach and charismatic enough to land the Hall of Fame cornerback.
“When Deion made the statement on NFL Network a year ago and he said, ‘I’m going to be a head coach,’ I was sitting here with my assistant VP of business operations and I said, ‘What do you think about Deion Sanders?’ ” Robinson said.
HIRING A HALL OF FAMER
The first call lasted so long, Robinson’s cellphone battery nearly died.
“My first conversation with Deion, he told me the history of Jackson State athletics and I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Robinson said. “That showed he did his homework.
“His vision fit where I wanted to go and where I’m trying to take this program.”
Sanders, though, wasn’t sure he wanted the job. Sanders said he had recently interviewed for two college head-coaching jobs — he declined to name them — and he wanted to make sure he wasn’t rushing into a job.
“I didn’t know the destination, but I knew what God was going to do with me,” Sanders said, “and I could hear him clearly because my life ain’t noisy.”
Robinson wanted to make Jackson State one of the best FCS football programs in the country, not just the best historically Black college and university (HBCU) football program. Those words resonated with Sanders because he’s never placed any limitations on himself.
It’s why Sanders refused to choose between playing MLB and the NFL and played both. It’s why he became the NFL’s first two-way player since the Philadelphia Eagles’ Chuck Bednarik in 1960, when he started at wide receiver and cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys in 1996.
“Ashley thinks outside the box No. 1, and he’s a go-getter,” Sanders said. “He gets stuff done. We’re like-minded.
“Every thought I’ve ever had is outside the box. Ain’t no lines on my sheet of paper. My vision is blurry to a lot of people because they can’t see what I see.”
That meshes perfectly with Robinson’s mindset.
“People talk about thinking outside the box. Well, Ashley doesn’t have a box,” said Robert Cook, the founding chairman of the Tiger Fund. He has been affiliated with Jackson State for more than 40 years.
After about 10 days of talks, Sanders told Robinson to call his agent.
First, Robinson phoned Jackson State president Thomas Hudson to make sure he was all-in. A native of Jackson who understands the importance of the football team to the community, he quickly signed off.
Sanders signed a four-year deal worth $1.2 million, and he reportedly gets 10% of all sales after 30,000 tickets are sold. He also gets 10% of all season-ticket revenue after the first 10,000 bundles.
“Who would’ve thought a little 5-9 AD at Jackson State would have the gumption to go after Deion Sanders?” Calvin Younger, a Tiger Fund board member, wondered. “Who would’ve thought that any AD at an HBCU would’ve had the guts to say, ‘I’m going to bring you to my university and let you lead my football team.’ ”
The work has already started. Sanders spends a portion of each day working on tasks such as making sure a second practice field will be ready in time for a spring season, if the pandemic doesn’t ruin it, and talking with officials from helmet companies.
Sanders meets weekly with the compliance office to make sure he’s prepared, educated and trained, because he and the university will be under tremendous scrutiny. This is Robinson’s specialty. He began his career working in academics and compliance, and he takes pride in having teams that excel on the field and in the classroom.
One of Robinson’s most important jobs is managing Sanders’ expectations. Shortcuts to success don’t exist. Building a program with staying power takes time.
“I’m not worried about the football, but he’s going to want it now. I have to show him let’s be patient, and I’ve already started that,” Robinson said. “You start early on that. You can’t start on that in the middle of the season. It’s too late then.”
Admittedly, Sanders lacks patience. Following Robinson’s lead will be important.
“When I see what needs to be done, I think, oftentimes, everybody sees it the way I see it,” Sanders said. “Not oftentimes they do, so that affects your patience because you got vision.”
The first time Jackson State had an opportunity to hire Robinson as its athletic director in 2015, the school passed on him just like the basketball team had done.
“At that time, he was a very young administrator,” said Cook. “He didn’t have a lot of road miles on him.”
So Robinson did what he always does when he feels slighted. He vowed to prove them wrong.
“I’ll be back,” he told them. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back. I never took criticism as they don’t like me, I took criticism as I’ll show you. That’s always been my attitude.”
What Robinson did at Prairie View prepared him to lead Jackson State.
“When I showed up, we had 30-40 acres, a trailer and a basketball,” Robinson said with a chuckle. “When I left PV, every sport had a brand-new facility. All those facilities, I built. Not just football. Administration building, soccer, baseball and softball fields. We have a five-star track facility.
“I’ve always been a person who thought in order to be great, you have to do something that’s never been done before.”
In 2018, when Jackson State fired athletic director Wheeler Brown, Robinson’s work at Prairie View made him a leading candidate. Depending on the school, athletic directors are judged on their football and men’s basketball hires.
Well, then-head football coach Willie Simmons led Prairie View to consecutive winning seasons for the first time in 51 years, and went 21-11 in three seasons.
“He made some very impressive hires with the football program and Prairie View’s program became relevant in a way it hadn’t been since the ’60s or ’70s,” Cook said. “When I heard his name this particular time, I was excited.
“He knew the lay of the land. His drive. His vision.
“His energy level just brought something to the program we hadn’t seen in a long time.”
CREATING A VISION
Understand, nobody loves Jackson State more than Robinson.
The school has been intertwined with his life for as long as he can remember. He grew up in Jackson, attended athletic and academic camps at Jackson State as a kid and sold football programs at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium as an adolescent, while the Sonic Boom of the South band put on riveting halftime shows.
He had seen Jackson State at its apex and yearned to return the university to its glory days. Plus, he understood the city’s culture and what the football program meant to Jackson and central Mississippi.
Sixty thousand fans. The Sonic Boom band. The legacy. He had to accept the job when it was offered, right?
“At first I was, like, no. I did too much at PV, but my wife is from here. I’m from here. My mom and dad are from here,” Robinson said. “My wife’s mom and dad are from here. This is home.
“I was always hurt about that recruiting piece. My whole family went to Jackson State. I go to the family reunion and they say you went to Valley.”
Once he took the job, Jackson State’s power brokers were thrilled because they believed Robinson could unite the university’s many factions.
“He wasn’t flamboyant about what he did at Prairie View. He let his work speak for itself,” said Younger, a former Jackson State quarterback. “One of the biggest hires ever at Jackson State is hiring Ashley Robinson.”
But how long will he stay? Robinson’s phone rings often.
“What keeps me up at night is never what Ashley is going to do,” Cook said. “It’s what we’re going to do to keep him.”
But the program had a slew of issues, which is what happens when a university has four athletic directors in eight years.
Relationships with community and business leaders needed to be repaired. Trust between the athletic department and the community didn’t exist.
The football team wasn’t winning and didn’t even have an apparel contract, which is the most basic of sponsorship agreements.
When the football team thrives, enrollment and donations go up. Everything is better.
Along the way, Jackson State had forgotten that.
“We went through an administration the last seven years that didn’t understand how big football and athletics is at Jackson State,” Robinson said. “Not only did athletics suffer, the institution suffered.”
From 1971 to 1999, Jackson State won at least eight games 21 times, including 11 nine-win seasons. In 1978 and 1996, the Tigers won 10 games, the most in school history.
Since then, they’ve won as many as eight games three times, and the last occurred in 2013.
“We made some bad hires. They were good people, but they weren’t able to maintain the tradition that the university had,” Cook said. “It’s like any other business that goes down. Poor decisions, poor management and lack of resources.”
Rebuilding the athletic department and football program began with better communication and customer service. Communication means keeping fans and donors abreast of everything going on in the program through letters, social media and town hall meetings.
It’s about Robinson sharing his vision for the university and the athletic department with anyone who’ll listen, and giving everyone an opportunity to contribute to its success.
For example, Greg Manogin, a former Sonic Boom drum major, and 10 of his friends started the 1400 Klub in 2013 to provide football players with cleats, gloves and other accessories. Shortly after Robinson arrived, Manogin said, the 1400 Klub wanted to buy the team a set of white helmets.
Robinson told the 1400 Klub that if it could raise a certain amount, he’d take care of the rest. The 1400 Klub raised the money in two months, Robinson bought the helmets and then empowered the group to do even more.
He’s upgraded the travel, chartering planes for road games and occasionally taking teams to steakhouses for fine dining.
“Back in the day, 7-4, 8-3 wasn’t good enough. That’s the type of tradition we had,” Robinson said. “We became a loser. We had academic issues. We had APR [Academic Progress Rate] issues.
“We had compliance issues and it took the program all the way down because you had those administrations that didn’t understand Jackson State. They were just riding on the ride.
“We can’t do business the way we did 20 years ago when we had that success.”
Robinson’s strength is sharing his vision with alums, donors and community leaders.
Helping young men and women is at the epicenter of those conversations, followed quickly by explaining how everything that benefits Jackson State ultimately helps the community.
It’s a holistic approach that leads to trust and loyalty.
“I didn’t mind asking questions, didn’t mind setting up meetings, didn’t mind playing golf with you and explaining my vision,” Robinson said. “ ‘This is what I’m trying to do, can you help me?’
“A lot of people give, and they always say I gave to the institution, but I can’t tell you where my money went. It’s following back up and being responsible.”
That’s why within 72 hours of writing a check, a donor receives a letter from Robinson, Jackson State and, perhaps, the university president.
One of Robinson’s first moves as athletic director was renovating the women’s basketball locker room and meeting rooms.
He asked Miskelly Furniture, one of the state’s largest furniture chains, to help. It helps that CEO Oscar Miskelly used to watch Robinson play basketball in high school.
“He showed us his vision and we ended up donating all the furniture and some of the remodeling,” Miskelly said, “just because he painted a picture of what he wanted the program to be.”
Robinson’s goal is not to be the best HBCU in Mississippi. It’s to be better than Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi.
“He holds folks accountable. Partners. City officials. He thinks the Jackson State brand has value and he’s not going to shortchange it,” Cook said. “I told him he should’ve been a preacher because he gets people to believe in what he’s saying.”
Robinson said Jackson State has everything it needs to be the state’s finest institution. Hiring Sanders will help do it, because it gives the university a cachet that can’t be replicated.
The athletic program is already reaping benefits.
Sanders’ son, Shedeur, recently decommitted from Florida Atlantic and made a nonbinding verbal commitment to play for his dad. Shedeur Sanders, a quarterback, is the 60th-ranked player on the ESPN 300.
Last week, four-star girls basketball player Se’Quoia Allmond, an ESPN Top 70 player, committed to Jackson State over Power 5 programs such as Ole Miss, Kentucky and Kansas.
“When the buzz got out, the first word was there’s no way Ashley is gonna bring Deion to Jackson State,” Robinson said. “What people didn’t understand is Deion Sanders wanted to be at Jackson State.
“Everybody knows Deion Sanders. He’s not just going to take something just to take it.”
Robinson’s celebrations don’t last long. Another challenge always looms.
“We hired Deion. What’s the next step? It’s time to move on because we got this done,” he said. “Now, let’s make sure we’re giving him what he needs to be successful.
“A lot of people do one big thing and think they’re straight. We have a lot more work to do.”
He wants each of his 15 programs competing for championships.
But the bigger goal is to be known as the hometown kid who returned Jackson State to national prominence.
“It’s more than a job to me. It’s personal. Hiring Deion Sanders, coming back as athletic director. I ain’t fly here. I was raised here,” Robinson said. “This deal here is totally different than any job I’ve ever had.
“When you can get something going at home where you grew up, especially when you’ve been down, and your administration is the one that brought Jackson State back.
“A lot of people have told me Jackson State has been a sleeping giant. Well, I tell them the sleeping giant has been awakened and he’s ready to roll.”