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NFL legend Deion Sanders is now head football coach at Jackson State University, a Mississippi HBCU.
Ahead of Sanders' first season, Michael Strahan and Men's Wearhouse made custom suits for the team.
Sanders and Strahan told Insider about how they hoped to support "underappreciated" HBCU programs.
Deion Sanders and Michael Strahan have more in common than the gold jackets hanging in their closets.
The NFL legends and Pro Football Hall of Famers are both committed to bringing historically Black colleges and universities - or HBCUs - the recognition and resources they deserve.
Motivated by the murder of George Floyd, Sanders decided to take his first job as a collegiate head coach at the Mississippi HBCU Jackson State University. Strahan - an alumnus of an HBCU - is a strong proponent of his alma mater, Texas Southern University, as well as the network of more than 100 HBCUs across the US. He told Insider that he was "extremely happy" to see Sanders take a coaching role in his former athletic conference and was eager to assist however he could.
Sanders wanted his entire team dressed to the nines for their first game day - in accordance with the swagger and flamboyance baked into his "Prime Time" nickname. (He's now "Coach Prime," in line with his new role.) Strahan - who launched his own brand in 2015 alongside business partner and SMAC Entertainment cofounder Constance Schwartz-Morini - is the kind of suave dresser Sanders thought could help.
"He's one of the sharpest guys on television, if not the sharpest guy on television," Sanders told Insider on a call that also included Strahan. "Please don't tell him I said that."
Strahan is a longtime partner of Men's Wearhouse and has his own line of suits through the brand. He was well-positioned to make the Tigers players and coaching staff look dapper ahead of their Orange Blossom Classic matchup against Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.
So Strahan hooked up every player and coach with custom suits.
'If you look good, you feel good'
Sanders had plenty of other challenges to address when he arrived on campus; the team didn't have enough helmets, nor did the school have a suitable practice field. It's not an uncommon situation for HBCUs, Sanders said - he described the programs to Insider as "often overlooked and underfunded."
Once those issues were addressed, Sanders made travel attire a priority. After all, he abides by the motto, "If you look good, you feel good" - which is now plastered on the walls inside Jackson State's football facilities.
"I know somebody who prides themselves on looking good and feeling good," Sanders said. "And he lives it. He embodies it. And he is a dear friend, and he has a lot of money - let me pick up a phone and call this guy: Michael Strahan."
Strahan was receptive to the idea. But in typical Prime Time fashion, Sanders wanted to take his team's garb to the next level. A self-described extremist, Sanders decided to "forget off-the-rack," Strahan said. He said he wanted instead to design custom suits for his players and coaching staff.
"We're going to go and do it Coach Prime's way," Strahan said. "We're going to change every button, every pocket, every seam. We're going to do the collar and the inside. We're going to do everything to it."
Schwartz-Morini - the CEO and managing partner of SMAC Entertainment, a talent-management company that represents both Strahan and Sanders - wasn't surprised by Sanders' fastidiousness.
"If you know who Prime Time is," she said. "You know these aren't your average suits."
Crafting custom suits for more than 100 people
Schwartz-Morini tapped Koral Chen, who works in business development for SMAC and the Strahan brand, to lead the effort. Chen liaised between Sanders and the Men's Wearhouse staff as the flamboyant, fashion-forward coach developed his designs. Then she worked with the brand to iron out the logistics of outfitting roughly 150 people.
"The hardest part was that no detail went unseen by Deion," Chen told Insider.
Chen and Men's Wearhouse facilitated an on-campus pop-up shop for the fittings, with a team of tailors taking measurements.
Despite working under a time crunch, the tailors also made a point "to do it in a way that makes every individual feel really special," according to Carolyn Pollock, the chief marketing officer of Men's Wearhouse's parent company, Tailored Brands Inc.
Mission accomplished, according to Coach Prime.
"They just felt so wonderful," Sanders said. "You should've seen their faces. They lit up when they walked into that room. ... It was phenomenal."
The suits are meant to build confidence on and off the field
When Jackson State's team touched down in Miami on Wednesday ahead of its highly anticipated matchup, the Tigers - donning their new suits - exuded the bravado famously ascribed to their coach. Sanders even likened the custom suits to his golden Hall of Fame jacket, a reminder that "you earned it - you did the doggone thing."
Strahan, who wears a suit from the same line every morning on "Good Morning America," said he thought a clean look like that "gives you a sense of confidence and a sense of pride."
"When you're wearing those suits with a team, it's a sense of community," he said. "You have a frame of mind that you're going into this game to be accountable to each other from the beginning."
Strahan added: "And accountability and teamwork are the only way you win."
All this is especially important at HBCUs, Strahan said, where sports programs are often "underappreciated."
"I want to build so much pride in these HBCU kids that when they step out into the world after their football career - or during their football career if they're fortunate enough to go to the next level - that you have other kids who see it and want to be a part of it, too," he said.
Plus, Schwartz-Morini added, the suits may come in handy after college: "If they can feel this good in a suit for a game, how good are they going to feel in the suit for a job?"
Sanders and his team are increasing the spotlight on HBCUs, Strahan said
Jackson State's outfitting endeavor has prompted other schools - HBCUs and Power Five programs alike - to inquire about hookups of their own. Pollock said Men's Wearhouse hoped this wouldn't be "just a one-off."
"We're trying to figure out how we do that in a way that ... allows us to scale and do it more efficiently," she said. "We're pretty excited that we'll be able to bring this to more people."
Sanders' main focus now, though, is leading his team against Florida A&M. The Orange Blossom Classic was once seen as an unofficial championship game for HBCU football programs. But the event lost momentum in the 1960s after the end of segregation led many Black players to take their talents to schools besides HBCUs.
Eventually, the historic game stopped altogether.
Now, for the first time since 1978, the game will go on. This Sunday, Jackson State will play in front of thousands at Miami's Hard Rock Stadium, where the NFL's Miami Dolphins play their home games.
"To actually now turn on ESPN - and I'm talking about the main one - and see HBCUs speaks volumes," Strahan said.
To Sanders, he added: "This all happened once you started."
Sanders is uncharacteristically bashful when credited with bringing new attention to HBCU sports. But his decision to coach at Jackson State did seem to influence other former pros. The former Tennessee Titans star Eddie George subsequently took the helm at Tennessee State, and Sanders said NFL stars like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have expressed interest in coaching at HBCUs, too.
As a product of an HBCU, Strahan knows the influence these coaches can have on their players and the communities around them. When Sanders took the coaching job, Strahan added, "I knew exactly what those kids were getting."
"They were getting someone who had picked themselves up and become successful to the highest level in anything and everything that they've ever decided that they wanted to do," he said. "And they were going to be able to see that person in the flesh."
He added: "That's one thing that you miss at an HBCU sometimes.
"You miss actually seeing that person in the flesh, that person there to encourage you, to guide you and do what's best for you with no agenda other than making you as best as you can be."
Read the original article on Insider