Whoever might hire Deion Sanders will have to put up with the reality of their new coach being bigger than the athletic director, bigger than the president, maybe bigger than the governor. Certainly bigger than life. This, of course, would be nothing new for Sanders or college football.
The game is used to outsized celebu-coaches wielding outsized power. Sanders would be no different than the likes of Bear Bryant, Tom Osborne, Barry Switzer, Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney in that regard.
There are two minor details necessary to understand as part of this evaluation/projection. Sanders, 55, still has a job, and he has far less experience than those legends listed above.
However, in his third year at Jackson State, Coach Prime has become a central figure in the next coaching carousel -- to the point that those involved in the process of vetting the next big-time coaches are speaking openly about his prospects.
"Even if he wasn't a hall of famer, there is no one like him," said NFL agent Chris Cabbot, who helped negotiate Patrick Mahomes' record $500 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs. "He's just a monster personality dripping with swag. Obviously, when he goes into a home, a kid may not know who he is. The dad, if he is a football fan, is like, 'This dude was like the G.O.A.T.'"
Prime Time has always been ready. The question is whether major-college football is ready for Sanders, who seems prepared to make the jump to a Power Five job.
Sanders' name popped up prominently at his alma mater Florida State before Mike Norvell started 4-0 this season with the Seminoles. Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek recounted to CBS Sports how he interviewed Sanders twice in late 2019 for the Razorbacks' opening.
"He was incredibly impressive," Yurachek said.
It's trending toward Sanders being something more than a mention in this hiring cycle. With five Power Five openings already and more to come, it's impressive that a well-known celebrity -- forget his football accomplishments -- will be considered a legitimate candidate with only 25 games of FCS coaching experience to this point.
"From my perspective, I don't think there's an AD in the country that hasn't thought about what it would be like to bring Prime Time to their campus," said DeLaina Jordan, a senior associate at the Parker Executive Search in Atlanta. Parker might be the preeminent college coaching search firm.
Before hiring current coach Sam Pittman, Yurachek interviewed Sanders as a favor to agent Jordan Bazant, who at the time was representing both Sanders and Hogs basketball coach Eric Musselman.
"What impressed me about Deion the most and made me go back the second time was he was prepared," Yurachek said. "There was attention to detail. He knew things about our team, knew things about potential recruits and guys we were recruiting at the time. He had a game plan for moving our program forward."
Sanders' future intentions haven't been completely clear after an impressive 20-5 start at Jackson State that has included a little bit of everything Neon Deion.
- In his first full season (2021), Sanders won 11 games and guided Jackson State to its first SWAC title since 2007.
- He coached son Shedeur Sanders, who was named FCS National Freshman of the Year. Coach Prime said last week that his son, currently third in FCS passing, should be considered for the Heisman Trophy. "When you put his numbers up against those guys in the Power Five, he is doing as much if not more than they are doing right now," Sanders said during a media conference call.
- Sanders called out Saban earlier this year for alleging Jackson State paid $1 million to top recruit Travis Hunter. Saban later apologized to his partner in insurance commercial stardom.
- Alabama State coach Eddie Robinson Jr. said there was "disrespect the whole week" from Sanders prior to last Saturday's game. Robinson what he called "a bro hug" from Sanders afterward. Robinson was also upset at what he perceived was Sanders trying to run up the score in the final seconds of a 26-12 Tigers victory.
"We didn't talk in the pregame," Robinson said. "I was out there the whole time at the 50-yard line. He walked through our whole huddle in our end zone. Came the long way around to get to his side of the field in the pregame. Thought that wasn't classy at all. In the postgame, I'm not about to give you the [President Barack] Obama bro hug. I'm gonna shake your hand and go on. I'm always gonna be respectful and respect the game. ... I'm living on the shoulders of the SWAC. He ain't SWAC. I'm SWAC." Robinson added: "I hope he comes back next year I pray he don't get a Power Five job so we can play them next year in Jackson. And I pray they put us for their homecoming."
That exchange has lingered since Saturday, shining a different light on what Sanders is as a coach, what he wants and how it will shape his future.
"Coaches get mad at each other all the time," said Gene DeFilippo, managing director of Turnkey, another industry-leading college search firm. "We're in a very competitive business. A lot of times we take things out of context. We always come back. You remember it's not about you; it's about those kids that you're coaching. You have to check your ego at the door. You have to take care of those kids."
Has there ever been this level of combined hall-of-fame-talent, media darling, pop-culture phenomenon and product endorser drawing a pension from both MLB and the NFL anywhere, let alone the coaching profession? The answer is a resounding, "No."
The question now is what's next for this icon who got into coaching to help promote HBCUs -- historically black colleges and universities. Those schools had been marginalized in football since the sport was integrated beginning in the 1960s.
Sanders' mission has been laudable. He has advocated for an HBCU playing in a bowl. His presence at that level has filled stadiums. Two sons are playing for the Tigers. While a resolution to back the building of a new stadium for JSU isn't yet putting a shovel in the ground, it is further evidence of Deion's momentum.
It's going to take a special set of circumstances to hire Sanders away.
"Guys like him are usually living comfortably somewhere," Cabbot said. "What drives him?"
"Obviously, he knows the game of football, but he had never been a college football coach [before 2020]," Yurachek said. "That's one of the things he needed to get experience at a place like Jackson State. Manage a team, manage a program and do all the things that go with that because sometimes the football piece is somewhat secondary."
Being a CEO coach is no shame. Sanders' college coach, Bobby Bowden, was probably the most famous of those. Saint Bobby was blessed with recruiting chops and coordinators who stayed with him for years. North Carolina's Mack Brown could have the same label.
Somewhere in the South might be a good place for Sanders' next step up, one former Power Five administrator speculated. Perhaps at Ole Miss or Mississippi State, if either of those ever came open. Don't expect that to be the case this year or perhaps anytime soon.
It seems Auburn will open sometime soon. Could Sanders thrive in a cloying environment where shadowy forces like to meddle, or is that perhaps too great of a step? Georgia Tech already is open. Would Sanders be interested in returning to the city where he was a megastar after being drafted by the Falcons (1989-93) and playing for the Braves (1991-94) during some of his prime years as a professional athlete?
It remains to be seen whether Sanders' involvement in the Prime Prep Academy will affect his opportunities. The Dallas-area school closed after 2 ½ years for being in debt more than $650,000. Several persons sued the school. Sanders pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor after allegedly choking the school's CFO, according to the Washington Post.
"I gotta believe there are college presidents that would say no [to hiring Sanders]," said a Power Five administrator.
Whether it's Sanders or any other up-and-coming coach, the hiring math has changed. ADs are increasingly impatient for on-field success, perhaps as a result of being increasingly pliable to delivering large buyouts. Access to name, image and likeness funds must become a priority with all coaches these days. The question: When does hiring Sanders become a priority?
"Most ADs get at least two attempts to hire a coach," Jordan said. "Now, it's just not like that. That hesitancy may be there in terms of what exactly Deion needs to do. People are considering him, but the hardest part is the body of work."
As a player, that body of work is legendary. From 1985-88, Sanders basically introduced the term "shutdown corner" to the game at Florida State. With his durag flapping from underneath his helmet, Sanders spent 14 NFL seasons mesmerizing fans with his flashy style and playing his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 1989, he became the first athlete to ever hit an MLB home run and score an NFL touchdown in the same week. In 1992, he attempted to play an NFL game and MLB playoff game in the same day. (He sat on the bench for the Braves in the latter contest.)
As a coach, his legend has grown quickly. He landed the FCS's top recruiting class before he'd coached a game at Jackson State. Now that he has coached 25 of them, do we have enough data for a proper evaluation of Coach Prime?
"I think it's inevitable," Yurachek said. "I think someone is going to give him an opportunity to lead their Power Five program."