Leaving Jackson State Is a Smart Coaching Move for Deion Sanders
Few head-coaching moves in college football have landed like the thunderbolt that struck when NFL legend Deion Sanders announced he was leaving HBCU member Jackson State for a job at the University of Colorado (CU). The Dec. 3 news comes after Sanders' three ultra-successful seasons at Jackson State, including an undefeated record heading into the Cricket Celebration Bowl on Dec. 17 against North Carolina Central.
The largest criticism of Sanders following the Colorado hire has been that he somehow betrayed Jackson State or "used" them in order to get a Power Five head coaching job, which defies the very conventions of logic. It couldn't be further from the truth.
What is the truth, then? Leaving Jackson State after three seasons was the right move for Deion Sanders. It's simply a natural progression in his coaching career.
'I Can Never Leave Who I Am'
The hot takes that criticized Sanders leaving Jackson State to become the head coach at the University of Colorado came in almost as fast as the man himself once was during his Hall of Fame playing career. Sanders, in typical fashion, addressed the criticism head-on at his introductory news conference in Boulder, Colorado.
"The thing that alarms me the most is, just because I’m leaving Jackson, they think that I’m leaving African Americans," Sanders said. "I don’t know if you noticed or not, but I’m Black. I can never leave who I am, or what I am, or how I go about being that. It is still my task to look in that locker room and see 65 to 70 percent of African American men trying to help them get to the next level as well as all the others. My calling is for young men, young women and people of all walks of life, social climates and all ethnicities. That’s my calling. My calling is not built on a location. It’s built on a destination."
Poignant stuff. Which Sanders, ever the self-promoter, was quick to point out to the assembled crowd. "Now that was good!" Sanders added. "You’re supposed to clap for that! We just started, and you’re already getting my good stuff!"
What Did Deion Sanders Do for Jackson State?
You can make an argument that behind Pro Football Hall of Famers Jackie Slater and the late Walter Payton, Deion Sanders became the single most important figure in Jackson State football history in his three seasons as head coach.
Sanders went 37-5 overall — 4-3 in 2022, 11-2 in 2021 and 12-0 in 2022 headed into the Tigers' bowl game. He won back-to-back SWAC championships in 2021 and 2022 and was the National FCS Coach of the Year in 2021, taking home the Eddie Robinson Award, named for the legendary Grambling State head coach.
Sanders' biggest moment at Jackson State came on the recruiting trail when the No. 1 player in the Class of 2022, Collins Hill (Georgia) High cornerback Travis Hunter, flipped his commitment from Florida State, Sanders' alma mater, and signed with Jackson State. It was the first time in history that the nation's No. 1 recruit signed with an HBCU.
College Coaches Don't Stay in One Place
There is an uncomfortable racial component that came with the criticism of Deion Sanders leaving Jackson State, an HBCU school on the FCS level, for CU, a Power Five Conference school in the Pac-12. If Sanders were white, this criticism wouldn't exist. We only need to look at the current college football landscape for examples of this hypocrisy.
Current Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman, who is white, spent four seasons at North Dakota State, also an FCS school, before he was hired as Kansas State's head coach in 2019. Klieman and Sanders had similar success on the FCS level. It was largely thought of as a solid-to-spectacular hire and has been validated with Klieman's recent success, winning a Big 12 Conference championship in 2022.
More recently, former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer was hired after four years as a high school coach at Lipscomb (Tennessee) Academy to be the new head coach at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, an FBS school. Dilfer, who is white, saw his hiring met with nothing resembling the criticism of Sanders being hired at Colorado. The hot takes on Dilfer? It was a "surprising" hire.
Here are some of the takes on Sanders going to Colorado:
Deion Sanders DID Leave Black People (Jason Whitlock)
Deion Sanders’ Rocky Mountain high is a low for Black colleges (The Guardian)
Deion Sanders’ pimping of Jackson State and HBCU culture is finally over (Deadspin)
See the difference?
Colorado Is Pretty Much a Blank Canvas
There is a saying in coaching circles — a warning, really — that it's always a good idea to steer clear of being the coach who follows a really great coach anywhere. You don't want to be the next head coach who follows Nick Saban at the University of Alabama, for example.
Deion Sanders will have no such problems at Colorado, a once proud program that has fallen on hard times — super hard times. Colorado's last five coaches dating back to 2006 have all left town with overall losing records: Dan Hawkins (16-33), Jon Embree (4-21), Mike MacIntyre (30-44), Mel Tucker (5-7) and Karl Dorrell (8-15).
The Buffs bottomed out in 2022, going 1-11 as Dorrell was fired midway through the season. And the program hasn't had a winning season since 2016. They also haven't won a bowl game since 2004. It's a long way from the heady days of the 1990s and early 2000s, which included a national championship in 1990 and a Heisman Trophy winner with running back Rashaan Salaam in 1994.
No Coincidence: Deion Sanders Hired 2 Days Before Transfer Portal Opened
Deion Sanders was officially announced as Colorado's new head coach with the caveat that he would continue to be Jackson State's head coach through their game in the Cricket Celebration Bowl on Dec. 17 against North Carolina Central.
Sanders, better than anyone, understood that whatever move he had to make needed to be done in that specific time frame. That's because the transfer portal opened on Dec. 5 — meaning college football players all around the country were able to announce their intentions to transfer, which NCAA players can now do one time with no penalty, whereas in the past you were required to sit out one year.
That timing gives Sanders access to all of the very best players across the country who need a new place to play, for whatever reason. He even told Colorado's current players to "enter the portal" if they needed to. No doubt to make room for the players he plans to bring in.
Also Not a Coincidence: Deion Sanders Hired 2 Weeks Before National Signing Day
Not only will Deion Sanders and the University of Colorado likely have their pick of the very best players out of the NCAA transfer portal, the timing of his hire also gives him enough time to flip some high-level recruits ahead of national signing day on Dec. 21.
That impact on recruiting players — for high school players — has already begun to show itself, most notably with the recruitment of Derby (Kansas) High senior running back Dylan Edwards, one of the most sought-after players in the country at his position.
Edwards' recruitment has been an odyssey in itself. He originally committed to play for Kansas State, where his father also played running back, picking the Wildcats over a group that actually included Jackson State. Edwards then decommitted from Kansas State and committed to Notre Dame.
On Dec. 8, Edwards announced he was going to decommit from Notre Dame and "sign elsewhere" on Dec. 21. Just days after, he announced on his Twitter account he'd received an offer from Colorado. Wonder where he'll sign?
'There’s Your Quarterback'
New Colorado head coach Deion Sanders ended what was already probably a moot debate at his introductory news conference when he pointed at his son, Jackson State quarterback Shedeur Sanders, and said, "There's your quarterback."
No surprise there. Shedeur was a senior in high school when his father was hired at Jackson State and followed him there despite offers from Florida, Florida State, Georgia and Alabama. Shedeur, 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, won the Jerry Rice Award as the top FCS freshman in the nation in 2021 after he threw for 3,231 yards, 30 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
As a sophomore in 2022, Shedeur was named SWAC Offensive Player of the Year after he threw for 3,383 yards, 36 touchdowns and six interceptions. The downside for Deion and the Buffs? He'll probably only be there for one season. He'll be eligible for the 2024 NFL draft after the 2023 season and is projected as a first-round pick.
Must Be The Money
There are worse things to do for your brand as a pro athlete than being associated with a gigantic bag of cash, which Deion Sanders did better than anyone during his playing career. He even put out a music video called "Must Be The Money" in 1994 that accompanied his lone solo album.
All of that is to say the man isn't going to turn down a huge contract if you offer him one. Sanders had a four-year, $1.2 million contract at Jackson State, of which he donated half of his salary to his assistant coaches. At Colorado, he has a reported five-year, $29.5 million contract, set to be approved by the Board of Regents.
Sanders' contract at Colorado includes some pretty sweet addendums — up to $2.5 million in annual bonuses ranging from Academic Progress Rates ($50,000) to winning a national championship ($750,000). It could wind up looking like a steal for Colorado if the Buffs start winning. Elite college football programs can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to their schools and conferences if they achieve on an elite level.
Can Deion Sanders Save the Pac-12?
Out of the Power Five Conferences, none has faced more turmoil over the last year than the Pac-12. If Colorado is successful under Deion Sanders, it could be the thing that ultimately saves the conference.
The Pac-12 Conference has been effectively dead in the water since the advent of the Bowl Championship Series era through the College Football Playoff era. The only title won by a Pac-12 school in that stretch was USC following the 2004 season, and its BCS Championship win in the 2005 Orange Bowl was later vacated by the NCAA.
In the CFP era, things haven't gotten any easier. The Pac-12 has placed a team in the national championship game just once when Oregon lost to Ohio State in the first CFP in 2014. They haven't had a team even selected for the CFP semifinals since the 2016 season, with Washington. Before the 2022 season, USC and UCLA announced they would be moving to the Big Ten beginning with the 2024 football season — a move that still needs to be signed off on by the California Board of Regents.
Here's where Deion Sanders and Colorado figure in. Should the Buffaloes become competitive right away, it's going to do a hell of a lot for the strength of schedule for all the schools in the Pac-12, meaning the likelihood of playing in the CFP is much greater. It helps everyone.
And if the Buffs are good right away, won't it look like USC and UCLA are running from the competition? That came to their own backyard.
Not a good look.