USA TODAY US Edition
Deion Sanders leaving Jackson State would be a Prime Time letdown
Don’t do it, Deion.
Or let me rephrase that: Don’t go just yet, Coach Prime.
Maybe you can’t blame Deion Sanders – the only coach in Jackson State history who won Super Bowl rings with two signature NFL franchises, played in a World Series and put a do-rag on his Hall of Fame bust as he was enshrined in Canton – if he accepts an offer from Colorado and takes Prime Time to the Rocky Mountains.
That’s the American way, right? Take the money and run. Start a new chapter on a new frontier.
I’m hoping he stays put, pretty much for the same reasons why he shocked the football universe in 2020 and signed on for his first college coaching job with Jackson State.
Sure, there’s some allure attached to leaping to a Power Five school for the challenge of reviving a moribund program. But really, Colorado needs Sanders and his allure – which includes national endorsements as a pitchman, buzz about reality TV shows and the general celebrity spotlight – more than he needs a school that has swung and missed on so many coaching hires in recent years.
They need him more at Jackson State, and in a bigger picture, he can make a more purposeful impact with his footprint on HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) culture – which has already been proved – than he can at Colorado or other schools that have expressed interest.
Remember, when Sanders went to Jackson State he told us that while he wanted to build a winning program, it was bigger than football.
It was a calling.
Now Sanders has declared that he won’t reveal a decision on his future before Jackson State (11-0) meets
Southern in the SWAC Championship Game on Saturday. If he leaves, having produced a record that currently stands at 23-5, he’ll be a lot like the typical coach who strikes while he’s hot and lands in greener pastures.
It’s just that Sanders has never been anybody’s typical, which in this case fuels hope for Jackson State that he will issue another strong message by staying.
No, in one sense, Sanders doesn’t owe JSU or the HBCU universe anything else. He came with a noble cause and in short order made HBCU football as relevant as it has ever been. When he came, JSU hadn’t had a game televised on ESPN since 1989. Now, not only have several games been featured on national broadcasts, in October, ESPN brought its coveted “College GameDay” show to campus.
That exposure is all part of the Prime Time factor, in addition to significant sponsorship deals. But it has been so challenging, as advertised, with basics such as the training facilities a far cry from what exists at Power Five schools. On top of that, JSU has been smack-dab in the middle of a shameful water crisis, shining a spotlight on basic quality-oflife challenges for residents in the state’s capital.
For all of his purpose, mission and the calling, Sanders has metaphorically parted the Red Sea. He has contributed to the cause like no one else could.
Before he began on the job, Sanders called Jackie Slater, one of the four JSU alums enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As Sanders told me during the spring of 2021, he promised the former tackle that he would make him proud of the program. Done.
Slater recalled Tuesday that he was so struck by the heart that Sanders possessed for the challenge – but also pointed out that Sanders never promised that JSU would be his last stop.
While Sanders mulls options, Slater won’t implore him to stay – as much as he wants the leadership that Sanders brings to remain at his alma mater. He realizes that regardless of what Sanders decides, he has delivered on his promise.
“I’m neutral,” Slater told USA TODAY Sports. “If he decides to leave, it would be unfortunate for us. But he hasn’t tried to hide the fact that he would entertain any and all offers. It’s a personal decision.”
Here’s what we can expect from Sanders: He’ll do it his way ... which says so much about why he’s in this particular here-and-now moment.
“Don’t tell me what we can’t do, tell me what we can,” Sanders told USA TODAY Sports during an extended interview in his office in April 2021.
With his signature confidence, he also talked about “pushing barriers” and how listening to a voice in his head and spirit led him to take on the enormous challenge.
“It was very easy for me to set my mind on it and say, ‘OK, let me start thinking of why I’ve got to do this,’ ” he said. “The kids. The community. The vision. The promise. The hope.”
He always knew it wasn’t a typical coaching job, which was seemingly part of the draw.
“Man, it’s so much more than coaching,” he said. “You’ve got to be Tyler Perry around here, man. You’ve got to write the movie, produce the movie, edit the movie, act in the movie, sell the movie. You’ve got a lot of hats to wear.”
Sanders suggested that I take a drive around the neighborhoods adjacent to Jackson State’s campus. It was urban blight, as it’s called, with the impoverished residential and business zones in need of redevelopment. He hoped that he could impact that, too.
“There’s a lot of revitalization that I would love to do,” he said. “I would love to get with a tremendous contractor and revitalize all of this around the school. One has to care that much about us here, and not try to escape it and seclude ourselves and discharge ourselves from the reality of life. We talk about pride. We’ve got to take care of our communities.”
He finished the point by adding, “God ain’t going to bless no mess, man. We’ve got to be diligent.”
I’m guessing that Sanders still has the heart attached to lofty, inspiring visions that go so far beyond the normal job description of a football coach. It’s unclear whether that will have anything to do with the current decision facing his future.
He also knew in his heart when he arrived at Jackson State that other schools would come calling – especially after he established a winning program. Of course, that’s typical in the coaching landscape.
Even before he got off the ground at Jackson State, Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre planted a seed about jumping to Favre’s alma mater, Southern Miss. Sanders laughed during the 2021 interview as he recalled that exchange.
“‘Brett, I can’t do that. Not right now. My mind is here,’ ” Sanders said. “It was one of those things where it was a calling and I had to answer.”
Here’s to hoping the calling hasn’t expired. When asked in 2021 how long he expected to be on the job, Sanders insisted at that time that he wasn’t thinking about it because he had such a responsibility to his kids – meaning his players, including his sons, star quarterback Shedeur and safety Shilo.
Then he paused and answered the question succinctly. When would he leave?
“When I’m done,” Sanders said. Yet that was then. And this is now.