Deion Sanders has never worried about his next employer. Or his next opportunity.
He didn’t do it as a professional football or baseball player. He didn’t do it as a TV personality after retiring as arguably the best cornerback in NFL history.
And he’s certainly not going to do it as Jackson State’s football coach.
Sanders tells anyone and everyone that he lives in the moment, allowing him to fully embrace it.
Sanders says God guides his movements, and he’s in no hurry to leave JSU, especially with two sons — Shedeur and Shilo — starting on a team that won a school-record 11 games last season.
“I don’t have to go nowhere to feel my worth,” Sanders told Andscape. “I’m Prime. Whether I’m here or whether I’m there, I don’t have to go somewhere to get that feeling, and I feel really good where I’m at.
“I’m one of those types of cats where I have to dominate my moments, man. This is my moment and I’m dominating. I’m bodying that thing and I love it.”
Still, there’s a vibe in college football that it’s only a matter of time until Sanders leaves JSU for a Power 5 job.
That’s because he’s turned JSU’s moribund program into the highest-profile FCS job in the country by demanding excellence in every aspect of the team and the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), and becoming a catalyst for change for all historically Black college and university (HBCU) football programs.
None of that happens, though, without winning.
He’s already a proven winner
In his first full season at JSU, Sanders led the Tigers to their first SWAC title since 2007. He was named FCS Coach of the Year, and Shedeur Sanders was named FCS Freshman of the Year.
South Carolina State upset JSU 31-10 in the Cricket Celebration Bowl, motivating Sanders to put together the nation’s best FCS recruiting class, which is why he believes next season’s team will be even better.
Cornerback Travis Hunter, the No. 2-rated player in the ESPN 300, highlights the class along with Kevin Coleman, the 62nd-ranked player.
Sanders’ success at JSU has led FBS athletic directors to view him as a viable coaching option, which hasn’t always been the case.
For this article, college administrators and other industry sources connected to coaching hires talked openly about Sanders after Andscape agreed that their names would not be used.
They said that Sanders will be a formidable candidate for Power 5 jobs in future coaching cycles. Administrators and industry sources view Sanders as a perfect coach for Generation Z kids, those born between 1997-2012, who have grown up in a social media world where the newest phone or Instagram followers create cachet.
Sanders has interviewed with several Power 5 programs in the past few years. At some point, the right opportunity will present itself.
“In my office, there’s a saying on the wall that says, ‘I do what I love and I love what I do,’ and wherever my feet are that’s where I am. I can’t say it no better.
“My AD [athletic director Ashley Robinson] and I know there are going to be opportunities, but I’m good. I’m really good. I’m happy. I’m elated. I’m still sitting here daily trying to figure out how to improve this or that for these kids. That’s our challenge. It ain’t about me. It’s about these kids and their experience.”
Sanders is considered a player-centric leader who will use the power of his personality, the transfer portal, social media, and name, image and likeness deals to build a powerful program.
“The timing for him is excellent because you have all these external forces that are not as traditional,” a Group of 5 athletic director said. “The ability to understand the branding, his external way. He is ‘Prime Time,’ and the kids really do gravitate to that.
“He’s got a social media presence, and the portal right now is about that flavor.”
Sanders has 1.2 million Twitter followers and 2.2 million on Instagram.
More importantly, he regularly interacts with his followers. His isn’t some corporate account created to pitch products.
Now, he does do that occasionally, but Sanders also uses his platform to send out spiritual messages and words of encouragement regularly.
He also uses it as a recruiting tool because he’s always looking for some “dawgs” who are fast, smart, tough, physical and have character.
Facebook is where you find a recruit’s parents because it’s for an older audience. The same goes for Twitter. Instagram appeals to a younger audience, including players, and so does Snapchat.
“You have to understand your audience and who you’re playing to,” Sanders said. “I’ve always understood that, knew how to work it and how to really speak to the people I’m trying to reach.
“More coaches don’t feel like they need that approach because they have more resources. I can’t land a helicopter on the practice field at a high school or take a private jet to reach three or four high schools in a particular day. I don’t have those resources, but I can Zoom call four mamas expeditiously and make them feel like I’m there.”
Players gravitate toward Sanders and JSU because he understands their world and respects it.
He’s the kind of coach who has numbers for rappers Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg in his phone. Rapper Young Dolph celebrated in JSU’s victorious locker room a few weeks before he was killed in November 2021.
But he’s the same coach who threatened to bench any player he saw on a cellphone in the locker room an hour before the opener against Florida A&M in the Orange Blossom Classic.
And he’s notorious for sending players off the practice field if their socks are too high, too low or the wrong color.
Yet, he understands today’s athletes and what they like.
So Jackson State has five uniforms and five helmets. Next season, the Tigers expect matching cleats for all of their uniforms, just like Notre Dame and South Carolina.
Sanders demanded it after he saw other schools had it last year.
JSU is one of the few HBCU programs with a dining hall for athletes and the Tigers will have a new locker room before the season begins, complete with TVs above every locker.
He’s demanding, and his attention to detail — the same trait that made him a Hall of Fame cornerback — means he misses little. Whenever an idea pops into his head, he calls Robinson.
“Having a brother who’s open and understanding and smart himself. That’s what makes it go,” Sanders said. “If it wasn’t like this, it wouldn’t go and I’d be gone. I wouldn’t even deal with it.
“It has to be the right situation. I couldn’t just work with anybody.”
A personality bigger than the game
Sanders is the face of JSU’s program, just like he’s been the face of most NFL teams he ever represented. And he’s going to be the face of any Power 5 program he takes over, just like Nick Saban is the face of Alabama and Dabo Swinney is the face of Clemson.
“It isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” that same Group of 5 athletic director said. “It’s that way at Alabama [with Saban]. It was that way at USC with Pete Carroll.
“There’s some coaches that just run it differently, and you can win 20 different ways in college football. With Deion, it’s going to be about him.”
It’s about coaches in college football and the players in pro football.
“When we talk about fit, part of that is personality and style, and Deion’s gonna be Deion,” an industry source said. “He’s not making any apologies. He is who he is, and he’s a great coach, but I don’t necessarily think it’s one-size-fits-all everywhere. It’s just going to take the right AD and president and program.”
Robinson is the right man at JSU because Sanders respects his acumen and work ethic. Robinson had a proven track record of success at Prairie View A&M before becoming JSU’s athletic director.
Like Sanders, he believes in change. And like Sanders, he’s a man who wants things completed now.
“We have to take advantage of the moment,” Robinson said. “Trust me, Coach don’t have to be here.”
The question is whether he would leave only for certain FBS programs or if a midlevel Power 5 or strong Group of 5 job would tempt him.
“What’s he willing to do?” an industry source said. “If it’s not Florida State, Georgia, Clemson, is he willing to take a TCU, a Texas Tech, an Indiana? People would be dumb not to look at the guy because he’s doing a lot with nothing.”
Sanders and Robinson are demanding of others and themselves. And they surround themselves with folks who are equally committed to winning and excellence.
It’s why each of them says they’ve accomplished so much in their first 14 months together at Jackson State when it comes to upgrading the facilities and the program.
“My heart is where I am. That’s why we’re so successful. We do it for real. These kids are on my mind while I’m at the crib, when I go to bed, when I wake up,” Sanders said. “If something ain’t right, I’m hitting AD, ‘Check this for me, man.’
“It’s all about the kids. AD, when we gonna have the locker room fixed? AD, when are we going to do this? AD, we need a walkway going to the practice field. Let’s change the landscape.
“That’s why God blesses us. That’s why God touches us. That’s why parents are attracted to us. It’s almost like now we have the blue check mark. It’s like we’ve been verified.”
Another Power 5 athletic director said Sanders’ success at JSU has been impressive because he’s more than just a head coach.
Sanders compares himself with Tyler Perry, the creator and performer of the Madea character. Perry writes, directs, produces and acts in his films and live stage plays.
Sanders ran a youth sports organization, named Truth, in Dallas for a decade, which prepared him for what he’s doing now.
“This is not just some sort of marketing facade,” the athletic director said. “He knows every aspect of the program. At Jackson State, he’s the head coach. He’s the general manager. He’s the equipment guy. He’s the marketing guy — he’s doing it all.
“It’s not like he just shows up in his limo, poses for a few pictures and blows the whistle.”
“My hands are in everything,” Sanders said. “I mean from the ordering of uniforms to how we film practice to what I want to see on social media from practice to what the bus we’re using has on the side of it.”
Sanders interviewed twice for Arkansas’ head-coaching job after the 2019 season. He impressed athletic director Hunter Yurachek, who ultimately hired Georgia assistant Sam Pittman.
In 2021, Yurachek told ESPN that Sanders needed more time in college football to put together an SEC-ready staff.
Sanders’ next staff will be larger at any Power 5 program than what he has at Jackson State. So will his budget.
His Rolodex is deep. Sanders doesn’t think putting a staff together will be an issue for him. Former NFL defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, who coached Sanders in Baltimore, is JSU’s defensive coordinator.
“Athletic directors don’t want to hear, ‘Hey, I’m just going to bring all my staff from Jackson State or I’m going to just bring all my buddies,’ ” an industry source said. “They want to hear, ‘Who are our coordinators going to be? Who is our recruiting coordinator, strength and conditioning coach, and why are they a good fit for our place?’
“The more detailed your plan is for a guy like Deion, who hasn’t been doing it for a long time, the more impressed that athletic director will be.”
Actually, most coaches hire their friends or friends of friends. They want to hire people they trust because so much is at stake.
A Power 5 athletic director thinks Sanders could use his connections with agents to help compile a strong staff. All FBS head coaches and many assistants use agents to help fill positions.
A Group of 5 athletic director said Sanders could attract quality assistants who otherwise wouldn’t entertain working in college football, especially if it’s not a tier one program.
The lingering concerns with Sanders mostly revolve around his authentic persona and style. Conservative athletic directors or those caught up in the narrative of Prime Time instead of his substance as a coach won’t want him.
“At this level, you don’t want to deal with pains,” a Power 5 athletic director said. “I’m not saying he’s a pain in the ass, but it’s just not worth it with everything going on.”
Sanders has the luxury to pick his next job. He’s working because he enjoys the challenge of coaching — not because he needs the money.
He’s not leaving JSU unless the next job is perfect.
“This don’t enhance my lifestyle,” he said. “Whether I’m here or not, my lifestyle is my lifestyle. …
“Now, it will enhance my coaches, so that thought process is definitely there because those are my guys.”
An industry source added that potential employers would have to accept some distractions with Sanders as a head coach because he’s the kind of man who says what’s on his mind and can be brutally honest.
“Somebody will take a shot at it,” a Power 5 athletic director said. “It will be interesting to see who does, and who puts up with the circus. You’ve got to understand the circus comes with it.
“The off-the-field piece is going to be the hard part. No AD or president will want to take him to a donor or trustee meeting if he’s got his hat on sideways and chains. Because he can button it up. He’s put suits on before and done the part, but does he want to do that. There could be some polishing that some ADs and presidents would want to have.”
This is the kind of double standard Black coaches must deal with that white coaches don’t have to address. Would an athletic director ever wonder aloud whether a white coach would dress appropriately for a meeting?
Sanders has spoken to dozens of CEOs over the years, many of whom ran companies and wanted him to endorse their products.
To suggest he doesn’t know how to dress for a business meeting is laughable.
“They understand the authenticity that I bring,” Sanders said of the CEOs he’s worked with over the years. “They understand the genuineness, the trueness, the realness, the compassion that I have for our country and the community I’m in.
“I’m not just coaching but mentoring, fathering, leading and they get it. They get it.”
The anxiety for some university administrators might be eased by recent coaching hires of other prominent ex-athletes with limited experience overseeing teams.
Several sources who spoke to Andscape mentioned Memphis’ hire of basketball coach Penny Hardaway, a four-time NBA All-Star who had only coached high school and AAU ball before returning to his alma mater.
In April 2021, Tennessee State hired Heisman Trophy winner and NFL All-Pro Eddie George as its head football coach even though he had no formal experience.
“You’re seeing more [prominent ex-athletes] getting opportunities, so it makes it less trailblazer-ish,” a Power 5 athletic director said. “I don’t know if I’d get the same blowback because you just see it a little more.”
But Sanders’ early success at Jackson State, not only on the field but in recruiting, has changed how he’s seen.
“Before this, I was like, ‘No chance, Deion, there’s just too much there with Prime Time,’ ” the athletic director said. “But now I’m kind of like, maybe we have him at the bottom of the list in a little bucket that’s like, ‘This is interesting.’ ”
After reaching the highest levels as a player, Sanders won’t compromise his coaching ambitions.
“There’s going to be somebody who takes a chance on him someday, and it’s going to be magic in a bottle,” a Power 5 athletic director said. “His goal is to be the first Black coach to win the national championship, and I’m telling you, he has the best chance to do it.”
And when the opportunity presents itself, whenever that occurs, Sanders said, he’ll be ready.
“I trust God. I’m God’s guy. He’s always had me. He was with me when I wasn’t with him,” Sanders said. “Why wouldn’t I trust him now? I always end up winning some kind of way.”