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Colorado coaching candidate profile: Deion Sanders

Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders
Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders (AP Images)
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Since Colorado fired Karl Dorrell on Oct. 2, one question hung over the Buffs, even as they played out the rest of their 2022 schedule – who would they turn to next to lead their program?

A slew of candidates have been suggested by any number of media outlets, satiating an unquenchable thirst that exists for the intrigue of the coaching carousel. We’ve done it ourselves, with two coaching hot boards that included roughly two dozen different possibilities between them.

With Colorado’s season now over and the search seemingly nearing its end, especially as other schools with vacancies have made hires, it’s time to move past some of the peripheral options and take a more thorough look at some of the biggest, most viable contenders for the position.

We’ll start today with the glitziest name on the list: Deion Sanders.

The resume

Current position: Jackson State head coach

Age: 55

Years of head-coaching experience: 3

Career record: 26-5

Accomplishments of note: Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, nine-time All Pro, two-time Super Bowl champion, 1994 NFL defensive player of the year, 2021 SWAC coach of the year, 2021 FCS Eddie Robinson national coach of the year, 2021 SWAC championship

Why it makes sense

Of all the potential hires, none would give Colorado the kind of spark that the program so desperately needs after languishing for the better part of two decades.

Going beyond what might happen on the field, hiring Sanders would instantly make Colorado one of the most relevant teams nationally, even if the Buffs take a year or two to work their way into Pac-12 contention. He’s one of the greatest cornerbacks to ever play and one of the most iconic players of his era. Between the “Coach Prime” moniker, the gold whistle and the swag that’s not quite matched by anyone else roaming a college football sideline, Sanders has a profile that’s unlike anyone else coaching the sport, the kinds of things that land him on magazine covers and as a 60 Minutes profile subject.

Of course, those aren’t necessarily attributes that lead to wins. Ultimately, that’s what Colorado wants, right? Well, Sanders might just be able to provide that, too, if his brief coaching career has provided any indication.

He has posted back-to-back 11-win seasons at Jackson State, a historically Black university in Jackson, Miss. In his time at the school, his teams have gone 26-5. In the three seasons before Sanders was hired, the Tigers’ combined record was 12-21. This season, Jackson State is 11-0 heading into Saturday’s SWAC championship against Southern and is ranked fifth nationally in the FCS. His current team is explosive offensively (ranking eighth in FCS in points per game, with 37.5) and stingy defensively (ranking first in FCS in points allowed per game, with 10.1).

Those stellar on-field results speak to his coaching acumen, sure, but also to the talent he has managed to stockpile in Jackson. Sanders’ son, Shedeur, is among the best quarterbacks in the country at any level, with 3,083 yards, 32 touchdowns and six interceptions as a sophomore this season. He can recruit well outside of his own family, too. Last December, Jackson State signed wide receiver/cornerback Travis Hunter, the No. 1 ranked prospect nationally in the 2022 class who spurned offers from Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Florida State, among many others.

That success raises a natural question – if he can recruit talent that effectively at Jackson State, what might he be able to do at a Power Five program? Along with his fame, it’s a central part of his appeal.

There’s reason to believe Colorado could put forth a compelling pitch. The school has already reportedly made an offer that would make him one of the highest-paid coaches in the Pac-12, according to 247Sports. It would represent a significant raise from the $300,000 a year he earns at Jackson State, though for someone with Sanders’ NFL experience and wealth, that may not matter quite as much as it would to other coaches. It would give him a chance to compete in one of the sport’s biggest conferences, one with a path to the College Football Playoff that should theoretically get more manageable once USC and UCLA leave for the Big Ten.

The rebuilding process under Sanders might only be so long and arduous. The advent of the one-time transfer exemption has made restocking a roster to compete immediately easier than ever under the right coach and in Sanders’ case, he could bring along some of his stars at Jackson State with him to Boulder, like his son and Hunter.

A Sanders hiring at Colorado would do more than just create excitement – it would likely be extremely lucrative for the athletic department, from season-tickets sales to merchandise to donations to the program. Sanders is an adept fundraiser himself, having secured private donations from Walmart to build Jackson State a sorely-needed new practice field and pitching in some of his own money to complete a new football facility. The extra attention paid to the program and its coach would almost certainly increase NIL opportunities for players and recruits, distinguishing Colorado and making it a more attractive destination.

For the first time in some time, the Buffs would have a clear and unmistakable identity.

Why it doesn’t

There was a reason Sanders wasn’t included among the candidates in the two coaching hot boards we have posted over the past six weeks – frankly, and with all due respect, I thought he would have better options than Colorado for the next step in his coaching journey.

Those more appealing suitors haven’t emerged during this coaching cycle, at least not yet, but that shouldn’t underscore the fact that Sanders can afford, quite literally, to be patient and wait for the right opportunity. In fact, he might be smart to do so. There’s little reason to believe his success at Jackson State will dissipate, particularly as many of his best players are only freshmen or sophomores. Sanders isn’t some anonymous FCS coach who needs to strike while the iron is hot. As long as his teams keep winning at a reasonably strong clip, people aren’t going to be forgetting about him. If those wins keep piling up, his name will continue to be thrown around for Power Five jobs, many of which will be in better, more stable situations than Colorado is right now.

While it’s easy to disregard FCS schools, and particularly HBCUs, as woebegone outfits competing at a lower level of the sport, Sanders has a good situation at Jackson State. The Tigers have a large fan base and have averaged 42,000 fans at home games this season, only about 800 fewer than Colorado. For as much as largely positive coverage around Sanders has infantilized Jackson State, the school has an extremely rich football history, with four Black college national championships since 1961 and four Pro Football Hall of Famers among its former players, a group that most notably includes Walter Payton. With Sanders’ hustle and personal wealth making up for the biggest drawback of the Jackson State job – a lack of funding – there aren’t a lot of headaches associated with his current setup, especially if he’s as committed to building up HBCU football as he has said he is.

Though recruiting as the head coach of a Power Five program would open Sanders up to stellar prospects who might not have considered Jackson State, at least some of the appeal of joining the Tigers has been the chance to go to an HBCU. At Colorado, a university where Black students account for just 2.6% of the undergraduate student body located in a town in which Black residents are just 1.2% of the total population, that won’t be the case.

While Colorado has reportedly offered Sanders, it’s fair to wonder whether the university administration will have concerns about Sanders’ time as the cofounder of Prime Prep, a grouping of charter schools in Texas that closed after three years, a dysfunctional time in which it was at the center of a series of lawsuits.

There’s the uncertainty about how someone with no FBS coaching experience will fare at that level, regardless of how famous they are, but even if he succeeds, there’s reason to worry about what may come from that. Being hesitant to hire a football coach because he might leave if he’s successful is flawed thinking, but it shouldn’t be totally disregarded, especially for someone with a background and aura as unique as Sanders’. If he’s able to come to Colorado and make immediate and marked improvements, the reservations that other Power Five schools had about how he would translate to college football’s main stage would be gone. He’d be among the top candidates for any open vacancy, with some of those being at bigger, more well-resourced schools in conferences that make substantially more money off of their TV deals. In that instance, the coach leaves the program in a better place than where he found it, but how enduring are those positive changes? As the Buffs have seen over the past several years, they can be pretty fragile.

Final verdict

The Colorado program is in such a perilous state that taking a chance on a relatively unproven commodity at coach might not be wise. In Sanders’ case, though, this is a worthwhile gamble. It’s an opportunity to align with someone who can fundamentally overhaul the perception of the program and lure in high-end talent that has bypassed the Buffs in favor of more successful suitors for decades.

The college athletics landscape has changed rapidly over the past several years and in this relatively early stage in that transformation, some programs and schools have the chance to capitalize with savvy-yet-risky head-coaching hires. Sanders has the potential to be just that. If Rick George and other university leaders believe they have a legitimate shot at signing him, they should go for it.