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Reflecting on the Deion Sanders Era at Jackson State

Coach Prime was probably always going to leave Jackson State eventually. But was now the right time?

The Coach Prime era at Jackson State University will officially close its curtains on Dec. 17 in Atlanta at the Celebration Bowl.

After the Tigers beat Southern on Saturday in the SWAC title game, Deion Sanders confirmed reports that has accepted the head coaching job at Colorado.

“In coaching you get elevated or terminated, ain’t no other way,” Sanders told his team in a postgame meeting. “They either gonna run you off, or you gonna walk off. I’ve chosen to accept the job elsewhere next year. I’m going to finish what we started [and] I’m going to be here until that end [and then] we will move on.”

Sanders’ original deal with Jackson State was worth $1.2 million over four years, or $300,000 annually. His new deal with Colorado is reportedly worth $29.5 million over five years, equalling $5.9 million per year.

Oddly enough, Colorado athletic director Brian Howell told reporters the school doesn’t have the money yet.

Sanders told the Jackson State team his decision “is not about a bag, I’ve been making money a long time and I ain’t nowhere near broke.”

“It is about an opportunity,” he continued. “I always felt like if you dominate your opportunity and you treat people right, the bag is gonna always come. I have never chased a bag. A bag has always chased me because I have always tried to make the right decision and do the right thing.”

The “right thing” has been a topic of debate on social media as fans gave their opinions on Sanders’ departure. You could be disappointed to see him go, but the fact is he was never going to stay at Jackson State forever. In the age of eight-figure coach contracts, no HBCU cannot compete with the dollars that Power 5 schools can throw at coaches. Earlier this year, Prime even told 60 Minutes that when a Power 5 school does call he would have to entertain the possibility of taking the job.

“I would be a fool not to,” he said.

When Prime departs for Boulder, he will have closed the door on nearly 28 months as Jackson State’s head coach. In that time, no one can question his commitment to his job and his promise of elevating HBCUs.

Here’s what he did in his short time with the Tigers:

  • Donated half his salary this season ($150,000) to upgrade Jackson State’s football facilities
  • Jackson State hosted ESPN’s College Gameday, becoming the second HBCU ever to do so.
  • Signed the highest-ranked recruit in HBCU history
  • As of April 2021, Sanders generated $185 million in advertising value and exposure to Jackson State
  • Sanders has seen multiple Jackson State players ink NIL deals
  • Jackson State documentary titled “Coach Prime” to release on Prime Video later this month
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I have reservations about Deion’s departure, but it has less to do with him leaving and more to do with where he is going. By no means is Colorado a legacy college football program. The school’s glory years began when Sanders was in college at Florida State and ended during his tenure with the Cowboys (1987-96). During that span, the Buffaloes won an Orange Bowl and Fiesta Bowl. But since 2000, the Buffs have just five winning seasons and only one in the last 12 years.

This season, they went 1-11 and finished last in the Pac-12.

So, leaving Jackson State for a program that does not even have the money to pay him raises questions. Namely, is a bottom tier FBS college football program worth that much more than what Coach Prime has built at Jackson State? I would argue no.

Even by staying one more year, he could have bowed out with his son, Shedeur Sanders, declaring for the NFL Draft straight out of Jackson State. And with Shedeur being one of the best college football quarterbacks in all the land, maybe he could have been selected in the first round. An HBCU quarterback has not been selected in the NFL Draft since Alabama State’s Tavaris Jackson went in the second round in 2006.

Setting aside Sanders’ new Colorado money, Prime will also have to build the Buffalo culture from the ground up the same way he did at Jackson State. The Tigers had not had a winning season in six years before Sanders took the job in Sept. 2020. Building that culture may take time, but Colorado has more than enough resources to pull in recruits, donors and NIL deals for the players.

Photo by Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

As for the general landscape of college football head coaching vacancies, I do not believe that Colorado was the best job Sanders could have taken. He also considered South Florida and Cincinnati, and a job with the Bearcats appeared to be the most tempting.

Cincinnati has won 10 games in each of the past four seasons and earned a College Football Playoff berth. On top of that, the university will join the Big 12 next year, eliminating the biggest drawback it had — that it currently plays in a Group of 5 league.

Sanders will instead join the Pac-12, but with the looming departure of USC and UCLA for the Big Ten in 2024, the conference’s balance of power will shift. The league could carry on as a shell of its former self or Prime can step in and dominate the conference. There’s both risk and opportunity.

There is no way to know exactly what college football head coaching jobs will be open next season, but surely there will be a power conference school that’s not coming off a one-win season.

Shedeur will follow his father to Boulder, while it is unclear what other promising Tigers like Travis Hunter and Kevin Coleman will do. Sanders’ departure will inevitably strip some of the foundation he has laid. Donors, brands, and others gave Jackson State funds because Sanders was there and the program had major success. With him leaving, the program is once again left in limbo as it was before Prime was hired. The new Colorado head coach gave a nod to wide receiver coach T.C. Taylor as his recommendation for the next head coach.

In many ways, as Sanders elevated Jackson State, his profile also rose. He became an HBCU superhero. He was someone who carried the torch to shine a light on the Historically Black Colleges and Universities that do not get the recognition that they deserve. And he did a phenomenal job uplifting those schools. I and many others just thought he would raise HBCUs longer than he did and when the time came for him to pass the torch onto the next person, he would leave for a destination that looks like a college football wonderland, not a dying gridiron garden.

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About The Author
Randall Williams
Randall Williams
Randall Williams is a former Staff Writer at Boardroom specializing in sports business and music. He previously worked for Sportico, Andscape and Bloomberg. His byline has also been syndicated in the Boston Globe and Time Magazine. Williams' notable profile features include NFL Executive VP Troy Vincent, Dreamville co-founder Ibrahim Hamad, BMX biker Nigel Sylvester, and both Shedeur and Shilo Sanders. Randall, a graduate of "The Real HU" -- Hampton University — is most proud of scooping Howard University joining Jordan Brand nearly three months before the official announcement.