Deion Sanders Got the Bag—But at What Cost?
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Deion Sanders Got the Bag—But at What Cost?

Coach Prime proclaimed himself a change agent in Black college sports before accepting a lucrative position leading a losing PWI program

When news that Deion Sanders accepted a job as the Colorado Buffaloes’ next head coach became official, it sent the sports world into a frenzy. Coach Prime spent the last three years drastically transforming Jackson State University’s football program, posting a record of 27-5, and earning two straight Southwestern Atlantic Conference championships. This year, the Tigers didn’t lose a single game in the regular season and on Dec. 17 have an opportunity to end the year with a perfect 13-0 record at the Celebration Bowl, the de facto HBCU national championship game. Sanders leaving all of this behind after three seasons, the first of which was truncated thanks to Covid, has been the subject of much debate. After such a short stint, why leave an HBCU he promised to change for the better to lead a predominately white institution? And one that sucks, at that—this year, the Buffaloes won just one game all year and had to go to overtime to do it.

“It’s not about a bag, I’ve been making money a long time and ain’t nowhere near broke,” Coach Prime told a room full of his athletes right before the rumors were confirmed. “It is about an opportunity.” A lot of people will defend Sanders’ move to Boulder because he’s definitely coming into a bag. As the Colorado head football coach, he’ll make $29.5 million over five years, before bonuses and incentives. At Jackson State, he made $300,000—a hefty salary but pennies compared to the millions he’ll receive at Colorado.

I would absolutely make that leap. I am broke. A lot of normal people are in that circumstance and would leap at a job prospect that would increase their salary by a few percentage points because we’re a couple of bad days from financial ruin. I ain’t Coach Prime. You ain’t Coach Prime. We ain’t Coach Prime. He’s led an exceptional life because of the talents bequeathed to him by a higher power and sustaining them through hard work. He doesn’t need that money from Colorado and if he was distressed by the six figures he made in Mississippi, he could probably head to a network and make well above any salary a college football program is willing to offer. If Tom Brady has $37.5 million a year on the table and his former teammate Troy Aikman is making $18 million, surely with his magnetic personality he could make somewhere in between the two. This is about an opportunity, but an opportunity to do what? To aggrandize himself.

Coach Prime was supposed to make it foolish for Black student-athletes not to enroll at HBCUs. He sold a lie, built himself up as a savior, and fell drastically short.

Sanders wants to compete at the highest levels of college football in a Power Five Conference—the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference, and Southeastern Conference (SEC). As a member of the Pac-12, the University of Colorado Boulder will allow him to do this. Even if the Buffaloes suck right now, Coach Prime is going to make them better. One-win seasons aren’t in their immediate future. While at Jackson State, he would often bemoan the fact that HBCUs aren't given the opportunity to compete with Power Five schools, or given comparative resources or exposure. During his tenure, these things began to shift. He upgraded Jackson State’s facilities (and donated some of his salary to do it), gave the school a much higher profile, and did a whole lotta winning. Still, there is no way to legitimately compare the HBCU college football experience to the grand stage one gets when they’re battling within a Power Five conference, going to war for a national championship, recruiting talent across the country, and getting the best of the best NFL ready.

If Coach Prime were a career coach who was dreaming of this platform and worked his ass off for it, that’d be one thing. But he’s not. He’s undoubtedly a great football mind, and a trailblazer because of the fact that Black head coaches are fewer and further between than they have any right to be at top football programs. But in the end, he just used JSU as a shortcut to get to this stage. No Power Five conference would give him the keys to the field house with no head coaching experience on the college level. Now that he has it, what purpose does JSU serve him?

“I was called by God to make a difference.” That’s the way Sanders would often characterize why he made the decision to coach at JSU. In an interview with Andscape, he explained that this means he was “called by God himself, not a man next to the man, but God himself. To come here and provoke change, and when I say change I mean change,” he said. “It’s not about winning, we gon’ win. It’s about making things better for everybody. Not just Jackson State—Mississippi State, Alcorn, Grambling, FAMU… for everybody. This just ain’t about us, it’s about everybody.” Coach Prime painted himself as a martyr, a divine selfless apostle who was given a purpose to radically transform HBCUs. In three short years, he showed that he was more than capable of doing this, but he must have been mistaken about who that voice was. It couldn’t have been God, because God would have told him the job’s not anywhere close to done yet.

Two seasons of dominance at the college football level is just a blip. The endorsements he helped Jackson State land can easily dry up because he was a large part of the allure. I don’t think any of the other schools he mentioned like Grambling or Alcorn have felt any seismic shifts in their programs. Where do you think the high school juniors and seniors who may have been eyeing Jackson State for the chance to play under Coach Prime will want to play now? The answer is probably not in Mississippi. An 18-year-old student-athlete whose pockets are full of lint would be foolish to choose an HBCU over a Power Five if given the choice. They’re in college to earn a spot in the league. Even if Shannon Sharpe, Walter Payton, Steve McNair, and Jerry Rice made it work, those are once-in-a-generation athletes; they’d rise above the crop anywhere. The same can’t be said for everyone—they need a bigger platform, seasoned coaches, and state-of-the-art resources. Coach Prime was supposed to turn this idea completely on its head and make it foolish for Black student-athletes not to enroll at HBCUs. He sold a lie, built himself up as a savior, and fell drastically short. The only person who wins here is Prime Time.

I love Deion Sanders. I grew up an Atlanta Braves fan and have sadly spent the majority of my life rooting for the Dallas Cowboys, so how could I not? As a child of 1991, the memories I have of Prime Time looking good, feeling good, and playing good are distant and hazy, but his dominance in football and baseball stick with you if you were ever lucky enough to bear witness. We’re all up on how great the best cornerback of all time was, but did you know that if the Atlanta Braves didn’t get upset in the 1992 World Series, he would have been crowned MVP? Prime had a .533 batting average over the course of those six games with five stolen bases and four runs. He was greater than great, the most iconic athlete of my lifetime. Like I said, I love Deion Sanders and will love him tomorrow, too. However, his quick exit from JSU is disappointing. It’d be unfair to demand nobility of him if he didn’t demand it himself.

If Coach Prime spent a decade at JSU, who knows what HBCU athletics would end up like or what other talent it’d attract to keep up on the field and on the sidelines? As it stands, his flash of a tenure only created pocket change. Turns out, Alabama State University coach Eddie Robinson Jr. was right: He ain’t SWAC.

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