Prime Time goes prime time
Prime Time is in fact going prime time in college football. By that, we’re talking about current Jackson State head football coach and former NFL star Deion Sanders, who goes by the aforementioned nickname. After two highly successful years at Jackson State, an HBCU that plays in the second tier FCS football sub-division, Sanders has accepted the head coaching position at Colorado, a Power 5 school that once reigned near the peak of the national football rankings. But after years of losing and irrelevance, they are handing the reigns to Sanders, who prior to Jackson State had never coached college football. And if you tuned into Colorado’s press conference introducing their new savior, you know this won’t be more of the same.
In what felt like a confluence of pep rally and sermon, Sanders set forth a lofty vision for both the program and himself, in case anyone feared he lacked self-confidence. He also spoke clearly of his intention to bring NIL dollars to his team. That’s name, image, and likeness, the process by which college athletes can make potentially significant money through endorsements, commercials, and the like. And perhaps most notably, he essentially declared his son the starting quarterback for the Buffalos, although he did mention that he’d have to earn it. This and more made for a very different introduction than we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in what is usually a perfunctory if not often boring introduction to the new boss, where most coaches seem uncomfortable under the lights and use as many sports cliches as allowed.
Of course, Deion Sanders wasn’t simply talking to the press, or the University, or even his Athletic Director or President seated next to him. He was talking to his players. Perhaps more specifically, he was talking to his future players, high school five-star athletes and top prospects at other schools who might transfer to Colorado for Prime Time. That’s the inherent shift Sanders is making in his presentation, not addressing his team in a somewhat cursory way while pledging fealty to an org chart. He’s hedging his bet on a shift in the entire structure of big-time college sports, where athletes have a considerable if not dominant seat at the table. This wasn’t so much of a press conference but more of a recruiting opportunity.
While this might feel a bit shocking in the fairly staid landscape of college football, it’s increasingly standard fare in college basketball, where top hoops schools live and die on one-and-done athletes, superstars who plan to only stay in school for one year before heading to the pros. That’s how John Calipari at Duke and Bill Self and Kansas and Bruce Pearl at Auburn build success. Not on four years of selfless commitment to your future alma matter, but on the symbiotic prospect of using a few months in college to springboard to millions in future earnings. It’s also why we’ve increasingly seen universities hire former NBA stars as head coaches, like Penny Hardaway at Memphis or Jerry Stackhouse at Vanderbilt or Juwan Howard at Michigan. For an 18-year-old looking to the NBA, these coaches offer a compelling narrative and mentorship.
Of course, recruiting athletes and winning games, much less championships, while intimately related are still two very different things. If you look at the four teams just named to the college football playoffs, they all employ fairly traditional head coaching figures who look not all that dissimilar to their forefathers – Jim Harbaugh at Michigan somewhat excluded, because he’s not like anyone. But Kirby Smart at Georgia and Ryan Day at Ohio State, both good college football players, still followed a pretty standard trajectory of x’s and o’s en route to the top spot. And Sonny Dykes at TCU started as a high school baseball coach before crossing over to the gridiron. These are all system guys who learned the ropes of football coaching administration, guys who moved up the chain of authority and prominence in ending up at the top. Sure, they’ve all recruiting a bunch of future NFL guys. But none of them have ever had a press conference like Sanders.
Will that bombast work at Colorado? Has the balance of power shifted from institution to individual, and is someone like Deion Sanders at the vanguard of managing that transformation? That’s the five-year, $30 million bet, also known as Sanders’ contract. At the very least, I do think Prime Time will be worth watching.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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