Deion Sanders is a football legend. He’s a hall of famer, a gold medalist, and a former NFL and MLB player. Yet, now he’s the head coach of a Division II college football team. But Sanders is just one of a growing group of coaches who have moved up to FBS conferences from FCS.
Deion Sanders is known for a lot of things. Being a Hall of Famer in both sports, his flashy style, and his acting roles. What people may not know is that he is also a talented coach. He is the head coach of the Ft. Lauderdale Blacktips, a semi-professional football team in Florida. He has been coaching since 2010 and has compiled an impressive 37-10 record so far. His winning percentage of .769 is the highest of any coach in the league. He has won the league championship in four of his five seasons in the league.
The spring season gave FCS players and coaches a taste of college football. The center of attention, not surprisingly, was Jackson State’s Deion Sanders, now known as Coach Prime.
A decorated NFL figure who also played Major League Baseball and drove in a limousine to his job at Jackson State, Sanders would never have quietly made his college coaching debut. He drew attention to Jackson State and HBCU football and influenced the recent commitment of another Hall of Fame player, Eddie George, to Tennessee. Aside from the hype, can Coach Prime get results?
Jackson State started 3-0, but lost the next three games.
What Sanders does next will be very interesting. He’s talking about making Jackson State a powerhouse, and he’s already made remarkable progress in recruiting. But Sanders played sports at the highest level and could aim for the lights of the FBS. In late 2019, he had numerous conversations with Arkansas about the coach vacancy and also met with Florida State, his alma mater. Like it or not, Sanders knows how to get attention, and FBS athletic directors are definitely following his steps.
The list of coaches who have successfully made the switch from FCS to FBS is very long. It is led by Jim Tressel and current coaches Jim Harbaugh, Bill Clark, Jeff Monken, Willie Fritz, Craig Ball and Chris Kliman.
But Sanders isn’t the only FCS coach on the FBS radar, as several other coaches are getting better. Here’s a closer look at him and other names that have a chance to make the jump.
From afar, Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek saw Deion Sanders, like most others, on prime time. Jurachek then met with Sanders to discuss the Arkansas head coaching job.
Jurachek said he had a very different side. She is an incredibly balanced and focused person. He had a plan to run the football program. He went to many different areas. It made such an impression on me that I went a second time to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.
Yurachek did not hire Sanders and chose Georgia assistant Sam Pittman. He didn’t think the SEC would be the best training ground for a coach who is instantly recognizable, but has only worked with high school players at the Under Armour All-America Game and Trinity Christian School in Southwest Dallas.
Sanders’ ability to get through two interviews with SEC programs despite his lack of college experience highlights his potential as a coach. Jurachek liked the recruiting plan at the national level and has already applied it at Jackson State, which signed the highest-ranked team in the FCS. Several talented transfers from FBS programs have already joined the team, including cornerback De’Jahn Warren, who according to ESPN is ranked No. 4 and is at the end of his contract at Georgia. In six games this spring, Warren has thrown one interception and 17 interceptions.
Sanders thought he could recruit nationally with his name and establish something like a national recruiting council, Jurachek said.
Like all new coaches, Sanders has to go through a learning curve, which was accentuated during Jackson State’s loss. After the 20-point loss against Southern, Sanders detailed where Jackson State failed, saying: We played without passion. I don’t think we’re like that. I take full responsibility for everything that happened there. After a 52-43 loss against Alabama A&M, he said there was no agreement between the players and coaches on defense.
From a branding and external communication point of view, everything went well, said an industry source. But the merchandise has dropped a bit. He said he wanted to be a general manager type of coach, but still have to have a product on the field.
Plans and personnel are potential growth areas for Sanders.
He assembled most of his first Jackson team from high school, NFL and FCS students, with only two assistants coming directly from FBS programs. The personal component is particularly important to aspiring FBS educators and is often mentioned in initial conversations with executive assistants.
If you don’t play in college, you don’t develop relationships with assistant coaches who help build the program and are on the road representing you and the brand, Juracek said. This part, just by being around the game, he will begin to develop a network and he will be able to train his staff as he wishes when he moves to the next level.
How quickly can Sanders make the jump?
He spoke several times about raising the profile of HBCU programs. Sanders also coaches his two sons at Jackson State: Scheder, the quarterback and 61st player in the ESPN’s 2021 class, entered in the spring, while Shiloh, a cornerback from South Carolina, was selected in the fall.
The big question about Deion: Will he be bored? says an industry source.
Sanders, 53, will coach two more seasons this calendar year for what many expect to be an active coaching carousel in the FBS.
It will be interesting to see how long Deion really wants to train, the Group 5 athletic director said. It’s grueling work, and at some point it’s not fun anymore. He will show his attachment to Jackson State when his sons come to play. But with the one-time transfer policy, boom, [they can] go from FCS to FBS.
Sanders’ talks with Arkansas show his potential as a college coach, but his first foray into the FBS might end up in the Group of 5, especially with programs in or near big cities.
The Fort Myers, Florida native and star of FSU could be a good option to work in his home state for organizations like Florida International, Florida Atlantic or even South Florida. FIU (0-5) and USF (1-8) both had difficult seasons in 2020.
Can you imagine Deion Sanders in Tampa with good coordinators? According to an industry source, there will be a power outage at that time.
Many point to North Texas, 40 miles from Dallas in Denton, Texas, as an ideal landing spot. Sanders has lived and coached in the area for years, and North Texas has a solid infrastructure despite his last 8-14 seasons.
He would have owned the city of Dallas, the Group of 5 athletics director said. He has instant credibility, and North Texas pays well enough to get very good OCs, DCs and special teams specialists. At that point, [Sanders] becomes the recruiting coordinator.
Sanders chose a unique path to coaching, and it’s not easy to predict what he’ll do next. But he is also seen as the coach of the day in a sport that is changing.
If there is a better teacher of name, image, likeness and building a personal brand than Deion Sanders, I don’t know who it is, Jurachek said.
Jurachek added about Sanders aspirations: The same mental competitive spirit that made him a professional athlete in two sports will also make him a success as a college coach.
Here are some other FCS coaches who may be switching to the FBS soon, and a group to keep an eye on in the future.
FCS candidates for the FBS cycle 2021-22
Matt Entz, North Dakota State: Fargo’s dynasty has won eight national titles under three different coaches since 2011. The first two, Craig Ball and Chris Kliman, went to the FBS, and few would be surprised if Entz didn’t follow them soon. Entz, 48, came to North Dakota State in 2014 and led the Bison to a perfect 16-0 record and a national title in his first season in 2019. He has spent most of his career in the FCS, working with teams ranging from Northern Iowa and Western Illinois to North Dakota State, and has not yet coached at the FBS level. But Klieman worked only one year in the FBS, as an assistant at Kansas in 1997, before getting the job at Kansas State. Like Entz, Kliman has a background in defense and worked at North Iowa and Western Illinois for North Dakota State.
Matt Entz led North Dakota State to a national title in his first season in 2019. AP Photo/Sam Hodde
Although North Dakota State lost early in the season and no longer seems as dominant, they are still a team to beat in the FCS playoffs. Another national title would certainly enhance Entz’s chances of advancing to the FBS, perhaps as early as this winter.
Kurt Cignetti, James Madison: Along with North Dakota State, James Madison has been one of the most elite FCS programs in recent years, winning the national title in 2016 and reaching the other two championship games since. The Dukes are 5-0 this spring and have outscored their opponents 169-49. Like North Dakota State, JMU’s last two coaches (Everett Weathers and Mike Houston) were hired directly in the FBS. Cignetti, 59, has had success as a head coach in Division II and the FCS. He went 81-28 at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Elon and James Madison (not counting this season). It also has notable merits in the Power 5: He coached quarterbacks at Pitt, Temple and Rice, and was receivers coach and recruiting coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama from 2007-2010. The former West Virginia quarterback has the experience and background of a quarterback that many FBS programs are looking for.
Jay Hill, Weber State: Hill makes Weber State the best FCS program west of the Rockies. Under his leadership, the Wildcats have finished in the top six three times in a row in the FCS playoffs (quarterfinals or semifinals). This spring the team is 5-0. Hill, 46, has a 37-9 record over the last four seasons. He seemed like a strong candidate for Utah State’s vacancy last winter, but the school ultimately chose an FBS coach (Blake Anderson). Hill played cornerback at Utah, coached at his alma mater from 2001-2013 – working on offense, defense and special teams – and has spent his entire coaching career in his home state. He has experience on offense, defense and special teams. He would probably be suited for any position in the Mountain West and even some vacancies in the Pac-12.
Jay Hill makes Weber State the best FCS program west of the Rockies. Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Bohannon, Kennesaw State: Bohannon’s inclusion comes with the caveat that he is best suited to work in the FBS academy or at programs open to a version of the triple-option offense. Bohannon was a longtime assistant to Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech. He led Kennesaw State to three consecutive FCS playoffs and top-10 finishes. AD Group of 5 said Bohannon is the best FCS coach in the country, but he might be limited because of the triple option. The Owls got off to their first 4-0 start of the spring and hope to compete again in the postseason. Bohannon, 50, is a former wide receiver from Georgia who spent most of his career in his home state. He will be on the list to replace Ken Niumatalolo (Navy) or Jeff Monken (Army), and will also compete for other vacancies.
Willie Simmons, Florida A&M: FAMU has waived the spring season, but will play a full schedule in the fall, which will be played on the 18th. The month of September includes a trip to South Florida. Simmons has a 15-7 record with the Rattlers and 36-18 overall as FCS head coach of two HBCU programs (Prairie View A&M and Florida A&M). The 40-year-old began his college career as a quarterback at Clemson, finished it at The Citadel, began his coaching career at Clemson and worked at Middle Tennessee from 2007-2011, where he spent his final season as offensive coordinator. There is a diversity problem in the FBS coaching ranks, many point to the lack of black coaches who have led programs and worked with quarterbacks. Simmons did both. Another good season at FAMU should make him a candidate for a job with the Group of 5.
Willie Simmons is 36-18 as head coach of two HBCU programs in the FCS. Douglas DeFelice – USA TODAY Sports
FCS candidates for future FBS vacancies (post 2021)
Nick Hill, Southern Illinois: Hill, a former SIU quarterback, didn’t begin his coaching career until 2013, after working in the Arena Football League and making two seasonal stops at NFL clubs. He strung together three consecutive losing seasons before Southern Illinois went 7-5 in 2019. Hill recorded his first win on Feb. 27, when SIU snapped North Dakota State’s 39-game FCS winning streak. Hill is 36 and is on the wish list of many schools as a young/former quarterback. He probably needs a little more time to apply for an FBS position, but he should do so in the near future.
Eric Morris, Incarnate Ward: Whether FBS athletic directors admit it publicly or not, many of them are looking for young coaches with offensive experience, ideally in conjunction with the Air Raid or a dynamic derivative. Morris, 35, played at Texas Tech from 2004 to 2008 under Mike Leach, where he picked up passes from Graham Harrell, now USC’s offensive coordinator. Morris began his coaching career at Houston and spent the 2012 season under Leach and at Washington State. He then spent five seasons as offensive coordinator at Texas Tech with Cliff Kingsbury before moving to Incarnate Word. Morris is 14-15 overall and made the playoffs in 2018. A few more good seasons and he’s a candidate for an FBS job.
Scotty Walden, Austin Peay: Walden is only in his first season in the FCS and will likely need a few more years to prove what he can do, but he has some interesting experience as a former Division III head coach (East Texas Baptist) who quickly moved up to a coordinator position at Southern Miss, his first FBS job. The 31-year-old became Southern Miss’ interim head coach after Jay Hopson was fired and left that position in the middle of the 2020 season to join Austin Peay. Walden led the Governors to a 4-2 record this spring, with all six games decided by a margin of seven points or less. A good season this fall will help further Walden, who at age 30 could be a head FBS coach.
Mike Minter, Campbell: Name recognition is an important factor in recruiting a coach, and Minter’s name is important after a productive nine-year NFL career in which he started 141 games. He has also been the FCS head coach since 2013, having entered the profession just two years prior. Minter gets a bye for 2020, as Campbell has played four FBS opponents on an abbreviated schedule and lost all of his fights. Prior to 2014 and 2019, he led Campbell to five or six wins each year, setting team records for consecutive games won (6) and consecutive winning seasons (3). The 47-year-old Minter may need one or two more big seasons to establish himself in the FBS, but he’s a good fit for possible Group of 5 openings in the region.
Rob Ambrose, Towson: The key for Ambrose will be to repeat the magic of 2011-13, when Towson posted a 29-10 record, won two CAA titles, had two top-10 finishes and made it to the FCS National Championship in 2013. Since then, Ambrose has shown a solid level of play, winning seven games in three of the last four seasons and making the playoffs in 2018. Towson has waived the spring 2021 season and will play a full schedule in the fall. Ambrose, 50, has garnered FBS interest in the past. He has experience on offense and at UConn, where he coached quarterbacks from 2002-08.
Nathan Brown, Central Arkansas: You couldn’t miss the Brown-Central Arkansas game last fall, as the Bears played their first college game during the pandemic and have been a powerhouse all season. Central Arkansas is coming off a pair of wins over Missouri State (5-4), bringing Brown’s record in three years at its alma mater to 20-13. Brown, 36, is a former top quarterback and finalist for the Walter Payton Award in 2008. He is on a fast rise and has already caught the attention of some FBS athletic directors.
Bobby Petrino, Missouri: Some said Petrino no longer had a chance in the FBS. Others say the door is always open. The end of his tenure at Arkansas and Louisville, though very different, should make schools wary. But he remains an offensive-minded coach with a 77-35 record in the FBS. This spring, Petrino led Missouri State to its first title in 31 years. The Bears were 1-10 in 2019, but were 5-1 this spring, winning four games by seven points or less, with the only loss coming against North Dakota State. Few programs would hire the 60-year-old Petrino at this point in his career, given everything he has under his belt. But if he can turn in another good season this fall, he could be on the radar of those looking for a vacancy.