When it comes to the sport of football, there aren’t many personalities bigger than Deion “Primetime” Sanders. Known for his engaging and flamboyant personality as a coach or TV personality, he is also well-regarded as one of the greatest players in NFL history, and quite possibly the best cornerback ever. Now, he is using that football acumen and energy to become one of the most intriguing coaches in college football.
Coach Prime has Jackson State University surging when it comes to on-field production, as well as shaking up the national landscape with his impact on the recruiting trail, and he believes the major programs are beginning to take notice.
“They see us as a threat to take players that they would normally get,” Sanders tells Complex. “So I’m pretty sure they have had that private conversation.”
Whether he is making headlines for an unconventional approach to coaching, or helping build a budding power in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, there is one thing for certain: everything that Coach Prime does is not only entertaining, but done with a purpose.
He sat down with Complex to discuss soaking up knowledge from Alabama head coach Nick Saban during their Aflac commercial, landing Travis Hunter on the recruiting trail, and his call to coach at a historically black college. He also discussed his thoughts on the Pro Football Hall of Fame becoming watered down.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
This isn’t your first Aflac commercial you have done with Alabama head football coach Nick Saban, what has it been like doing these commercials where he shows personality that the average fan might not normally get to see?
Well, Coach Saban is actually funny. He’s hilarious, quick-witted, and very concise. I like to use these opportunities to not just shoot the commercials, but I get to glean from Coach Saban. He’s the magna cum laude, he’s the guy, he’s the standard. So any chance I get on set to talk to him about the game, recruiting, personnel, anything, I take full advantage of it.
Is there anything in particular you have been able to take from him and apply yourself as a coach?
A lot of things, but I’m not going to kiss and tell because I might not get any more gems.
Speaking of Nick Saban, at the SWAC media day you mentioned that you thought Jackson State was about a year away from being ready to play Alabama, you needed to beef up the offensive and defensive lines. How would you say in your limited time at JSU you have been able to get the program to the point where you feel you are only one year away from truly being able to compete against the best in the country?
The progress of the program has been phenomenal, and the expectation and the standard has changed. So when I’m talking about playing somebody like Alabama or a Power 5 school, I’m not talking about playing against them to collect a check, what’s normal. I wouldn’t take that game unless I expected to win. Why would I take that game if I didn’t expect to win, what are you playing for? To me, that’s selling the whole program out for a check and that’s absurd to me. They are so talented in the trenches, and all-around, you take a guy like Travis [Hunter], you don’t see too many guys like that, but they would have a couple of guys who are close to it, and you’ve got to match that or you’re not going to compete. Period. So yes, it’s the trenches, but the level of coaching, don’t take for granted the coaching staff, as well as the scouts, don’t take that for granted because those guys play an important role.
You just mentioned Travis Hunter, big-time recruit you all landed and shook up college football with his commitment. Do you think that landing somebody like Travis Hunter, and not just him, but Kevin Coleman and other blue chip prospects as well, do you think the rest of college football are starting to see Jackson State as a legitimate player in the grand scheme of the sport?
They see us as a threat to take players that they would normally get, so I’m pretty sure they have had that private conversation. When we start getting those interior guys, that’s when it is going to change. To get the defensive backs and receivers, that’s wonderful, we love it and appreciate it. But when we start to branch out and get those bigs, that’s when the thought process of the game will change for them. They will have to urgently break the glass, because it’s going to be an emergency.
Do you think that your magnetic personality has helped you be able to come in and land some of these big recruits and connect to not only them, but the first man on the roster all the way down to the last man on the depth chart?
I’m not pretending, I am who I am. I don’t have to placate that, I don’t have to trick or treat when it’s not October. I’m just simply who I am and have shown consistency throughout the years. You’re not just recruiting that young man, or young woman, to your program, you’re recruiting their parents as well, the community leaders. To be able to connect with them through social media so that they get a glimpse of what you’re really trying to accomplish, I think that’s where we are winning at. We don’t have the resources to compete with the dormitories and things that big universities feature on campus, but if a mother sees that if she sends me a boy, I’m going to try my darnedest to send her back a man that has discipline and has been prepared for life with character.
We all know that you had a great career at Florida State, and of course you take pride in your alma mater, everybody does. But what type of pride do you take as the head coach at Jackson State, coaching at an HBCU and everything that comes with it?
I love it, it’s a tremendous responsibility, it’s a tremendous calling and a tremendous undertaking and I’m happy and elated that God chose me for such a task. It’s not just Jackson State, but HBCU’s, to be the sounding board and the alarm for so many different things that we are trying to accomplish. Oftentimes we are overlooked and underfunded, and if it takes me to voice that and tell everyone where we are, so be it. I’m thankful God chose me. I know who I am, where I am, where I’m going and how to get there, and I’m thankful that I have shown a person that is imperfect, but is present.
We see the SWAC getting more eyes on it than normal due to your presence alone, what do you think your program’s success and what you’re building could do for the conference as a whole to help all of these HBCU’s be put on the forefront?
I would like us to perfect before we package. Not only in athletics but academics, understanding the business side of everything so that when we go for television contracts, we know what we are talking about sitting in those seats. When we talk about sharing revenue, we know what we have in the SWAC so that we don’t sell ourselves short. Oftentimes we settle for less because we don’t know any better, we settle for this because we have never been there to see that. I just hope that I can provoke that change so that we can identify what we are and who we have.
There have been a few moments with you at Jackson State as the head coach where you generated a lot of conversation. Whether it was you bringing Brittany Renner to talk to your players, or you saying only Shedeur [Sanders] and Travis Hunter had guaranteed starting positions. How do you respond to people who may think that your coaching style is unconventional?
I don’t care. My team knows me, with social media I’m talking to the country but I’m really addressing my team. So, I’m telling my team there are only two starters here, everyone else is going to have to work. They know everything is competitive but those two guys are different, God has cut them different. The coaches think that. I’m just the one who isn’t scared to say what I feel. In regards to bringing Ms. Renner over, they have no idea the trials and tribulations and challenges these guys go through personally and relationships. They are leaving home for the first time and a big guy hasn’t gotten that attention that he is receiving now because he has people at him left and right. I’ve got to teach him not only the game of football, I have to teach him the game of life. So I’ve got to bring in experts, that’s what we are doing, bringing in experts to teach them the game of life, because that’s the game they play everyday, not football. This game will be over in December, that other game, they play that everyday.
Recently you hired Mike Zimmer, former head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, as an analyst at Jackson State. That was another move that garnered a lot of headlines, can you speak to what you are hoping to accomplish with that move?
He offers a career of excellence, he was a head coach in the NFL that is now associated with an HBCU, why do I have to explain anything else? But Zimmer is a tremendous guy, coached me and is one of my best coaches that I ever played for. Not only were we close on the field but we have been tight off the field as well. Analyst is a label that is so broad because he can be in Cincinnati where he resides, and he can watch the practice film everyday and grade it, and send it to us and tell us his opinions of what we are working on that week. So with analysts, some of the Power 5 programs do it really well. You will often times see a head coach in college football, when they are terminated, they will take an analyst role with a big program and next thing you know, they are back in the game. Coach Zimmer just wants to be around football, he had a tremendous time when he was here and around the kids and I put that bug in his ear.
Recently there was a clip of you saying that you believed the Pro Football Hall of Fame was easier to get into now than before. Someone of your stature, arguably the greatest defensive back in NFL history, what is it that you are seeing that makes you say that?
At one point in time, when we played the game we wanted to win. The Hall of Fame wasn’t on our minds, the accolades weren’t on our mind, we just wanted to win and be dominant at our position, I wanted to be the best ever. That was my goal and my thought process and to take care of my mother simultaneously. But once your career starts to wind down, you start thinking about these things, and you hear the talk and my perception of a Hall of Famer growing up was a guy that changed the game. When I was growing up, you’re talking about the Night Train Lane’s, the Mel Blount’s and those type of guys that I adored and changed the game. So now, when you are sitting back and see these names come across the ticker, you’re saying “excuse me?” Again, I just say what everybody thinks, it’s the God honest truth. It’s watered down a little bit, it doesn’t have that sting like it once did. It should never be a question of whether somebody does or doesn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.