About a year before Deion Sanders became the head coach at Jackson State, the word went out that he was interested in coaching college football.
At first, it was an easy idea to dismiss. Until that point, Sanders’ foray into amateur sports had been pretty comical, including starting the scandal-plagued Prime Prep Academy, which was pretty much a caricature of every sketchy fly-by-night high school come to life. Plus, this is Deion Sanders we’re talking about. For a relentless self-promoter with a cushy media job, the grinding life of a college football coach didn’t seem like the most natural fit.
But here’s the funny thing. When people actually sat down with Sanders, including search firms and a couple schools with job openings, they came away pretty impressed. He wasn’t going to get any of those jobs — colleges are generally pretty risk-averse when millions of dollars are on the line — but he was clearly serious about trying.
How serious? So serious that on Wednesday, he got the No. 1 recruit in the country to renege on a verbal commitment to Florida State — Sanders’ alma mater, by the way — and instead sign a national letter of intent to play in the Football Championship Subdivision at Jackson State.
To say there’s no modern precedent for Travis Hunter’s decision to enroll at Jackson State would probably be an understatement. This isn’t a kid with off-field baggage or academic issues that caused the big programs to back off. He doesn’t have a parent on the coaching staff. He’s not even from Mississippi, bypassing several SEC and ACC programs closer to his hometown in Suwanee, Georgia, to play in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. It’s probably the most stunning commitment in the history of signing day.
But the implications of Hunter picking Jackson State aren’t going to be nearly as profound for college football, for the new era of name, image and likeness or for Historically Black Colleges and Universities as they will be for Sanders. The irony of Wednesday’s celebration at Jackson State is that it all but ensures Sanders will have the option to leave for a big-time coaching job — and perhaps bring Hunter with him — by this time next year.
This isn’t meant to rain on Jackson State’s parade. Its football team just finished an 11-1 season, and winning a recruiting battle over the entire SEC and a three-time national championship program at Florida State is historic. The school made a big bet on Sanders, and it has paid off in every possible way: On the field, media attention, recruiting, the whole deal.
But let’s not kid ourselves about some larger trend here.
Though it’s certainly possible that an NIL deal from some company helped facilitate Hunter joining Sanders — more on that in a moment — we’re not going to see significant numbers of elite recruits start flocking to HBCU programs. The playing field isn’t being leveled.
Yes, NIL potentially opens the door for upstarts to land a star player here or there. But Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame, Texas, Texas A&M and Ohio State have boosters and companies with a lot of money, too. In the big picture, the landscape is the same as it ever was.
But if Sanders has ambitions of eventually going head-to-head with those programs, landing Hunter is perhaps all the evidence the rest of college football needs to show that he could actually pull it off. If Sanders can be as ruthless and as convincing to steal the show on signing day at Jackson State, just imagine what he might be able to pull off in the Power Five.
Don’t worry, plenty of athletics directors are already wondering. And after Wednesday, their eyes are wide open.
Over time, we’ll almost certainly learn more about what went on behind the scenes with Hunter as he broke away from Florida State. Though Hunter leaned heavily into the appeal of playing at an HBCU and about paying homage to the greats like Jerry Rice and Walter Payton in his public announcement, the current environment of name, image and likeness certainly lends itself to Hunter securing some type of endorsement deal given the high-profile nature of his commitment and the massive amount of publicity it will generate.
The initial speculation centered on Barstool Sports, which is natural because of Sanders’ affiliation with the company as a content creator. You could certainly see a world where this becomes part of some documentary deal, and tweets from Barstool founder Dave Portnoy on Wednesday did little to tamp down the potential connection.
Whether that’s real or not, you can be sure that the mechanics of Hunter’s commitment to Jackson State will cause some angst throughout the NCAA as schools reckon with this new world of NIL where money wasn’t intended to be connected to recruiting decisions but was inevitably going to wind up that way without consistent laws across all 50 states and clear regulations coming from the governing body.
At the same time, this is how deals get done now. And few people are better equipped to navigate the new world of hype, sponsorship and content surrounding these high-profile recruitments than Coach Prime.
It’s now just a matter of time before a big-time school comes after him. Though it’s probably too late for this recruiting cycle — Temple was the last job open, and it was filled Wednesday — Sanders will start out as one of the top candidates for every major opening by next fall. That might also include Florida State, where current coach Mike Norvell’s standing undoubtedly took a hit after letting Hunter get away, even if it wasn’t really his fault.
For Hunter, meanwhile, it’s a pretty low-risk bet thanks to the new NCAA rule that allows players to transfer once without penalty. If Sanders takes another job, he could technically follow right along if he wants.
There are still reasons that schools might be wary of Sanders. His hunger for the spotlight, his bombast, his potential to overwhelm an athletics department through force of personality will still make some administrators nervous.
But at the end of the day, the job is to win and get talented players to come to your school. Through two years at Jackson State, check and check. And with one shocking commitment that shook up signing day, Coach Prime told the world he’s ready for the next level.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.