Deion Sanders and 12 other FCS coaches primed to make the FBS leap

NCAAF

The spring season allowed FCS players and coaches to own the college football stage. At the center, unsurprisingly, stood Jackson State‘s Deion Sanders, now known as Coach Prime.

An NFL Hall of Famer who also played major league baseball and arrived at his Jackson State introduction in a stretch limousine, Sanders was never going to make a quiet college coaching debut. He brought waves of attention to Jackson State and HBCU football, and he influenced the recent coaching hire of another Hall of Famer, Eddie George, at Tennessee State. Beyond the hype, could Coach Prime deliver results?

Well, Jackson State started 3-0 before losing its next three games.

What Sanders does next will be fascinating. He talks about building Jackson State into a powerhouse, and is already making notable gains in recruiting. But Sanders played sports at the highest level and could seek the bright lights of the FBS. In late 2019, he spoke extensively with Arkansas about its coaching vacancy, and also met with Florida State, his alma mater. Like him or not, Sanders is great at getting noticed, and FBS athletic directors certainly are tracking his moves.

The list of coaches who have successfully transitioned from FCS to FBS jobs is strong, headlined by Jim Tressel and includes current coaches like Jim Harbaugh, Bill Clark, Jeff Monken, Willie Fritz, Craig Bohl and Chris Klieman.

But Sanders isn’t the only FCS coach on FBS radars, as several others are improving their stock. Here’s a closer look at him and other names who have a chance to make the jump.

From a distance, Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek saw Deion Sanders like most do, as “Primetime.” Then, Yurachek met with Sanders to discuss Arkansas’ head-coaching job.

“There’s a totally different side of him,” Yurachek said. “He’s an incredibly grounded and focused individual. He had a plan that he had put together on how he would lead a football program. He went into depth on a number of different areas. He impressed me to the point that I came back a second time to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, quite honestly.”

Yurachek didn’t hire Sanders, instead choosing Georgia assistant Sam Pittman. He didn’t think the SEC would be the best training ground for a coach who, while instantly recognizable, had only worked with high school players, both at the Under Armour All-America game and at Trinity Christian School, southwest of Dallas.

Sanders’ ability to land two interviews with an SEC program despite no college experience underscores his potential as a coach. His plan to recruit nationally jumped out to Yurachek, and he has applied it so far at Jackson State, which signed the highest-rated class in the FCS. Several talented transfers from FBS programs have already joined the team, including cornerback De’Jahn Warren, ESPN’s No. 4 junior college prospect, who decommitted from Georgia. In six games this spring, Warren has an interception and 17 tackles.

“[Sanders] felt like with his name, he could recruit nationally and put together kind of a national recruiting board,” Yurachek said.

Like all new coaches, Sanders has a learning curve, which steepened during Jackson State’s losing streak. After a 20-point loss to Southern, Sanders detailed the “glaring” areas where Jackson State fell short, saying, “We played with no passion. I don’t feel like this is who we are. I take full responsibility for every darn thing that transpired out there.” Following a 52-43 loss to Alabama A&M, he cited “a disconnect” between players and coaches on defense.

“From a branding, external messaging standpoint, it’s been lights out,” an industry source said. “But the product has dipped a little bit. He’s said he wants to be a CEO kind of coach, but you still have to have the product on the field.”

Schematics and staffing are both potential growth areas for Sanders.

He compiled most of his initial Jackson State staff from the high school, NFL and FCS ranks, with only two assistants coming directly from FBS programs. The staffing component is especially critical for aspiring FBS coaches and often surfaces early in interviews with ADs.

“When you’re not in the college game, you don’t develop the relationships with those assistant coaches who help you build your program, who are going to be out on the road representing you and your brand,” Yurachek said. “That piece of it, just being around the game, he’ll start to develop a network, and he can help formulate his staff the way he wants to when he gets to that next level.”

How soon could Sanders make the jump?

He has repeatedly talked about raising the profile of HBCU programs. Sanders is also coaching two of his sons at Jackson State: Shedeur, a quarterback and ESPN’s No. 61 overall player in the 2021 class, enrolled this spring, and Shilo, a cornerback transfer from South Carolina, will be eligible in the fall.

“The big question about Deion: Is he going to get bored?” an industry source said.

Sanders, 53, will have coached two seasons in this calendar year, before what many expect to be a robust FBS coaching carousel.

“It will be interesting to see how long Deion actually wants to coach,” a Group of 5 athletic director said. “It’s a grind and at some point it stops being fun. This will tell you how locked in he is at Jackson State, if his sons come and play. But with the one-time transfer [policy], boom, [they] can go from FCS to FBS.”

Sanders’ conversations with Arkansas demonstrate his reach as a college coach, but his first FBS stop ultimately could come in the Group of 5, especially at programs in or near major cities.

The Fort Myers, Florida, native and FSU star could be a good fit in his home state for jobs like Florida International, Florida Atlantic or even South Florida. Both FIU (0-5) and USF (1-8) are coming off of tough 2020 seasons.

“Can you imagine Deion Sanders in Tampa with a couple of good coordinators? It would be lights out,” an industry source said.

Several people point to North Texas, located 40 miles from Dallas in Denton, Texas, as an ideal landing spot. Sanders lived and coached in the area for years, and North Texas has strong infrastructure despite going 8-14 the past two seasons.

“He would own the town of Dallas,” a Group of 5 athletic director said. “Instantly, he brings credibility, and North Texas pays well enough to get really good OC, DC and special teams guys. At that point, [Sanders] becomes the recruiting coordinator.”

Sanders took a unique path into coaching, and predicting his next move isn’t easy. But he’s also seen as a coach for this time in a changing sport.

“If there’s ever a better teacher for name, image and likeness and how to build your personal brand than Deion Sanders, I don’t know who it is,” Yurachek said.

Yurachek added of Sanders’ aspirations: “The same mental competitiveness that made him a two-sport professional athlete will make sure that he has success as high as he wants to go as a college coach.”

Here are the other FCS coaches who could soon move up to the FBS, as well as a group worth monitoring for the future.

FCS candidates for 2021-22 FBS cycle

Matt Entz, North Dakota State: The dynasty in Fargo has produced eight national titles since 2011 under three separate coaches. The first two, Craig Bohl and Chris Klieman, vaulted directly to FBS jobs, and few would be surprised if Entz doesn’t follow soon. Entz, 48, joined the North Dakota State staff in 2014 and guided the Bison to a perfect record (16-0) and a national title in his 2019 debut season. He has spent most of his career in the FCS, making stops at Northern Iowa and Western Illinois before North Dakota State, and has yet to coach at the FBS level. But Klieman spent only one year in the FBS, as a graduate assistant at Kansas in 1997, before landing the Kansas State job. Like Entz, Klieman has a background on defense and worked at Northern Iowa and Western Illinois before North Dakota State.

Although North Dakota State dropped a game early this season and hasn’t looked quite as dominant, it remains the team to beat in the FCS playoffs. Another national title certainly will help Entz’s chances of moving up to the FBS, perhaps as soon as this winter.

Curt Cignetti, James Madison: Next to North Dakota State, James Madison is one of the most consistently elite FCS programs in recent years, winning a national title in 2016 and reaching two other championship games since. The Dukes are 5-0 this spring and outscoring their opponents 169-49. Like at North Dakota State, the past two JMU coaches (Everett Withers and Mike Houston) moved directly to FBS jobs. Cignetti, 59, has thrived as a head coach at both the Division II and FCS levels, going 81-28 overall at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Elon and James Madison (not including this season). He also has some notable Power 5 credentials as a former quarterbacks coach at Pitt, Temple and Rice, and wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama from 2007 to 2010. The former West Virginia quarterback has the experience and quarterback background that many FBS programs seek.

Jay Hill, Weber State: Hill is building Weber State into the best FCS program west of the Rockies. He has guided the Wildcats to three consecutive FCS playoff runs (quarterfinals or semifinals) and top-6 finishes, and the team is 5-0 so far this spring. Hill, 46, is 37-9 in the past four seasons. He looked like a strong candidate for the Utah State vacancy last winter, but the school ultimately went with a sitting FBS coach (Blake Anderson). Hill played cornerback at Utah, coached at his alma mater from 2001 to 2013 — working on offense, defense and special teams — and has spent his entire coaching career in his home state. He brings experience in offense, defense and special teams. He will likely be a candidate for any Mountain West vacancy and even select Pac-12 openings.

Brian Bohannon, Kennesaw State: Bohannon’s inclusion comes with the caveat that he projects best for an FBS service academy job or programs open to some version of the triple-option offense. A longtime Paul Johnson assistant at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech, Bohannon has led Kennesaw State to three consecutive FCS playoff appearances and top-10 finishes. A Group of 5 AD said Bohannon is the nation’s best FCS coach, but could be limited because of the triple option. This spring, the Owls started 4-0 for the first time in team history and are again bound for the postseason. Bohannon, 50, is a former Georgia wide receiver who has spent most of his career in his home state. He would be on the shortlist to replace Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo or Army’s Jeff Monken, and a candidate for select openings elsewhere.

Willie Simmons, Florida A&M: FAMU opted out of the spring season but is set to play a full fall schedule that includes a Sept. 18 trip to South Florida. Simmons is 15-7 with the Rattlers and 36-18 overall as an FCS head coach of two HBCU programs (Prairie View A&M and Florida A&M). The 40-year-old started his college career as a Clemson quarterback, finishing up at The Citadel, began his coaching career at Clemson and worked at Middle Tennessee from 2007 to 2011, spending the final season as offensive coordinator. There’s a diversity problem in the FBS coaching ranks, and many point to a lack of Black coaches who have led programs and worked with quarterbacks. Simmons has done both. Another strong season at FAMU should put him in the mix for a Group of 5 job.

FCS candidates for future FBS openings (beyond 2021)

Nick Hill, Southern Illinois: A former SIU quarterback, Hill only began his coaching career in 2013 after bouncing around the Arena Football League and logging two offseason stints with NFL clubs. He had three consecutive losing seasons before Southern Illinois went 7-5 in 2019. Hill recorded his first signature win Feb. 27, as SIU ended North Dakota State’s record 39-game FCS winning streak in dominant fashion. At 36, Hill checks the “young/former quarterback” box on many schools’ wish list. He likely needs a bit more time before competing for FBS jobs, but should do so in the near future.

Eric Morris, Incarnate Word: Whether FBS athletic directors admit it publicly or not, many are seeking young coaches with a background on offense, ideally connected to the Air Raid or some dynamic derivative. Morris, 35, played wide receiver for Mike Leach at Texas Tech from 2004 to 2008, catching passes from Graham Harrell, now the USC offensive coordinator. After starting his coaching career at Houston, Morris spent the 2012 season working under Leach and at Washington State. He then spent five seasons as a co-offensive coordinator at Texas Tech with Kliff Kingsbury before leaving for Incarnate Word. Morris is 14-15 overall with a playoff appearance in 2018. Another strong season or two should put him in the mix for FBS jobs.

Scotty Walden, Austin Peay: Walden is only in his first FCS season and likely needs a few more years to prove what he can do at the helm But he brings an interesting background, too, as a former Division III head coach (East Texas Baptist) who moved quickly into a coordinator role at Southern Miss, his first FBS job. The 31-year-old actually became Southern Miss’ interim head coach following Jay Hopson’s dismissal, and, in a very 2020 twist, left the post midseason for the Austin Peay gig. Walden led the Governors to a 4-2 record this spring, as all six games were decided by seven points or fewer. A strong season this fall will continue to help Walden, who is positioned to be an FBS head coach by his mid-30s.

Mike Minter, Campbell: Name recognition is a factor in coaching hires, and Minter’s resonates after a productive nine-year NFL career that featured 141 games started. He also has been an FCS head coach since 2013 after only entering the profession two years prior. Minter gets a pass for 2020, as Campbell played an abbreviated schedule against four FBS opponents and lost every contest. He led Campbell to five or six wins each year before 2014 and 2019, setting team records for consecutive games won (6) and consecutive winning seasons (3). Minter, 47, might need a big breakthrough season or two to gain FBS traction, but makes sense for some potential Group of 5 openings in the region.

Rob Ambrose, Towson: The key for Ambrose will be recapturing the magic of 2011-13, when Towson went 29-10 with two CAA titles, two top-10 finishes and an FCS national championship game appearance in 2013. Ambrose has been solid since, winning seven games in three of the past four seasons with a playoff appearance in 2018. Towson opted out of the 2021 spring season and will play a full schedule in the fall, Ambrose, 50, has garnered FBS interest in the past and boasts a background on offense and experience at UConn, when he coached quarterbacks from 2002 to 2008.

Nathan Brown, Central Arkansas: You couldn’t miss Brown and Central Arkansas last fall, as the Bears played the first college game of the pandemic and became a barnstorming bunch throughout the season. Central Arkansas went 5-4 with two wins over Missouri State, bringing Brown’s three-year record to 20-13 at his alma mater. Brown, 36, is a former standout quarterback who was a Walter Payton Award finalist in 2008. He has risen quickly and already has the attention of some FBS athletic directors.

The wild card

Bobby Petrino, Missouri State: Some have said there’s no chance Petrino gets another chance in the FBS. Others say the door is still open. The end of his tenures at both Arkansas and Louisville, while very different, should make schools leery. But he’s still an offensive-minded coach with a career FBS record of 77-35. This spring, Petrino guided Missouri State to a share of its first league title in 31 years. The Bears went 1-10 in 2019 but 5-1 this spring, winning four games by seven points or fewer, with the lone blemish coming against North Dakota State. Only a few programs could hire Petrino, 60, at this point in his career, given the baggage. But if he can follow up with another strong season this fall, he could be on the radar for openings.

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