Travis Hunter to Jackson State proves Deion Sanders is made for NIL era | Toppmeyer
If college athletes were allowed to profit off endorsement deals during Deion Sanders’ career as a multi-sport 1980s star at Florida State, he could have become a millionaire before ever playing an NFL or MLB game.
Few have better understood the art of branding, promotion and publicity.
Nowadays, Sanders is the successful second-year coach at Jackson State, which competes in Division I FCS, but you might you know him better from all those Aflac commercials that “Coach Prime” appears in alongside Nick Saban.
So, when college athletes were permitted this year to start earning money off their name, image and likeness (think sponsorships, endorsements, autographs and appearance fees), we should have seen this coming.
We should have expected that, with Sanders on the sideline, Jackson State would become a program where athletes would attract endorsement deals. After all, the lights shine a little brighter on Sanders’ stage.
But no one could have predicted what happened Wednesday, when Sanders and Jackson State secured the most significant recruiting coup of the modern era.
Cornerback Travis Hunter, the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect from Collins Hill High School in Georgia, decommitted from Florida State and signed with Jackson State on the first day of the December signing period.
By No. 1 overall prospect, yes, I mean No. 1 in all the land.
Higher ranked than any prospect who signed to Saban’s Alabama program. Higher ranked than any prospect who signed in Georgia’s top-ranked class. Higher ranked than any player who signed with any FBS program.
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“Jerry Rice, Doug Williams, and of course the legend, JSU’s own Walter Payton — Historically Black Colleges and Universities have a rich history in football,” Hunter wrote in a note announcing his decision. “I want to be part of that history, and more, I want to be part of that future. I am making this decision so I can light the way for others to follow, make it a little easier for the next player to recognize that HBCUs may be everything you want and more.”
Some might argue that Hunter will hamstring his NFL stock by competing in the FCS rather than challenging himself against Power Five competition. I don’t buy that.
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The San Francisco 49ers selected quarterback Trey Lance from North Dakota State — an FCS program — with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. If you can play ball, NFL scouts will find you, and let Hunter’s well-stated history lesson remind you that some truly great players have emerged from HBCUs like Jackson State.
After Sanders became the Tigers’ coach, he vowed to lift HBCUs to a higher platform. Hunter’s stunning decision is going to send that platform soaring.
NCAA rules prohibit schools from paying athletes or using third-party endorsement opportunities as recruiting inducements, but here’s a prediction I feel confident making: Hunter is a going to rake in endorsements at Jackson State – perhaps at a level he could not have reached at Florida State.
The nation’s top prospect will play for a coach who doubles as a celebrity at an HBCU in Mississippi, the state with the nation’s highest percentage of Black residents. I’ll be stunned if companies in Mississippi and beyond aren’t lining up to make a deal with Hunter.
Maybe this decision is as simple as that, a heady business move by Hunter. Maybe he craved the opportunity to learn from one of the greatest cornerbacks ever. Or, maybe his motivations are rooted in what he wrote in his announcement, and he relishes being a pioneer for recruits who might not otherwise consider an HBCU.
Whatever his reasoning, this is a groundbreaking move.
It’s also Sanders firing a shot across the bow of his alma mater. You can bet some Florida State fans gladly would swap coach Mike Norvell, who is 8-13 after two seasons with the Seminoles, for Sanders.
TCU reportedly had interest in Sanders for its head coaching vacancy but hired Sonny Dykes from Southern Methodist.
“Trust me, TCU and several others are not the only ones interested in what we do here at Jackson State,” Sanders, whose team is 11-1, said in November.
FBS programs should become more intrigued after what happened Wednesday.
Ahead of signing day, Sanders teased that Jackson State would make headlines.
“We're going to shock the country,” Sanders said on Barstool's Unnecessary Roughness podcast.
For perhaps the first time in Sanders’ life, the marketing magician undersold it.
Jackson State and Hunter shocked the country, yes, but they also made history in a way that could alter the college football paradigm.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.