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TCU hasn’t ruled out Deion Sanders, but football coach search is focused on others

Drew Davison
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Jackson State's Deion Sanders is under consideration for TCU's open head football coach position. Former coach Gary Patterson left the school earlier this month after 20 years.

TCU hasn’t completely closed the door on Deion Sanders becoming its next football coach, but the focus has shifted to other candidates, a source told the Star-Telegram on Monday.

Sanders interviewed with TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati last week, multiple sources confirmed, and he impressed. The Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Dallas Cowboys cornerback has made a name for himself as a promising coach since taking over at Jackson State.

Sanders garnered support from a few TCU players, notably star running back Zach Evans, publicly campaigning for him last week. But TCU is zeroing in on candidates with more college coaching experience.

For now, Louisiana’s Billy Napier and SMU’s Sonny Dykes appear to be the front-runners. Iowa State’s Matt Campbell and Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott are still in the mix, too, along with Sanders.

More:Gary Patterson and TCU agree to part ways, coach won’t finish ’21

Of the top candidates, Sanders was viewed as the most high-risk hire, according to TCU officials. Sanders justified consideration given what he’s done at Jackson State, landing the highest-ranked FCS and HBCU recruiting class in history in 2021, but the other candidates have more extensive coaching backgrounds at higher levels. In the end, Sanders poses too much risk to emerge as a stronger candidate compared to others such as Napier and Dykes.

Sanders tried to distance himself from TCU’s interest on Monday, pointing out that he was in the hospital when the interview occurred. Sanders had been recovering from complications due to foot surgery.

“Well, TCU is not the only one interested in my services,” Sanders said, according to a report on The Clarion-Ledger’s website, the daily newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi.

“[Jackson State athletic director] Ashley Robinson is interested in my services and finishing out what I completed. Never believe rumors, especially when I’ve been in the hospital for darn near a month. So never just go out there and believe what you hear, my man.”

Multiple sources confirmed again Monday that Donati interviewed Sanders last week.

Donati listed a number of credentials that he’d like in the next football coach after the school parted ways with longtime coach Gary Patterson on Halloween. Among those include a current sitting head coach with an offensive background who is familiar with today’s college era of players profiting off name, image and likeness and the ever-growing NCAA transfer portal.

Sanders checks some of those boxes, of course, but TCU feels others check more boxes and are viewed as better fits across the board. Again, Sanders has not been scratched off the list yet as coaching searches are prone for unexpected turns throughout the process.

The front-runners

Napier, 42, has become one of the hottest names on the coaching market, being listed on several schools’ short list. The Ragin’ Cajuns are 9-1 and ranked No. 23 in the country this week.

Napier has gone 37-12 overall in four seasons at Louisiana, and could have multiple options this offseason. He’s turned down opportunities in previous seasons, but TCU officials feel like the program is in position to land a top candidate.

With Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 in the coming years, TCU believes it can become the top program in the league. The school is located in one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country and has shown a willingness to pay top salaries for its head coach and assistants.

Those factors should intrigue Napier, but time will tell if he covets another job more. Napier has shown patience by waiting for the right opportunity in recent years.

Dykes, meanwhile, has always been viewed as a strong candidate for the job. He’s had success at SMU, which improved to 8-2 overall with its victory over Central Florida on Saturday. The Mustangs travel to No. 5 Cincinnati this weekend.

Dykes, 52, also has familiarity with TCU brass after spending 2017 as an offensive analyst on Patterson’s staff. Speaking of offense, TCU could be enticed by Dykes and the Mustangs boasting the country’s sixth-best offense at 498.7 yards per game. Donati made it clear that he’d prefer an offensive coach more than anything else given that Patterson is regarded as one of the top defensive minds of this generation.

Campbell and Elliott remain under consideration too.

Campbell, 41, is another offensive-oriented coach with accolades in that he’s a three-time Big 12 coach of the year. However, it’s unclear whether Campbell would bolt to another Big 12 program from Iowa State. Also, the Cyclones (6-4, 4-3 Big 12) haven’t played up to expectations this season after being a preseason top 10 team.

Elliott, 41, has generated the least amount of buzz but has been viewed as a future head coach. Clemson is in the midst of a down year, but Elliott was part of the national championship staffs in 2016 and 2018.

TCU remains on track to have its next coach in place by early December with the early signing period starting Dec. 15.

No formal offers have been made to any candidates as of Monday morning, a source said, and the process is not expected to be finalized until after the regular season since every candidate is currently coaching at another school.

TCU will play its final home game of the season against Kansas on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 3 p.m. at Amon G. Carter Stadium. TCU, which is coming off a 46-point loss at Oklahoma State, opened as a 23-point favorite over KU, which is coming off an upset victory at Texas.