Up Next


Deion Sanders, Pat Narduzzi say the quiet part out loud: College players are replaceable

If kids are hired to play sports, can they be fired, too?

Pushed into a corner by the free-for-all of transfers and athlete endorsement deals, big-time college sports is finally talking openly about something it previously tried to hide:

Coaches and athletic departments aren’t primarily here to develop young people and help them reach their full potential as athletes, students, men, or women. They need to win and win now. If you can’t help them on game day – you’re gone.

Colorado coach Deion Sanders said it point-blank Saturday when asked about an offensive line that left his son and quarterback, Shedeur, to absorb seven sacks in a lopsided loss to UCLA. “The big picture, you go get new linemen,” Sanders said. “That’s the picture, and I’m gonna paint it perfectly.”

In other words: You can’t block that pass rush? I’ll find someone who can, while you find your way into the transfer portal.

There was a fair amount of pearl-clutching over Sanders’ remark. But I give Sanders credit for being honest about something coaches have done quietly since the days of leather helmets. Now, it’s out in the open, a byproduct of college athletes having more power over where they play and how they’re compensated.

Sanders, as usual, is surfing the front wave of the transformation of college sports. Last spring, on his first day at Colorado, he directed the players he inherited toward the transfer portal and said, “go ahead and jump in.” Only 10 players stayed; 86 new guys arrived. As the season approached, Sanders questioned those who criticized his methods: “I don’t think you got to have unity whatsoever,” Sanders said. “You got to have good players.”

Fair enough. Players can transfer almost at will now, so coaches can’t be blamed for going out and getting short-term talent, rather than developing it over the course of four or five years. But Saturday was a turning point. Coaches were talking about getting better players in the middle of the season, while still coaching the guys they have right now.

That’s basically what Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said after the Panthers got waxed 58-7 by Notre Dame: “You lose a lot of good players a year ago, you think as a coach you’re gonna replace them,” Narduzzi said. “We obviously haven’t.”

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi watches from the sideline during the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 28 in South Bend, Indiana.

Quinn Harris/Getty Images

We can argue about what Narduzzi meant by “replace,” or how much blame he placed on himself relative to his team. What is clear, though, is how openly the need for “better” players is being acknowledged, and even expected. Since teams can now purchase athletes using name, image and likeness money, recruiting has turned from talent identification and development into an exercise in budget, sales and marketing.

This contradicts the claim put forth by the university presidents, athletic directors and commissioners of the major conferences that athletes are first and foremost students – not employees in a money-making enterprise.

Oh, word? A student with a C grade-point average won’t get expelled from Pitt, but a C performance on defense can get him transferred. You don’t want to be a Travelpro-value tailback in Coach Prime’s offense – he likes Louis Vuitton.

Quiet as kept, Division 1 athletic scholarships are still granted on a year-by-year basis. In the past, most coaches resisted kicking kids to the curb strictly because of performance. When they did cut them loose, coaches often found another school where an athlete could play. Deciding to revoke a scholarship because the player wasn’t as good as the coach had thought he would be – that was considered a bad look, and inconsistent with the alleged higher purpose of education.

Now that the transactional nature of college sports is more apparent, taking back scholarships doesn’t look quite so bad.

Ever since big TV money started flowing into college sports, institutions have tried to prevent athletes from sharing the profits. One of their central arguments is that college sports are different from the pros because sports are just one part of a young person’s college experience. Athletics was portrayed as one part of a well-rounded education that ushers a young woman or man into adulthood under the firm but nurturing supervision of a parental coach figure.

That might still be the case at, say, Division II Pitt-Johnstown. At Pitt, Narduzzi doesn’t need well-rounded student-athletes. He needs a better quarterback.

Coincidentally, so do the Pittsburgh Steelers. If the Pitt Panthers can go out this offseason and sign a new quarterback, and he’s paid for his services, how much different are they from the Steelers? That distinction is crumbling Saturday by Saturday as college coaches – consciously or not – discuss their new reality.

Back in 2020, in what seems like a prehistoric era before NIL and transfers, former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson saw this future coming. Thompson became a legend for, among other things, making sure that his players graduated. Along with his reverence for education, he also was one of the first prominent coaches to publicly call for players to be paid. And he asked the question that we are now being forced to answer:

“If we are basically hiring kids to play college sports, does that mean we can fire them, too?”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.