Deion Sanders’ vision has Colorado football thriving; how long Coach Prime’s magic will last is anyone’s guess

Deion Sanders’ vision has Colorado football thriving; how long Coach Prime’s magic will last is anyone’s guess

BOULDER, Colo. — Before 7 a.m. on Saturday, “Big Noon” was in high gear. A Fox hype man was whipping up the crowd of fans and students who had risen early to be part of the network’s Saturday pregame show on the Colorado campus.

Music blared. Hosts were introduced as athletic rock stars. Both bands showed up prior to that day’s Colorado vs. USC game. But there are some things you can’t rehearse. Out on the fringes of the crowd, Deion Sanders’ latest profundity had already taken root.

“I’m a monument,” read a sign that shot up from the crowd as the cameras blinked on, “not a moment.”

Coach Prime was pictured sitting on a throne.

It was a quote from a Sanders’ interview a few days earlier. With that statement, less than a month into his first season, Coach Prime had already dealt with the essential question that demands to be answered.

This colossal makeover of a college football program that has intersected with fashion, entertainment, key demographics and historical TV ratings is all nice and everything. But is Prime Time a short-timer with the Buffaloes?

How long will it be before Colorado ceases to interest him and this change agent changes jobs? Is that decision intertwined with the future of his sons? Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders and defensive back Shilo Sanders will be eligible for the NFL Draft after this season.

This month-old whirlwind is definitely a sight to behold … for now. Few can say whether it will be for good.

“I didn’t have any questions [for Sanders],” former Colorado coach Gary Barnett said of his time on the search committee hired replace ousted coach Karl Dorrell. “I just wanted to make sure we had a backup. I knew how fragile [it is] when you think you have someone. They’re right there on Tuesday night and on Wednesday morning they’re somewhere else.”

Barnett heartily endorsed the hire. Deion Sanders kept his promise to come. In the nine months that followed, the coach has rocked a world well beyond college football.

Treatises on Coach Prime’s impact on Black culture — and culture in general — have been written. Bo knows? Heck, Sanders was the first player to participate in both a Super Bowl and World Series. He played for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and MLB’s Atlanta Braves in the same day. Even if they had no knowledge of him as a hall-of-fame player, by the time September ended, the American populace had to know Sanders as a hall-of-fame media mogul, pitchman, apparel baron and viral sensation.

“I am happy and thankful we are a voice of hope,” Sanders said Saturday following the loss to USC. “… That is the thing that is touching souls around the country. That down-and-out person, that person that no one believes in, that person that no one desires. That person that is stepped over, stepped by and stepped through and stepped past. We represent that person.”

Never have such words been uttered by a first-time Power Five coach in the midst of a two-game losing streak. Or perhaps by any coach anywhere at any time. That’s because it’s about much more than football in Colorado.

The man and his nicknames (Prime Time, Coach Prime, Neon Deion, etc.) are becoming ubiquitous. Sanders seems to be living rent-free in the national consciousness at the moment.

“He is a transcendent athlete,” former All-Star pitcher CC Sabathia said Saturday. “His confidence matches his talent. You very rarely see someone who is that confident who can back it up, can play both sports and actually do it off the field. An amazing father and have this effect he had at Jackson State. And rally all these people to come here. It’s only him that could pull this off.”

Sabathia was among the celebutants choking the CU sideline. Among the others: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and rapper DaBaby. Actors Matthew McConaughey and Will Ferrell were reportedly in attendance, perhaps choosing to stay up in Folsom Field suites.

The drip and swag around the program is so prominent, someone asked CU chancellor Phil DiStefano recently if he got the chance to meet rapper Lil’ Wayne yet?

“I told him I was ‘Big Phil,'” the 77-year-old DiStefano joked.

DaBaby is one of handfuls of celebrities who have attended CU games this season. Getty Images

Even if they knew him only peripherally, the rich and famous have been drawn into Coach Prime’s CU orbit.

“It’s the Prime Effect to be able to see this many people,” Sabathia said looking around the sideline. “This is something you see at a USC game, not in Boulder. The amount of stars that are in Boulder is incredible.”

“A social movement,” Sanders’ manager, Constance Schwartz-Morini, told CBS Sports while describing her client’s impact.

“It’s something called collective effervescence,” Fox broadcaster Gus Johnson told the Los Angeles Times while summing up Sanders’ impact.

On campus that Saturday morning, Paul Major, a 1989 CU graduate, spoke for the rank and file. He just wanted his Buffaloes to be relevant again.

“We’d been struggling to get a coach you could believe in,” Major said while scouting the school’s bookstore for souvenirs. “We all knew it was a gamble. … His speeches are inspirational, or are they going to get old? Are the kids going to get tired of it?”

A few hours later, the Buffaloes fell to 3-2 after losing to the Trojans. In some ways, it hardly mattered. Despite a 3-0 start being followed by consecutive losses, Sanders hasn’t veered from his trademark phrase, “We Comin’.” That is not even among the nine phrases he recently sought to legally trademark.

“The one I love best is, ‘I don’t wear cologne, I wear confidence,'” DiStefano said, practically giggling. “When he says those things, people just gravitate.”

Whether the Buffs merely go to a bowl game or eventually win a national championship or their coach bounces prematurely, Sanders will have been worth it for the spectacle. But so is the time one takes to seek out Halley’s Comet as it streaks across the heavens once every 75 years.

Sanders has certainly shone as bright. Now, how long can his light shine in Boulder?

“Most coaching jobs are not permanent anyway,” Alfie Jones rationalized last week standing outside CU’s Dal Ward Athletic Center.

Jones spoke while asking directions to the coaches’ office last Friday saying he was the cousin of Colorado defensive quality control director Dennis Thurman.

“It’s about challenges for Deion,” said Jones’ friend, Earl Burns, who had flown in from Arkansas for the game. “What’s the next challenge? I think he feels like he’s got all the resources he needs and he wants to make a name for himself in a place versus pick this up and go to Florida State in a couple of years.”

Their coach’s long-term future hardly matters to the true believers at this moment because Coach Prime has already redefined what it means to matter. When Oregon coach Dan Lanning allowed ABC cameras in his pregame locker room 10 days ago, he was revealing how Sanders’ bold entry into the big time had rankled some in the profession.

Perhaps Lanning had forgotten Oregon was the school that once crowed about 315 different uniform combinations. Its mascot, The Oregon Duck, rides a motorcycle into the stadium on game days. The entire program has been bankrolled by one of the richest men in the word, Nike co-founder Phil Knight.

Given that, the only difference may be in how one markets themselves.

“They have a big bullseye on their back because it’s Prime,” Burns said, “because he’s a peacock.”

But was he that much of a gamble? CU can’t be blamed for taking a chance. It crapped out so frequently in the hiring process that the program needed an intervention. There hasn’t been a Buffs coach with a winning record overall since Barnett left in 2005.

Former coach Jon Embree was hired in 2011 with no previous head coaching or coordinator experience. It’s fair to say he ran the program into the ground, going 4-21 over two seasons.

Mike MacIntyre (2013-18) won a national coach of the year award in 2016. Otherwise, he was 20 games below .500. Mel Tucker didn’t get to his second year, bolting for Michigan State after a 5-7 debut in 2019. Dorrell, a former CU offensive coordinator and UCLA coach, was leading the Miami Dolphins’ wide receivers when he got the call. He lasted 2 ½ seasons.

Athletic director Rick George hired those last three coaches. It’s safe to say he had to get this one right. As long ago as it might be, there is a standard Colorado strives to achieve. The Buffs won their one and only national championship 33 years ago.

Back then, coach Bill McCartney recruited the hell out of Southern California and drew a red circle around Nebraska as a designated rival. That upset the establishment in a different way.

“Reall,y I wanted to know who he was,” George said of Sanders. “When I walked out of his house, I felt very confident he was the right guy for the job. … We signed him to a five-year contract for a reason.”

That itself was a sign CU was going all in. George was so smitten that he offered Sanders $5.5 million a year — money he didn’t have in the budget to fully cover the deal.

The veteran AD was literally betting on the Prime Effect to pay for itself. George went out and hustled donors. Nebraska and Colorado State were already going to be sellouts, just like the spring game. After the season-opening upset at TCU, the entire season sold out.

“If you can’t see what’s coming with CU football, you’re just a flat-out hater.”

Deion Sanders

TV ratings have been historic. The month Sanders was hired, officially licensed apparel sales shot up 700%. The bookstore only had a couple of Sanders-specific items on display over the weekend, according to an assistant manager. Everything else had sold out.

“He transformed a lot of things nationally,” George said. “He’s got a way he’s going to do it. … Maybe there is a blueprint there that people can follow.”

Maybe … but there’s only one Prime. And for now at least, he’s at Colorado.

“I watched him on Aflac commercials and everything,” DiStefano said. “I watched ’60 Minutes.’ To be honest, I thought, ‘Will you fit into Boulder?’ That I just didn’t know. For any coach, [the question is] how are they going to fit into the community? How are they going to fit into the campus?”

For a university whose enrollment is only 2% Black, the administration has been amazingly progressive in its hires.

Sanders is the program’s third consecutive Black head football coach and fourth out of the last five hired by Colorado. George is the first major-college AD to hire three Black head coaches himself, and CU is the first FBS program to ever have four in its history: Jon Embree (2011-12), Tucker (2019), Dorrell (2020-22) and Sanders (present).

Upon settling in, the coach helped open CU’s new Center for African and African-American Studies during one of the busiest portions of his schedule — National Signing Day last February.

At about the same time, Sanders accompanied DiStefano to Denver to meet with the Colorado Black Caucus in the state capital.

“He’s made connections that we have not made before,” DiStefano said.

Sanders called George and wanted an “X Permit,” a hang tag that allows the bearer to park in any university controlled lot.

“I’ve worked with coaches going back to Chuck Fairbanks [in 1979],” DiStefano said. “He is the first coach to say he wanted an X Pass, so he can visit with faculty and students.”

The university had already relaxed its transfer regulations last year before Sanders arrived to lay the foundation for this amazing flip. He plucked an unprecedented 58 players out of the transfer portal. In order for credits to transfer, athletes (like any student) must have earned a “C- “or better in a respective class.

CU transfers overall are up 17%, according to DiStefano.

There was initial shock in the manner Sanders cleaned out the existing roster upon his arrival. The coach had his ever-present camera crew document the moment he told players they were being replaced.

“No. 1, he was really honest with the kids. ‘This is how it’s going to be,'” DiStefano said. “We brought him here to win games.”

The secondary shock was there being 58 players in the portal good enough to play at an elite Power Five level. Shedeur was a given. The five-star quarterback was pursued by everyone out of high school and had already starred with his dad at Jackson State. Two-way star Travis Hunter similarly committed to Sanders at the FCS level before transferring to CU.

Coach Prime quickly coached them all up, successfully transforming a locker room with new players, new NIL deals and new ambitions. Sanders basically started the college version of an expansion franchise.

“If you can’t see what’s coming with CU football,” Sanders told reporters Saturday, “you’re just a flat-out hater.”

Depth is a problem early. So is line play. Those issues can be fixed as the roster fills out. Barnett said the advantage with that many transfers is, athletically and emotionally, they come in seasoned to some degree.

“They’ve broken up with their girlfriends at some point,” he said. “They’ve slid up and down depth charts. In many ways, Colorado is a last chance. Start over at 1-11 Colorado with Prime Time at the controls? Some of them have seen more uncertainty in their careers.”

“Older kids, they’ve already been around the block. This is their last chance,” Barnett said. “There is a lot to that. It’s easier to make a team with guys like that than guys you’re trying to nurse along, bring on as freshmen.”

Barnett should know. He was a bit of a turnaround artist himself winning three conference titles combined at Northwestern and Colorado. He is currently the team’s radio color analyst.

“When you hire Deion, you hire the system, which includes a lot of different things,” Barnett said. “He never wants to not be prepared. He was the most organized of all the guys we talked to.”

Sanders certainly was the most visible. It has now become possible to watch a Colorado game with Coach Prime seldom leaving the screen. His commercials are omnipresent.

George got a peak behind the curtain last December shortly after Sanders was hired.

The AD was walking the halls of the Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas — attending the annual National Football Foundation dinner — when Sanders FaceTimed his boss, laughing while in full makeup as a senior citizen wearing gray hair and a beard. The coach was filming a yogurt commercial featuring himself at an advanced age, “Old Time Prime Time.”

The prospect of a Coach Prime past his prime would delight Buffs everywhere, as long he stays put for the duration.

But after one month of football, a question lingers: Will this moment become that monument?

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