It’s only fitting that Deion Sanders, one of the fastest players in NFL history, would ascend so quickly as a head coach, elevating Colorado from perennial punching bag to the epicenter of college football in record time. Two weeks is all it took for Coach Prime to put the long-suffering Buffaloes (owners of a dismal 1-11 record last year) on the map, silencing his doubters with surgical efficiency.
The circus has arrived with College Game Day and its Fox counterpart Big Noon Kickoff both headed to Boulder, where the 18th-ranked Buffaloes—playing on national television for the third time in as many weeks—will look to hold court against rival Colorado State in this year’s installment of the Rocky Mountain Showdown. Even as 23-point home favorites, all eyes will be on Colorado as the Buffaloes continue their Pac-12 farewell tour, leaving the conference in style ahead of next year’s move to the Big-12.
Will it last? Who knows. But Colorado is here, relevant for the first time in years, if not decades. And it’s all thanks to Sanders, singlehandedly changing the trajectory of a school and program (at least until he inevitably leaves for a better job elsewhere, perhaps at his alma mater, Florida State) once confined to the fringes of college football. Sanders may be more a salesman than a tactician, but in a results-based business, you can’t argue with Colorado’s early success, upsetting last year’s national runner-up TCU in Week 1 before laying down the hammer on Nebraska in last week’s home opener.
There’s a lot to like—and not like—about Sanders, a larger-than-life personality threatening to overtake Nick Saban as the new face of college football. Sanders is brash and arrogant, opining his Hall-of-Fame bust belongs in a wing separate from other, less deserving enshrinees (“My jacket’s got to be a different color”). He’s also a ruthless competitor, encouraging his players to enter the transfer portal to make room for new recruits including many from his previous stint at Jackson State (sons Shedeur and Shilo and two-way star Travis Hunter among them). But even if you’re turned off by his in-your-face stylings or his combative attitude toward the media of late, you have to admit, he’s a hell of a quote, a born entertainer as charming as the day is long.
Deion Sanders responds to a reporter: “Do you believe now?! I read through that bulljoke you wrote!” pic.twitter.com/52xJcQkH4b
— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) September 2, 2023
The spectacle is real. Reminiscent of sports phenomena like Tebow Mania and the shortlived “Linsanity” movement, Sanders has graduated to must-see status, attracting the Wu-Tang Clan, Terrell Owens, Shannon Sharpe, Michael Irvin and Stephen A. Smith, among other A-listers present at last week’s game. The former Cowboy is everywhere you look, popping up in television ads (Subway, Chevrolet, KFC and Aflac are among his many endorsements), appearing on debate shows like Undisputed while even making time for interviews with Pat McAfee and Gayle King. And, somehow, he never disappoints.
Wu-Tang Clan pulled up to watch Colorado vs Nebraska ?
Coach Prime effect ?
— Shannonnn sharpes Burner (PARODY Account) (@shannonsharpeee) September 9, 2023
“He’s a true performer,” Olivia Dekker said of Sanders after crossing paths with him at a corporate event earlier this year. “Everything that he says sounds like a bumper sticker.”
Despite obvious parallels, Tebow and Sanders are, in many ways, polar opposites. For instance, Tebow built his reputation on pious cheerfulness and a relentless positivity. By contrast, the outspoken Sanders is an endless source of bulletin board material, displaying the delusional confidence of a prize fighter gunning for the heavyweight crown. And while Tebow certainly didn’t shy away from his sudden fame and celebrity, he also didn’t invite it to nearly the degree that Sanders has, seizing on the media’s infatuation with bold mavericks who color outside the lines. That’s because Sanders, at his core, is an entrepreneur, a smooth-talking pitchman working all the angles.
Still, even as his NFL bubble burst, our fascination with Tebow never waned, manifesting in one of the most devoted fan followings of any player in recent memory. Tebow set the bar high, but Sanders may just have what it takes to raise it, introducing himself to a new generation of fans who might not remember his exploits 30 years ago as the most explosive dual-sport athlete this side of Bo Jackson.
There’s a certain irony in Sanders, a famously apathetic student who finished his final semester of college with a 0.0 GPA, now holding a position of power at a prestigious academic institution, but that’s a topic for another day. In some sense, it’s refreshing to see Sanders so effortlessly disrupt the college football hierarchy, emerging as the anti-Saban, a charismatic presence who rules, not with an iron fist, but with the performative flair of a Baptist preacher, treating his halftime pep talks as Sunday sermons. And while there’s a zany cartoonish-ness to Coach Prime that could elicit eye-rolls, it’s also why he’s so beloved, a flamboyant carnival barker who always knows when the cameras are rolling. All gas and no brakes, Sanders is the perfect avatar for the internet age, communicating exclusively in viral soundbites and off-the-cuff quips.
The speed and scope of Sanders’ ascent have been astonishing, dominating every facet of the news cycle as the media continues to chronicle his every move, promoting the 56-year-old, almost to the point of hero worship. Colorado/TCU averaged 7.26 million viewers on Fox—its most ever for an opening-week broadcast—and that was before we had any inkling the Buffaloes would be even remotely watchable. Months earlier, Colorado held its annual spring game at Folsom Field, a glorified scrimmage attended by upwards of 50,000 fans. To put that in proper perspective, the previous year’s event drew an audience of 1,900.
Boulder's spring game before vs. after Deion Sanders took over ?
The Coach Prime Effect
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 22, 2023
“Deion paid for himself on Day One,“ said Dan Le Batard, arguing that Sanders, in spite of a generous salary ($5 million annually), is actually underpaid. “He makes Colorado matter by virtue of standing on their sideline.”
As I’ve alluded to in past stories—notably the trend toward networks hiring “celebrity” analysts like Tom Brady and Alex Rodriguez—stardom is a powerful elixir, a potent cocktail the mainstream media too often mistakes for quality. And while the excessive coverage already has Sanders at risk of overexposure, the story doesn’t seem to be running out of steam, at least while the Buffs are winning, exceeding expectations as perhaps the most surprising turnaround in college football.
Colorado, like Jackson State, may very well be a stepping stone for Sanders, a proving ground for something bigger and better. That would certainly change the narrative, though who could blame Sanders for embracing a philosophy that’s worked so well for him throughout his career?
“Of course, Deion, like all these coaches, is going to use all those kids as a stepping stone to his next career move. He already did it at Jackson State,” said Le Batard. “Deion is one of the most famously selfish athletes ever, a mercenary of the highest order. And he sees a business opportunity.”
Between the domino effect of conference realignment, NILs, mass transfers and an avalanche of broadcast rights money (likely the impetus for next year’s expanded playoff field), college football has never cared less about loyalty or regional identity, both relics of a simpler time when rivalries and school spirit were all anyone needed. The coaching carousel, in tandem with relaxed transfer rules, has led to greater parity with traditional powers like Alabama and Clemson no longer viewed as untouchable, developments that Sanders, in laying the foundation for his empire, has taken full advantage of. Some might call him a grifter or an opportunist, but, if anything, Sanders is shrewder than most, willing to play the game that others won’t.
Even if you’re not sold on him, know that Sanders worked incredibly hard to get here. His climb to the top of college football has been years in the making, paying his dues on the HBCU circuit before finally getting a foot in the door at Colorado, one of the least desired Power Five jobs available during last year’s hiring cycle. Given the fixer-upper he inherited, what Sanders has already accomplished is remarkable, building a competitive program from scratch with little more than gut feel and an eye for talent. Let’s also not discount his past work in broadcasting, honing his oratory skills as an analyst on NFL Network, CBS, and, for a brief moment in time, Barstool Sports.
In a saturated content space offering no shortage of entertainment alternatives, only time will tell if Sanders’ story arc has the narrative heft to achieve real staying power, or if the spell eventually wears off, disintegrating like so many other passing fads lost to the sands of time. But rest assured, this is no gimmick. Sanders is a true original, a fearless pioneer using his power and influence to usher in a new era of college football.