Deion Sanders is never a big fish in a small pond. He is, of course, a massive fish, but whatever pond Deion is in promptly becomes Deion-sized. He has played approximately infinity roles in his three decades as a prominent part of American culture—in addition to playing offense, defense, and special teams, he’s been a baseball star, a rapper, a reality TV main character, an NFL analyst, a fake draft prospect, a podcast host, a women’s basketball coach, and a hot dog machine salesman, among other things. He’s been Prime Time in all of those roles—flashy, charismatic, a tireless self-promoter—without really changing anything about himself.
Take, for example, Deion’s rebirth as Coach Prime, a path that’s taken him from running his own charter high school program in Texas to calling plays at a Dallas private school to the head-coaching job at Jackson State, and now, for some reason, has put him in charge of the Colorado Buffaloes. In some ways, the Colorado job feels too big for Sanders. The last coach to jump directly from the FCS to a power conference school was Chris Klieman, who went from North Dakota State to Kansas State in 2019, before Sanders was at JSU; Klieman had spent decades as an assistant coach and had won four FCS championships in his five years at NDSU when he made the jump to the Big 12; Sanders has just three years total as a head coach. Sanders has no history with the Colorado program or the Pac-12. There’s a long list of reasons Colorado has not had a good football team in 15 years, and a long list of head coaches have tried and failed to fix them. How could Sanders be the one to succeed?
And yet, on the other hand, the Colorado job feels way, way too small for Deion Sanders. Sanders is arguably the most famous college football coach—it’s either him or Nick Saban, and they get equal billing in those AFLAC commercials. (I can assure you that more regular Americans know who Deion Sanders is than who Dabo Swinney is.) But Sanders is not just famous: He’s achieved everything anybody could have possibly expected from him in his brief career as a college football coach. In just three years, he redefined the level of success and attention that an HBCU program can achieve in the 21st century. He took a team which went 4-8 the year before he arrived and went 27-5, including winning back-to-back conference championships. With his stardom and that sort of rapid success, how did he end up at the 12th-most successful program in the Pac-12?
But Colorado will not feel too big or too small than Sanders for long. A forgotten program is now the talk of the college football world; recruits who never would’ve considered Colorado are reportedly clamoring to play for the team. He’s already landed his first five-star recruit, something Colorado hadn’t done since 2008. With Deion, nothing that has made Colorado good or bad in the past will really matter. (Apologies to Ralphie, now the second-most important Colorado Buffalo.) It’s not Colorado anymore—it’s the school where Deion Sanders is the coach.
At Jackson State, Coach Prime was a good story. He might have stolen some recruits from the top programs in the sport, but the power five conference schools didn’t really feel threatened by him, since their teams would never play JSU. They also apparently didn’t consider him a legitimate coaching candidate, as the biggest programs with job openings didn’t seriously consider Deion. The Colorado job is a litmus test for the power of Prime—as a coach, as a program-builder, as a recruiter, as a disruptor of the college football status quo.
I’ll admit, I was skeptical when Sanders became the head coach of Jackson State in 2020. Sanders had only been a coach at the high school level—and one of the high schools where he coached was not, strictly speaking, a school. Things ended badly at Prime Prep, the charter school Sanders founded without really looking into how schools work. And Jackson State is a historically Black college, which have their own unique on- and off-field constraints that make it hard to win games. HBCUs have rich traditions and large fan bases, but are underfunded, lack top-flight facilities, and generally haven’t been a destination for football talent since SEC teams started including Black players more than 50 years ago. Sanders didn’t go to an HBCU and before arriving at Jackson State, had never publicly given any indication he cared about them. Walking into that complex, one-of-a-kind environment with no experience and the wrong expectations easily could have led to a massive flop.
Yet Coach Prime thrived. Jackson State went 23-2 with back-to-back SWAC championships over the past two seasons; their only two losses were to an FBS team and in the Celebration Bowl, which pits the two HBCU conference champions against each other in the Black national championship game. (Sanders will coach JSU in this year’s Celebration Bowl on December 17 against North Carolina Central, his final game with the program; the Tigers are 15-point favorites.) In 2021, Sanders landed the 58th-ranked recruiting class in the 247Sports composite—not only the best class by any HBCU or any FCS program ever, but better than many power conference teams. When he followed that up by signing five-star recruit Travis Hunter, the top-ranked player in the entire 2022 class and a previous Florida State commit, it was an unprecedented recruiting win.
JSU broke through and became a mainstream story. Sanders quickly produced NFL talent—James Houston IV became the first draftee out of JSU in 14 years, and Jackson State even hosted ESPN’s College GameDay earlier this year, the show’s first trip to an HBCU since 2008. While Jackson State already had the best attendance in the FCS before Sanders took over, it skyrocketed during Coach Prime’s tenure, setting attendance records. And Sanders did it all without controversy or whispers of NCAA violations. In every sense, it was a triumph.
But Deion Sanders won at Jackson State largely by being Deion Sanders. He didn’t win by fixing the structural and systemic challenges faced by HBCUs in three years. “We do have to admit that he’s the charismatic individual, just because Deion can do it, doesn’t mean everybody can do it,” Bomani Jones said in a viral CNN interview about Deion’s departure to Colorado. “If he was really going to accomplish that, it would take 10 years at least.” Deion did, at many points, engage with the problems faced by historically Black colleges, donating a large portion of his salary to build sparkling new football facilities, and talking about the importance of HBCUs in our society. And hopefully, some of the increased attention HBCUs received while Deion was there will create some long-lasting impacts. But the main selling point was always Prime. If Deion really sold recruits mainly on the importance of playing for an HBCU, how come so many of them are supposedly following him to Colorado?
Colorado should have a better football program than Jackson State. In 2021, JSU made about $7 million directly from athletics; Colorado made about $47 million. But Sanders will have the same plan for winning at Colorado as he did at Jackson State: He’ll do it by being Deion Sanders. He might even do it with the same damn team. In his introduction to Colorado’s roster, he urged players to consider transferring away, letting them know he was planning on replacing as many of them as possible with players from his 12-0 Jackson State team. “I’m bringing my luggage with me,” he said. “And it’s Louis.”
Deion Sanders telling the CU Buffs football team that he’s bringing his own luggage, and that they better hit the portal. This is crazy pic.twitter.com/004LUKiTr2— College FB Transfer Portal (@CollegeFBPortal) December 4, 2022
Video of that first meeting went viral; Sanders’s message to Colorado’s returning players was harsh and brutally honest. Even though Colorado is so much larger and has so many financial advantages, Deion’s JSU team had more talent than this Colorado program. According to ESPN’s SP+, 2022 JSU would be about a seven-point favorite over 2022 Colorado.
Believe it or not, Colorado was a powerhouse about 30 years ago, winning a national championship in 1990 and producing the 1994 Heisman winner, Rashaan Salaam. But it’s been almost completely irrelevant since switching from the Big 12 to the Pac-12 starting in the 2011 season. This year, the Buffs bottomed out with a 1-11 season, tied for the worst in program history; they were outscored by an average of 29.1 points per game.
Colorado also has barriers that have made it difficult to be a competitive program, let alone an elite one. The state of Colorado hasn’t produced a five-star recruiting prospect since 2007; the university implemented restrictive recruiting policies in the wake of a massive recruiting and sexual assault scandal in the early 2000s; the school has generally set unusual hurdles for incoming transfers; Colorado has a relatively weak donor base in a state with lots of transplants and pro sports fans. The school hasn’t fixed its fundraising issues yet—when asked how the school can afford to pay Sanders’s $5.5 million salary, athletic director Rick George straight-up said the school doesn’t have the money right now. And the school and its college town, Boulder, are both remarkably un-diverse, something cited as a hurdle by Buff legends in an Athletic article earlier this year about the downfall of the program. (JSU actually has a proportionally larger white undergrad population, about 4 percent, than CU-Boulder’s Black student population, which is 2.6 percent.)
Deion is not going to fix all of these things. He is not going to transform the fundamental challenges at CU overnight. He didn’t do that at JSU, and he won’t do it here. He’s just going to continue to sell players on himself. The school has already promised to roll back some of its transfer restrictions, which will allow Sanders to create the program he wants almost overnight.
We’ve seen how quickly coaches can bring change to programs in the modern era of college football. USC went 4-8 last year, then hired Lincoln Riley, who brought in a slew of transfers from his previous Oklahoma team—just like Sanders likely will do. In Year 1, the Trojans were a Pac-12 title game victory from the College Football Playoff and have the (likely) Heisman winner, Caleb Williams, one of the players who followed Riley from Norman to Los Angeles. In the old model of college football, where transferring took a year out of a player’s career and true freshmen generally redshirted, it took two or three years for a buzzy coaching hire to make an impact—and by that point, the buzz might have evaporated after a couple of losing seasons. Now, hype pays off ASAP—and that’s perfect for Prime Time, a one-man hype machine. If any coach was meant to thrive in this era, it’s him.
All Sanders would have to do to be the best Colorado coach in over a decade is regularly go .500. That should be easy—if he’s able to assemble a roster of four- and five-star recruits overnight, he’ll have one of the most talented rosters in the conference. But the possibility for bigger things is clear: Under the new College Football Playoff format, the Pac-12 champion will get an automatic bid, and USC is about to leave the league for the Big Ten. Is it really that ridiculous to imagine Colorado out-recruiting Utah and Washington and winning the league?
Travis Hunter is likely coming to Colorado. Deion’s son, Shedeur Sanders, is a four-star prospect who has shown big-time growth as a QB in two years at Jackson State. There was also a tweet from Alabama running back Trey Sanders, formerly the top RB prospect in the nation, that he wanted to come to Colorado, but he also may have just been making a joke about having the same last name as Deion. Sanders has also made impressive hires to fill out his coaching staff: He’s hired Sean Lewis, Kent State’s head coach, to be his offensive coordinator—technically a demotion, but another strong sign that people want to be a part of what Sanders is building.
And yet, Sanders didn’t get big-time job offers in this coaching cycle. In addition to Colorado, he reportedly had offers from Cincinnati and South Florida. After back-to-back coaching flops, Auburn could have hired Deion to shake up the SEC. Instead, it went with Hugh Freeze, a man who has already failed as an SEC coach, going 39-25 at Ole Miss, while racking up a series of scandals from using school resources to seek out escort services, harassing a sexual assault survivor online, and creeping on young girls while coaching in high school. Oh, and he also had dozens of NCAA violations, which Freeze lied to his players about. Five other power conference schools had coaching openings this year; they also seem to have ignored Sanders. It’s worth noting that Deion is also the only Black coach hired to an FBS job this year, out of 17 confirmed hires so far. He will also be the only Black coach in the Pac-12.
Hiring Deion Sanders is a scary proposition to the college football establishment. Big-time schools have spent decades hiring a certain type of guy to fit a specific role, but Sanders doesn’t fit into roles. He makes roles fit him. This was true when he played football or baseball or made music or did any number of other things, and it’s true now. They want someone who can come into their school and sell their school, not someone who can come into their school and adjust the program to fit his image.
Maybe in the past, letting Deion be Deion would have been a doomed endeavor. But college football is changing so quickly in so many ways, from the transfer portal and NIL deals to the size of the playoff and the churn of conference realignment, that it might be Prime Time in college football.