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The Year Deion Sanders Changed the Present—and Perhaps the Future—of College Football

Never before has there been a college football coach who looks, dresses, recruits, and hypes up his team like Sanders. But was his first year in Colorado the start of something new for the sport? Or did it expose his house of cards?

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Thirty minutes into the first game of his major college coaching career, Deion Sanders paused at midfield for an interview. This was in early September, when Colorado led 17th-ranked TCU by a field goal, and when the season’s possibilities were still infinite.

Those of us who are well versed in the tropes of college football know that the halftime interview is engineered for monotony: A coach hurriedly answers two anodyne questions, projects an air of authority, and trots to the locker room. But to Sanders—Coach Prime, to us mere mortals—this was something else. This was a live opportunity to show America that he was no ordinary football coach.

So when a Fox reporter asked what he thought of the performance of his two-way star receiver and defensive back, Travis Hunter, Sanders did not lapse into the mundane. Colorado’s immediate competitiveness had taken millions of viewers by surprise over those first two quarters, which meant this was a Moment, with a capital M. And throughout his life as a public figure, Deion Sanders has never missed a Moment.

“He is HIM,” Sanders said of Hunter. Then, as he leaned close into the camera, he spoke of how Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders—his own son—had missed Hunter on two deep passes, and how if they had connected on those, “the Heisman is at his crib chilling right now.”

Those six seconds were emblematic of the entirety of the Deion Sanders Experience. They were somehow both hilarious and presumptuous, free-flowing and calculated. They violated every norm by initiating an award-lobbying campaign in the first half hour of the season, while they also personified a bronze statue as a dude you’d like to hang out and order a pizza with. They were exactly the things you would never, ever, ever expect a college football coach to say, particularly when his entire program was just beginning to figure out exactly what the hell it was supposed to be.

Colorado won that game against TCU—which was the highest-rated contest of the day—and then lost eight of its next 11 (though two of those, against Oregon and Colorado State, were among the highest-rated college football games of the season). Coach Prime became a cultural phenomenon, and then his profile faded in the second half of the year, just as Hunter’s Heisman hopes did.

Sanders is almost certainly the first person to parlay a single losing season into Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year. And oddly, SI’s choice still felt valid because there has never been anyone quite like him in this sport—the way he looks, the way he dresses, the way he recruits, and the way he serves as both taskmaster and hype man for his own players. Already, in year one of Deion’s grand experiment, he’s begun to change the conversation. And as those six seconds showed us, he could very well portend the future of college football as we know it.

That Coach Prime—a nickname that illustrates Sanders’s evolution from brash athlete into brash authority figure—came along at this moment feels like more than a happy accident. College football is graduating into a gilded age. A series of legal decisions and a shift in public sentiment have begun to rebalance the dynamics between player and coach and university. Those changes, combined with the sport’s enduring popularity, have opened the floodgates to a rush of NIL deals and the transfer portal and the allure of the mega-conference. The pretense of amateurism that defined the sport’s first 150 years has given way to the pursuit, by all involved, of stacks and stacks of cash—to what Sanders has referred to as “chasing the bag.”

Who better, then, to lead us into this era than the athlete who presaged it all when, as a defensive back at Florida State in 1988, he showed up for a rivalry game against Florida in a tuxedo and white stretch limo? Or a year later, when he posed, draped in jewelry, for a Day-Glo cover of Sports Illustrated? (Headline of the article: “They Don’t Pay Nobody to Be Humble,” which is also the quote on Sanders’s Pro Football Hall of Fame profile.)

But still, you might ask a perfectly valid question: Why are we talking about the coach of a 4-8 football team as a potentially transformative figure?

There are, in fact, two ways to view Coach Prime’s first season at Colorado. There is the argument that he took over a program that went 1-11 last season and that hasn’t had any sort of real identity since Bill McCartney’s departure nearly 30 years ago and immediately transformed it into a national brand. There is the argument that four wins is a definitive improvement over one, and that Shedeur and Hunter were two of the most thrilling skill position players in the country, until injuries derailed them. There is the argument that a university where less than 3 percent of the students are Black has now become a galvanizing force for Black America.

And then there is the view that Sanders has built a house of cards—that his team failed in the second half of the season because it lacked depth and solid line play and all the unsexy elements of the sport that have never been associated with Deion Sanders. There is the contention that Coach Prime departed the HBCU Jackson State three seasons after threatening to upend the traditional hierarchy of college football; that he ran off dozens of Colorado players before the season even began without thinking about the consequences; that you cannot build the blood and guts of a program almost entirely through the transfer portal. There is the view that perhaps Sanders lacks the forbearance to see this whole thing through, because it may very well get worse before it gets better.

“The guys who have staying power in this business are blue-collar, hard-working dudes,” one rival Pac-12 assistant coach told The Athletic. “There are more hard times coming for him until he figures that out.”

To be fair, that assistant coach also said he believed Sanders is “a good guy” who will ultimately succeed. But it was the kind of presumption people have made about Sanders for decades—that his public persona defines his ethos, and that there isn’t anything else lurking underneath the hat and behind the ubiquitous sunglasses. But to presume that Coach Prime does not actually possess the soul of a blue-collar, hard-working dude, the sportswriter Jean-Jacques Taylor tells me, fails to account for the duality that has defined Sanders from the onset of his life as a public figure—a duality that Taylor, a former columnist for The Dallas Morning News who published a book about Sanders earlier this year, has seen evolve over the course of decades.

“The most interesting thing about Deion,” says Taylor, “is that he’s a complex dude.”

The things the public tends to presume about Deion Sanders are often simplistic, in part because Sanders himself designed it that way. In the late ’80s, as sports became increasingly commercialized and commoditized, Sanders embraced a persona—Prime Time—that was deliberately over the top, the way Muhammad Ali had done a generation earlier. Polarization, Sanders figured, was a way to engage a wider audience. People gravitated toward celebrities they either loved or hated, and when people gravitated toward you, so did the bag.

“I’m a businessman, and the product is me,” Sanders told SI’s Curry Kirkpatrick in 1989.

Yet in the same interview, Sanders also spoke about the necessity of separating his public self from his private self—about differentiating Prime Time from Deion Sanders, just as he would a generation later as Coach Prime. “I’ve seen interviews with Deion in a different context, like on his reality shows, and he’s much more laid-back,” says Billy Hawkins, a University of Houston professor of health and human performance who’s written extensively about Black athletes and college sports. “So I think the context enhances that type of bravado. And I think it’s necessary to have that type of presentation, that cool pose, as a Black male in this predominantly white setting in order to be successful and ward off all those -isms that Black men face.”

When the cameras are turned off, Taylor tells me, Sanders often comes across as someone altogether different. When Taylor covered the Cowboys for The Dallas Morning News, Sanders would get the game plan on Tuesdays and watch film on a portable DVD player so that he’d have it all memorized by Wednesday. “He was always the hardest worker,” Taylor says, “which is why he can’t figure out why other people don’t do it.”

Sanders has brought that same ethos to Colorado, all while attempting to marry multiple elements under a single umbrella: He wants a program that sells itself, that opens up endorsement opportunities for his players. He wants a program that offers what Hawkins calls a kind of “economic emancipation” for Black athletes, who have long been exploited by predominantly white colleges. By taking the job at Colorado, Coach Prime embraced what was essentially a blank slate, a program that had been so wayward for so long that it had no real identity at all. From day one, Colorado became Coach Prime U, and in the era when NIL money drives recruiting and the transfer portal, his very presence filled the void.

But he also insists he wants a program that isn’t just engaged in an empty chase for the bag. He wants athletes who earn their money; Sanders’s inner motivation for becoming a coach, Taylor says, is to improve the lives of young people, as he’d done in much of his post-playing career—even if it sometimes failed. (In his book, Taylor notes that part of the reason Sanders became interested in coaching at a historically Black college like Jackson State was a reaction to the death of George Floyd.)

“We are not an ATM,” Sanders said of his Colorado program at one point this season. What did he mean by that, exactly? Taylor says Sanders draws a line between alumni collectives that hurl money at young recruits for NIL deals just to lure them in, and endorsement deals, which to him feel more earned.

This is the subtlety behind Sanders’s philosophy; it’s not as simple as it looks. When Taylor would ask him about the meaning of hard work within his program, Sanders replied that it wasn’t like his players were trying not to work hard. It was that some of them didn’t really know the meaning of what hard work was—that they didn’t yet comprehend how to reach inside themselves and give more than what they thought they had. He is, Taylor says, “like any other rich, powerful man,” in that “he can be hard to work for. He can also be easy to work for, but he’s very demanding.”

If there is one attribute Sanders definitively lacks, Taylor says, it’s patience. He gives his assistants leeway, but if they’re not getting results, then he’ll quickly step in. The churn of offensive minds at both Jackson State and Colorado has been considerable. Midway through this season, Sanders sidelined coordinator Sean Lewis, who later left to become the head coach at San Diego State. He knows what he’s seeing and he knows what he wants, even if it’s not easy for him to articulate.

Taylor points to Colorado’s kicker, Alejandro Mata, who transferred from Jackson State with Sanders. “He likes Mata, not because Mata’s got the strongest leg, but he’s out there grinding,” Taylor says. “And if you put him in a position to succeed, then he’s good. And if he fails, you don’t have any questions about his effort.”

And when Mata kicked a game-winning 43-yard field goal against Arizona State, Coach Prime shoved him back onto the field and insisted he do a celebratory dance for the cameras.

Coach Prime’s comfort with his own flamboyance is part of what makes this whole thing unique. There simply aren’t many Black coaches in any sport who have ever had the opportunity to do something like this on their own terms, Taylor tells me. But especially in college football, which has an overwhelmingly Black talent pool and an overwhelmingly white power structure—from administrators to coaches to journalists. Coach Prime is one of the few with the stature and power to fully be himself. That comports with why he chose to do this at a place like Colorado: He essentially has his own fiefdom, without having to bend to the will of boosters or fans who may have frowned on his style. And he didn’t have to wrestle with the freighted archetypes and myths of the past because there’s never been a Bear or Bo or Woody or Bobby to compare him to.

“Most of the time as a Black coach,” Taylor says, “you have to fit into whatever image boosters and presidents have of you—whether that’s really who you are or not—because you want that job. You want that opportunity. But if you hire him, then yes, Snoop Dogg and all these celebrities are gonna be on the sideline. And why? Because these are his friends. And if you like it, that’s great. And if you don’t like it, that’s great, too. He don’t care.”

In that way, Sanders’s very presence—in an era when college football programs are essentially corporate brands—has already begun to alter the perception of what a coach could be. And the proof might be showing up in the commercials that bracket the timeouts during his own games. You know the ones I’m talking about because they are so utterly ubiquitous on college football weekends: There go Sanders and Nick Saban again, engaging each other like Oscar Madison and Felix Unger in order to sell insurance.

“First time I saw those ads,” says Hawkins, “I thought, ‘Huh, this is an interesting juxtaposition.’ Because in most regions of the country, especially the South, Nick Saban is still the ideal. And I think Deion is the new age. And I think it’s showing the potential of college athletics to be able to house these two extremely different personalities and not necessarily fall apart.”

That imagery gets back to why the whole Coach Prime thing matters so much. If it works, it opens the door for more nontraditional hires, particularly of Black coaches who might not have otherwise gotten the chance. That could prove especially true at mid-tier programs like Colorado—schools that need something to distinguish themselves in a sport in which publicity and attention are vital elements of the new equation. “I still think athletic directors are going to hire more traditionally—you’re a coach with a hot program who has done well,” says Robert Boland, a professor at Seton Hall Law School who also writes extensively about NIL issues and advises on coaching searches. “But I think we have shifted the model.”

As we spoke, Boland mentioned to me that he was trying to convince another major conference program to hire a high-profile football alum who had the name recognition, even if he didn’t have the coaching experience. It didn’t wind up happening, but the larger point was that even if Coach Prime is one of a kind—if his complex formula of magnetism, salesmanship, and patronage is not easily replicated—there is now more room for certain universities to think outside the box.

“For it to work,” Boland says, “your brand either has to absolutely fit the institution, or your brand has to overcome the institution. Colorado gave away its brand pretty quickly, but it cranked up alumni giving. It cranked up corporate interest. It suddenly made your football coach relevant again in a major television market in Denver.

“So yeah, sometimes the attention is the outcome.”

This fall, as Hunter and Shedeur got hurt and the television ratings dropped and Colorado lost six straight games to finish the season, it was easy to wonder whether perhaps the attention would be the only outcome. Sanders lost a couple of high-profile recruits in November, including Elite 11 quarterback Danny O’Neill. The Athletic published a long story with quotes from anonymous Pac-12 coaches who wondered whether Sanders had the patience to build a culture from the bottom up as Colorado transitions to the Big 12. By the end of November, Colorado’s thin recruiting class was ranked 65th in the nation (it’s currently 99th, according to 247 Sports). “The results aren’t there,” The Athletic’s Ari Wasserman wrote. “And that makes it easy to question whether Colorado is ever truly going to get where Sanders promised it was going.”

It was a legitimate criticism, but it’s also of the type that Sanders courts and catalogs as internal motivation. He’s been using doubt as fuel since before the concept went mainstream. In September, during his postgame press conference after the win over TCU, he turned to longtime Dallas reporter Ed Werder and asked him repeatedly, “Do you believe?” (To which a bewildered Werder replied, “In what?”) It was as if Sanders needed a foil in that moment, and he scanned the crowd for a familiar face to push back on.

Hawkins told me he thought the overarching resistance to Sanders’s unorthodox methods had been milder than he expected—perhaps in part because Sanders landed in a liberal town like Boulder and a blue state like Colorado instead of, say, Texas or Alabama. But maybe it’s also because there is a widespread recognition even among many of his critics that the opportunity is deserved. Sanders had already built Jackson State into an HBCU power over the course of three seasons; he fits the traditional model of a coach with a hot program who worked his way up the ladder. And when the doubts creep in, he has an uncanny ability to redirect the narrative: Just days after those stories about Colorado’s flagging recruiting class landed, the top-ranked offensive lineman in the class of 2024, Jordan Seaton, committed to Colorado, despite not even including the Buffaloes among his top six potential schools. It was a headline-stealing move from a headline-stealing coach.

“So much of the criticism he gets is because he’s doing things his way,” Taylor says, “and not the way coaches have done it before.”

But if there is one thing this season taught us, it’s that 30 minutes and a halftime interview do not redefine a program any more than a single recruiting coup might. There are Moments, and there are Eras, and as Sanders’s first season transitions into his second, the question becomes, does Coach Prime have the patience to become an era-defining figure? To make the leap from He to Him?

“That, my friend,” says Taylor, “is the $64,000 question.”

It could be that Sanders is so utterly unique that no one can quite replicate precisely what he’s doing. But in the bigger picture, if Coach Prime is Him, then this season may be remembered as the opening salvo of a redefining moment—–not just for college football, but for football on every level. It could shatter the mythology of the buttoned-up authoritarian white coach, of 150 years of Woodys and Bos and Bears and Nicks. “That’s the thing about this sport,” Hawkins says. “It lags when you talk about racial progression. It lags quite a bit.”

Sanders’s success could prove that a Black coach whose “whole life has been an example of authenticity, whether it’s rooted in Black culture or Black cultural expressions,” can succeed on his own terms, Hawkins says, without compromising with expectations. It could further that “economic emancipation” for Black athletes that Hawkins refers to, and it could break through what he calls the sport’s “conservative inertia.” It could propel the most uniquely American sport—–and perhaps the sport with the most overarchingly traditionalist culture—–into an entirely new universe.

And if he is not Him? Then the whole Coach Prime thing could boomerang into yet another empty failure defined more by his ubiquitous media presence than by his actual results. “If he has success, then other Black coaches will get those opportunities to be authentically themselves,” Taylor says. “And if not, then he’ll just be looked at as kind of an outlier.”

It’s hard, though, to look at Coach Prime and see anything other than the old mythologies and power dynamics of college football fading into history. And if those changes bother you—if they seem like they’re coming too fast, if it feels like they’re wreaking havoc on the sport, and if it feels like Coach Prime is the face of those changes—he doesn’t seem to mind. Believe, or don’t believe. There’s no going back now.

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