Ultimate Resource On Deion Sanders And His Re-Writing College Football’s New Playbook
Deion Sanders Launches College Football’s Loudest And Most Extreme Makeover. Ultimate Resource On Deion Sanders And His Re-Writing College Football’s New Playbook
The University of Colorado football team had the dubious honor of being the worst among major conferences in 2022. The Buffs won a single game and lost the remaining 11 by an average of more than 32 points. In a word, it was ugly.
Yet Colorado has already sold out of season tickets for the 2023 campaign. The athletic department expects more than 45,000 fans at Folsom Field for the team’s Black & Gold Day on Saturday.
And the Buffs’ spring game will be the only one ESPN televises on its main channel during the offseason.
There’s a reason for these incongruous developments. His name is Deion Sanders.
Since his hire in December, Sanders has refashioned the program in his flashy image and loudly launched an extreme offseason makeover of the roster via the transfer portal.
Coach Prime has done plenty of pontificating about the new-look Buffs. Come Saturday, he’ll begin to show whether he can make it all work on the field.
“It is shocking how far down they were,” said Chris Fowler, a Colorado alum who is calling Saturday’s spring game for ESPN. “That’s why it is a great experiment, that’s why it is the ultimate curiosity.”
After firing coach Karl Dorrell in early October, Colorado athletic director Rick George said he was looking for a successor who could inject the downtrodden Buffs program with a megadose of adrenaline.
Enter Sanders, a man who went by “Prime Time” during his days of doing double duty in the NFL and MLB.
Sanders is the only active college football coach who is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player—and probably the only one who has graced the cover of GQ magazine while wearing a sumptuous fur coat, paisley-print corduroys and alligator-skin boots. Nick Saban, who co-stars alongside Sanders in advertisements for Aflac insurance, probably would never.
Sanders is part football legend, part reality TV star. He declares, “I ain’t hard to find”—and wears T-shirts bearing the phrase to practice.
Cameras follow his every move to record content for his social-media accounts, run by his eldest son Deion Sanders Jr., and his docuseries on Amazon’s Prime Video. He also hosts a weekly podcast with Barstool Sports.
For all his athletic success, Sanders’s coaching résumé was a bit thin. He had coached a handful of Texas high schools before taking over Jackson State University in 2020.
The team in the lower tier of Division I football was rich in tradition, but down on its luck when Sanders arrived. By the time he left, it had won two Southwestern Athletic Conference championships and lost all of three games in two seasons.
The overhaul earned the notice of George. He took a risk and extended a job offer to Sanders. Sanders took a risk by accepting before setting foot on campus. Both look like they’ll pay off.
“My first impression was that our lives would change for the better immediately,” said Alexis Williams, Colorado’s senior associate athletic director for external operations. “The only surprising thing was how fast our fans responded.”
In the month after Sanders’s hire, more than 20,000 people filled out season ticket interest forms, a level Williams described as “off the charts.” Apparel sales through the retailer Fanatics jumped 525% in December 2022 compared with the previous year.
Sanders toured local greasy spoons for breakfast and lamented Boulder’s lack of grits in reviews posted to his social channels.
It was something Williams knew all too well—a Houston native, she used to have her mother mail packages of grits because they were so scarce at Colorado grocery stores.
“I think all the breakfast spots within so many miles of campus now all have grits on the menu,” Williams said. “We call it ‘the Prime Effect.’ ”
The Prime Effect is visible on Colorado’s balance sheet, too. On April 17, the university announced that football season tickets for 2023 had sold out.
It was the earliest date that had happened in program history and the Buffs’ first season ticket sellout since 1996, during the team’s ‘90s heyday that included a national title in 1990.
Should the stands at Folsom Field fill to capacity of more than 50,000 come September, it would reverse a yearslong trend of sliding attendance at Colorado. During last year’s 1-11 campaign, the Buffs averaged 42,847 fans and ranked 51st overall in major college football, according to data from the NCAA.
Coach Prime has also brought a social-media bump: Colorado football’s official Twitter account now has more than 164,000 followers, a 67% jump since December.
In this new era of college sports, in which athletes can make money on endorsements, social media followers are a currency. The larger the audience, the larger the influencer’s paycheck.
Being associated with Sanders—be it appearing on the field or making cameos on Well Off Media, the YouTube channel run by his eldest son—could literally line a player’s pockets. That’s an attractive reality to recruits.
Jordon Johnson-Rubell, a four-star safety recruit with offers from three dozen schools, said that the Prime Time brand was part of Sanders’s recruiting pitch. “That’s a big thing, he loves to get his guys exposure,” he said.
Johnson-Rubell isn’t the type of player Colorado would have had much chance of signing in the past. But the IMG Academy junior has a connection to Coach Prime—Sanders was his pee-wee football coach in Texas.
That shared experience is a big reason why Johnson-Rubell is flying to Colorado to attend this Saturday’s spring game.
Coach Prime’s peers aren’t immune to his magnetism. Sanders convinced Sean Lewis, a head coach at Kent State known for his up-tempo offenses, to take a half-step backward on the career ladder and become his offensive coordinator.
Then he hired Alabama’s Charles Kelly to be his defensive coordinator.
Together, they have taken major strides on the recruiting trail and in the transfer portal at Colorado. In January, Sanders convinced five-star prospect Cormani McClain, pegged as the top cornerback in the Class of 2023, to flip his commitment from Miami. He’s the crown jewel of a recruiting class ranked 30th, according to 247sports—the Buffs’ best showing since 2008.
The rest of Colorado’s roster is in a major state of flux. Sanders made clear from his first interaction with the team that the old way of doing things wasn’t going to fly in the new regime.
“We got a few positions already taken care of, because I’m bringing my luggage with me—and it’s Louis [Vuitton],” he said in an apparent reference to the Jackson State players who would follow him out west via the transfer portal.
In the weeks since, 21 players put their names in the transfer portal and a handful more quit the team. It left behind a woeful roster with more areas of need than peaks in the Rocky Mountains.
Sanders turned to the transfer portal to reload, largely out of necessity. He signed 28 players, currently the top-ranked group according to 247sports.
Eight transfers played for him at Jackson State, including his son Sheduer, a talented quarterback, and cornerback Travis Hunter, once the top-ranked player in his recruiting class who spurned Florida State to play for Sanders in Mississippi.
“This is the most fluid roster in the history of the sport,” Fowler said.
Colorado added a handful of other transfers from Big Ten and Southeastern Conference powers, though not all of the newcomers were hot commodities. It speaks to the Buffs’ extreme need, and Sanders said this week that he’s not done fishing in the portal.
The Deion Sanders Experiment At Colorado Begins With A Wild Win
The Buffaloes, who won one game last year, knocked off Texas Christian, a team that played for a national championship last season, to kick off the Prime Era.
Texas Christian last season came within one win of a national championship. Colorado won one game. But with one wild win to open the 2023 season, the Buffaloes and their audacious new coach Deion Sanders made a case that overnight success is very possible in the increasingly unhinged world of college football.
Since moving to Boulder from Jackson State in the lower tier Football Championship Subdivision this offseason, Sanders has made Colorado a test lab for the theory that a losing program can be made over in a flash.
A whopping 57 players joined Colorado via the transfer portal in the offseason, including nine who came along with Sanders from JSU.
Colorado isn’t the first program to rely on transfer players to execute a turnaround—Southern California added 26 transfers in the first year of Lincoln Riley’s tenure to jump from 4-8 in 2021 to 11-3 last year. But no program has doubled down like the Buffaloes, nor has one started from so far down in the dumps.
Hours after Colorado’s win, Texas State shocked Baylor 42-31. The Bobcats were another team that went all in on transfers, adding 50 in the off-season under new coach GJ Kinne.
The transfer brigade on Saturday enabled Colorado to back up Sanders’s offseason boasts that the lowly Buffaloes would be a powerful force to be reckoned with come fall. Colorado’s 45-42 roller coaster win over No. 17 TCU on Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas, featured an array of players who had never played together nor for Colorado last year.
Quarterback Shedeur Sanders—the coach’s second-youngest child and a JSU transfer—completed 38 of 47 passes for 510 yards and four touchdowns.
It was a career day for the 21-year-old, who became the first and only Colorado quarterback to pass for 500 yards.
Travis Hunter, another Jackson State transfer, pulled off an impressive double, collecting 119 receiving yards on offense and caught one pick while playing cornerback for the Buffs defense.
He was one of Colorado’s four 100-yard receivers—another program first—alongside freshman wideout Dylan Edwards.
Edwards de-committed from Notre Dame in the offseason to reunite with his one-time youth football coach, Sanders, and his unprecedented experiment in the Rockies. On Saturday, he caught three touchdown passes and ran in for another.
It was a performance that suggested the revived Buffaloes might not be merely competent. They could actually be good.
“We told you, ‘we coming’,” Sanders said after the game. “You thought we was joking?”
It was a dream start for Sanders, who earned the nickname “Prime Time” when he starred in both the National Football League and Major League Baseball three decades ago. He’s coached youth, high school and college football before, but never has he had as big of a stage as at Colorado.
Now known as “Coach Prime,” he and his forceful personality have become inescapable in Boulder and beyond. “Prime” merch with his trademarked sayings, like “I Ain’t Hard 2 Find,” is everywhere.
He’s ubiquitous during ad breaks on Saturday TV broadcasts as the spokesperson for Aflac insurance, Kentucky Fried Chicken and California Almonds.
In Fort Worth, Colorado wasn’t without mistakes: a first-half blocked field goal gave the Horned Frogs great field position on their second touchdown drive of the afternoon.
Missed tackles as the 95-degree heat set in helped TCU claw back a lead at times in the end of the second half.
TCU made its own mistakes, as quarterback Chandler Morris threw two picks into the end zone. Their first field goal attempt sailed wide right.
But Colorado’s defense came up big in the final minute of the game and managed to walk away with the win after walking in as 21-point underdogs.
Perhaps most surprising about Colorado’s play on Saturday was that it was a surprise at all. Coach Prime has been promising greatness for months and brought in more talented players than Boulder had seen in decades.
ESPN televised the Buffs’ spring game, played in the snow in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 47,000 fans. Sanders’s YouTube channel, Well Off Media, posts a new video every day with snippets of the Colorado football program.
Yet mystery prevailed because of how far Colorado had fallen and the unconventional way Sanders went about reviving the program.
It’s hard to overstate how bad the Buffs were in 2022. Colorado ranked 127th in total offense and 129th in total defense out of 130 teams.
They hadn’t racked up more than 500 yards of offense in a single game since October 2019 (against TCU they had 565 yards).
Sanders understood that making Colorado competitive would take a dramatic overhaul. That’s why he took in nearly five dozen transfers—something he was only able to do because he encouraged players who might not groove with his style to leave.
Only 25 players on the 112-man roster are returners; just seven have been with the Buffs for longer than two seasons. A sign of the upheaval: during preseason camp, Sanders had the veterans lead the team in a rendition of the university’s fight song—a task that usually falls to rookies.
It’s fair to call this team new, but they’re not exactly inexperienced. Colorado’s players have just 36 previous starts for Colorado—a program low—but the roster as a whole has 461 total starts at the collegiate level—a program high.
On Saturday, Sanders proved that experience pays off, no matter the jersey colors in which it was earned. He proved this new-look Colorado team can have what it takes. Now, the Buffs need to prove it isn’t a fluke.
“I feel like today was a proving point that we can do this and we will do this,” Edwards said after the game. “We can’t wait ‘til the next week.”
Coach Prime Conquered College Football. Now Comes The Hard Part
After a narrow victory over Colorado State, here come Oregon and USC. But Deion Sanders’s goals in Colorado appear to be longer term.
Is the fever about to break on Colorado and Coach Prime Mania? It nearly did Saturday night in Boulder, in a sloppy double overtime contest against 24-point underdog Colorado State—“We started out playing like hot garbage,” Coach Prime acknowledged—but the Buffs rallied to stay undefeated at 3-0.
The Most Unexpected and Delightful Party in Sports pushes on for at least another week.
Oregon is next, in Eugene. The also-undefeated, 10th-ranked Ducks are averaging 58 points per game and are the biggest threat Colorado has faced to date. If they fail to burst the bubble, fifth-ranked USC looms on Sep. 30.
It seems unlikely that a Colorado team which looked tired and disorganized against CSU will finish the month unbeaten. (They also lost two-way star Travis Hunter to a cheap hit.)
It’s possible they will be 3-2 at month’s end, cooling the hype, giving the Coach Prime skeptics their Eager Moment of Schadenfreude, and we will finally start paying attention to other college football teams and coaches.
We might look back and say: Remember when we all decided the biggest story in sports was Coach Prime and Colorado Buffaloes?
I doubt it fades entirely, however. Deion Sanders has done too much already. It’s been stunning to watch one of the country’s most misbegotten programs (1-11 last season) instantly transformed into the team that everyone wants to watch.
I couldn’t have been the only East Coaster on the couch early Sunday wondering: Why the heck am I watching a Colorado-Colorado State game at 1 a.m.? It’s reminiscent of Gordon Ramsay overhauling a decrepit diner. For years, Colorado served cold oatmeal. Now: Prime rib.
Buffalo football is suddenly one of the hottest tickets on Earth, catnip for celebrities and star athletes in other sports. Coach Prime, meanwhile, is the sun. Only Sanders can make a global movie star like the Rock feel like the second-most famous person in a mountain town.
Even the often-injured NBA star Kawhi Leonard showed up to watch the game Saturday. As the Internet commentariat cracked: Kawhi doesn’t even show up to his own games.
Everyone craves a bite. ESPN and Fox hosted their pregame gabs on campus, Coach Prime dropping into both shows as the unquestioned Guest of Honor.
Sanders also got a sit down Sunday on “60 Minutes”—a clear indicator that the story has progressed to a cultural phenomenon. This is the second Coach Prime column I’ve written in less than two weeks, and if they keep on winning, there will be more.
You’re not even mad. You’re curious, too.
Coach Prime arrived at the right time. For years, football has been stuck in a stale cycle of dominant teams, the same coaches giving the same bland sound bites.
A summer’s worth of smoke-filled room conference chaos—Colorado is another program bailing on the Pac-12; it’s going to the Big 12—threatened to alienate the audience further.
But what’s happening in Colorado feels new. With more than 50 transfer players, including some from Sanders’s time at Jackson State—and a similar number pushed out the door—it represents what an aggressive college football program can be in 2023, as the sport shifts its power from schools and conferences to the people who actually make the game.
In this new landscape, personality matters. Tradition isn’t essential, and geography is a mere detail. Sanders is unabashed about college football’s entrepreneurial possibilities, whether it’s name, image or likeness, or the NFL for a lucky few.
Colorado HQ is outfitted with famous Sanders-isms, including this all-timer: IF YOU LOOK GOOD, YOU FEEL GOOD. IF YOU FEEL GOOD, YOU PLAY GOOD. IF YOU PLAY GOOD, THEY PAY GOOD.
“My kids who play for me, they didn’t choose a university,” Coach Prime told “60 Minutes.” “They chose me.”
Perhaps the apex of Prime Mania is that there’s already speculation about what Sanders does after Colorado. Would Prime thrive at a different school? The SEC? The Big Ten? Would he jump to the NFL? (“I would never do that,” he told Rich Eisen of the pros.)
Why stop with football? It’s only a matter of time before the management gurus and office consultants start offering Coach Prime 101. Wait until your boss closes the 9 a.m. meeting and says “Now give me my theme music!”
He does it his way, unabashedly. Sanders is happy to upend coaching conventions, whether it’s the theme music, his on-field style, his sanitized expletives (“bull junk”) and, most of all, his willingness to engage with outside noise.
He happily turned a criticism from Colorado State’s coach about his habit of wearing a hat and sunglasses into motivational fuel—“They messed around and made it personal,” he quipped—and also made it a viral marketing bit for his sunglasses sponsor.
Sanders greets his media appearances with the casual ease of a man who knows how to talk on camera. (The other night he followed up a live halftime TV interview with another live halftime TV interview.)
He does this all with the mild wink of a showman who wants you to know he’s having fun, too. Sanders surely suspects Colorado will have its hands full with Oregon and USC, especially if Travis Hunter is out, but he’s not going to do the standard coach’s routine of pooh-poohing the heightened expectations.
Coach Prime isn’t going to chastise students for rushing Folsom Field after squeaking out a victory over 0-2 Colorado State. Let them enjoy. It’s been a while.
Does it all come apart with a losing streak? It’s possible. College football is a long season, and a hot program can be rendered human very quickly. Colorado is an exciting but newly-assembled team, capable of brilliant flashes but also careless mistakes.
There are lots of critics eager to say ‘I told you so’ when Sanders takes a few Ls. I’m not there. I think Coach Prime is winning.
Deion Sanders Isn’t Just A Winning Coach. He’s A Merch Machine
‘”f you look good, you feel good,” according to Coach Prime as he leads Colorado’s football team to a shocking undefeated start to the season.
Jay Norvell never should have poked Coach Prime.
In the lead up to this past weekend’s bruising football matchup between Colorado State and Colorado, CSU coach Norvell slung an ill-considered arrow at CU head coach (and NFL legend) Deion Sanders for wearing his mirrored sunglasses at pretty much all times.
“When I talk to grown-ups, I take my hat and my glasses off,” said Norvell in a radio interview. “That’s what my mother taught me.”
In this slight, Sanders, aka Coach Prime, saw an opportunity. He gifted his entire team pairs of polarized “Prime 21” sunglasses.
The Oprah-esque moment was shrewdly captured for Instagram, where it was viewed nearly 1.5 million times.
Sanders’s Santa streak rolled into the weekend as he doled out the sunglasses to nearly every TV commentator he came across.
“You look so good in those shades, I just can’t stop looking at you!” he said to ESPN’s Pat McAfee, after giving him a pair of his $67 collaborative Blenders sunglasses on air. It was a glowing endorsement from the man who literally has his name on the glasses.
(In a nice bit of symmetry, the gold frames matched McAfee’s gold chain and Midas-touched watch.) “These are the ones,” said Sanders to The Rock on a separate ESPN broadcast, passing the mountainous actor a pair of Blenders.
The Coach Prime marketing machine was in full effect. By the close of Friday, Blenders said it racked up $1.2 million in preorders. By Tuesday, 65,000 pairs had been preordered. (Blenders originally hadn’t planned to launch the glasses until next month.)
Any glasses preordered now won’t even ship until December. At that point Colorado’s regular season will have concluded—and its undefeated start could be a dim memory.
For now, though, Sanders, who arrived at Colorado after last year’s 1-11 season, is the beating heart of college football’s swagged-out Cinderella story.
He speaks with the cadence of a megachurch preacher, wears a hoodie the way Mike Ditka wore a suit and is likely the only coach in NCAA history to call plays with a gold whistle dangling around his neck.
As the saying on the walls of Colorado football HQ reads: “IF YOU LOOK GOOD, YOU FEEL GOOD. IF YOU FEEL GOOD, YOU PLAY GOOD. IF YOU PLAY GOOD, THEY PAY GOOD.” (Sanders’s office wall at Jackson State University, where he previously coached, was printed with the same phrase.)
During his Hall of Fame NFL career, Sanders savored glossy tracksuits and flat-top sunglasses, gold chains pooling at his chest and hair styled in pristine Jheri curls. At 56, the curls are gone, but Sanders is still a first-team, All-Pro clothes horse.
When he first addressed his new team in Boulder in December, he was wearing a three-piece suit with a tie in Colorado’s colors and horsebit loafers.
At that meeting, he implored many young athletes, fresh off a one-win season, to leave the school as they were destined to be replaced by fresher recruits including his two sons Shedeur and Shilo.
He relayed that message with a particularly biting but luxurious metaphor: “I’m bringing my luggage with me,” said Sanders, “And it’s Louis.”
Sanders’s high-wattage run through this past weekend’s pregame broadcasts doubled as a personal fashion show. On one program he wore a gray bomber with matching gray slacks, looking like an Italian industrialist about to board a private jet.
On another he went for a “Yellowstone”-ready combo of a white puffer vest with “Prime” stitched on the front and a blinding white cowboy hat.
On the sidelines, Sanders has been calling plays in a hoodie with almost avant-garde slit sleeves and a kangaroo pocket in contrasting colors.
On the upper sleeve is a conspicuous “JC,” which many assume to be a reference to Jesus (Sanders is a religious man who peppers scripture into his pregame pump ups) but which the coach has said in the past is a reference to Jimmie Callaway, the longtime equipment manager at his alma mater Florida State University.
The hoodie is a good look on the still-fit Super Bowl champ. He certainly looks sharper in it than Bill Belichick does in his ratty Pats sweatshirt.
Prime fans are still waiting for him to break out the cowboy hat on the sidelines during a game—though Sanders seems to be holding off out of superstition.
As he said on the Pat McAfee show, “You can’t wear a cowboy hat unless you know you’re going to kick some butt.”
An unapologetic sound-bite machine, Coach Prime knows better than perhaps anyone that any screentime is a marketing opportunity. He uses nearly every interview to pitch new recruits to join the squad at CU.
When asked on “60 Minutes” this month who the best coach in college football was, he replied: “Let me see a mirror so I can look at it.”
During a post game-interview on Saturday night, Coach Prime’s 21-year-old son and Colorado’s sudden Heisman contender QB, Shedeur Sanders, flashed a blinged-out watch to the camera—a very Deion-esque gesture.
Prime-mania has also become a prime marketing opportunity for anyone in the coach’s orbit. On Nike’s website, some Sanders-themed Colorado gear is sold out. According to the university, sales of merchandise are up 819% compared with last season.
“The Prime gear merchandise was definitely a hot seller and a big draw,” said Allison Hartel, assistant director for marketing and outreach at the university’s bookstore. Frustratingly for fans, the actual two-toned Nike hoodies Sanders wears on the sidelines are custom made and not available for sale.
Still, Hartel said that in her nearly 24 years at Colorado, she’s never seen school spirit this high, with everyone from alumni to general fans buying up CU-logoed gear.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said, “I really do hope all the momentum continues.”
Last weekend’s match up sent a bevy of unlikely celebrities sailing up to Boulder’s Folsom Field, like Lil Wayne, Key Glock, Offset and Master P— momentarily turning the overwhelmingly white Mountain-West city into a rap hotbed.
For its second game of the season against a ranked Nebraska squad, the team wore tan, peak-lapel Michael Strahan brand suits that were handpicked by the coach.
Printed in the lining was the underdog-favorite phrase “I believe.” Incidentally, Sanders and Strahan are both repped by SMAC Entertainment, which Strahan co-founded.
“Over the weekend it was like a rocket to the moon,” said Chase Fisher, the CEO of Blenders, a 11-year-old eyewear brand known for poppy, affordable sunglasses. Fisher, a couple of other Blenders employees and his father (who recommended Fisher collaborate with Sanders in the first place) had traveled to Boulder over the weekend for the game.
On Monday afternoon, he still seemed shocked by the power of Coach Prime. “Nothing could ever have prepared us for this,” he said.
Deion Sanders Is Writing College Football’s New Playbook
In his first season at the University of Colorado, “Coach Prime” has harnessed the power of social media, the NCAA transfer portal and his own celebrity to transform a perennial loser into must-see TV.
On the second Saturday of September, when Deion Sanders entered the press room beneath the stands at Folsom Field at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he halted for a split second to feign surprise at the number of reporters in the room.
“Oh my God!” said Sanders, who took over as head football coach last December.
“We must be winning. Shoot!” The Buffaloes had just defeated the University of Nebraska, 36-14, in their first home game of the season before a crowd of 53,241, their largest in 15 years.
The week before, they had upset Texas Christian University. The room was packed to bursting with reporters from across the country.
Sanders—or Coach Prime, as the 56-year-old styles himself now—shuffled across the room (his stride is reduced to a limp after multiple surgeries to deal with the effects of turf toe suffered during his playing days) and took his seat behind the microphone.
Sunglasses on, with a white hoodie under a dark suit coat and the customary gold cross on a chain around his neck, he was less combative than he’d been after the TCU game but still his full braggadocious and beguiling self.
“It was tremendous,” he said of playing in front of the home crowd, “not just the number, but the energy and the love and the expectation.”
It’s a far cry from this time last year, when the Buffaloes dropped their home opener to TCU on their way to a sixth consecutive losing season and then-coach Karl Dorrell gave a subdued performance in front of a much smaller press corps.
Fox didn’t bring its Big Noon Kickoff pregame show to Boulder that week, as it did this year, and the game didn’t draw 8.7 million viewers, the network’s most ever for a regular season game in the Pac-12 Conference, as it did this year.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Vince Castill, who sets up shop on a sidewalk in downtown Boulder on fall weekends selling Buffaloes jerseys, hoodies and T-shirts.
Castill’s stock was cleared out by the Friday before the Nebraska game. In years past, he says, he couldn’t give away Buffaloes merchandise.
The Boulder Chamber estimates that Coach Prime’s debut brought an economic impact of $17 million on game day alone, up 70% from last year’s home opener. Hotel rooms were so hard to come by that visitors were staying as far as three hours away.
“I don’t think anyone truly understood the type of impact he would have,” says Charles Johnson, a quarterback on the Buffaloes’ only team to win a national championship, in 1990. Colorado has only had 13 winning seasons in the 32 years since then.
Johnson, now a vice president at the packaging maker Ball Corp., had heard Sanders would accept the head coaching job a couple of days before the official announcement, so he called the Colorado ticketing office and bought a suite in the stadium for $14,000.
The day after the announcement, he called back to try to get another and was placed on a waitlist behind 2,300 others.
Such is the market-bending pull of Sanders, whose new career as a coach is reshaping not only the downtown Boulder economy and the competitive landscape of college football but also his own considerable legacy.
In his new role as Coach Prime, Sanders is building an audience among a generation of fans who have no memory of Neon Deion, the bandanna-wearing, end-zone-shuffling, Must Be the Money-singing, two-sport star of the NFL and MLB in the ’90s—the only person ever to play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series.
Since 2020, when he skipped the assistant ranks altogether to become head coach at Jackson State University, an historically Black college in Mississippi, Sanders has become the most ubiquitous and polarizing figure in college football.
He is the avatar for a tumultuous and money-soaked era in the sport, where players hop between schools in pursuit of marketing deals and colleges switch conferences in search of more lucrative TV contracts.
With the same game-changing speed he showed as a player, Sanders has rewritten the playbook for success, using his celebrity, social media savvy and old-school charisma to attract attention and talent to whatever sideline he roams.
Not long after Sanders took over at Jackson State, the NCAA, under pressure from state lawmakers and federal courts, made two momentous rule changes:
It freed players to change schools without having to sit out for a season, and it allowed them to earn money through name, image and likeness, or NIL, sponsorship deals.
Although schools still cannot compensate players beyond scholarships and other limited benefits, local boosters quickly organized themselves into “collectives” that compete to offer the most lavish NIL deals to top recruits, creating a highly irregular and opaque market for talent.
A prized athlete can now make millions in cash and benefits including cars, housing, sneakers and food. Ostensibly, these contracts are sponsorship deals where players are compensated for their marketing services.
Effectively, they’re third-party, pay-to-play arrangements.
The online athlete marketplace Opendorse Inc. projects that college football players will make more than $725 million in deals over the coming year, more than 60% of the almost $1.2 billion NIL market for college sports and more than double the share of the next largest sport, men’s basketball, at roughly $300 million.
More than three-quarters of the NIL money in football, Opendorse projects, will come from collectives.
Almost overnight, every college athlete has become a free agent, able to shop among schools every off-season. Any player who wants to switch teams can enter their name in an online NCAA registry with the sci-fi-sounding name “transfer portal” and make it known that they’re available.
After a breakout year at the University of Pittsburgh in 2021, for instance, star wide receiver Jordan Addison left for the University of Southern California amid rumors of a multimillion-dollar NIL offer.
Addison was one of almost 3,000 college football players from the 133 Football Bowl Subdivision schools who entered the portal between August 2021 and July 2022, according to the most recent data the NCAA compiled.
“It’s about a bag. Everybody’s chasing a bag. … How do the grown-ups get mad at the players when the colleges are chasing it?”
Recruiting has always been a heavy part of the work of a college football coach, but the portal has kicked the process into overdrive. No coach has proved more adept at using the system than Sanders.
Before his third season at Jackson State, he pulled off a major coup by persuading Travis Hunter, a two-way player and the top-rated high school recruit of his class, to rescind his commitment to Florida State and join him in Mississippi.
The move sent shock waves through college football. It was only a tremor compared with what would follow.
After leading the Tigers to a pair of Southwestern Athletic Conference titles and a combined record of 27-6, Sanders left for the Colorado job, signing a five-year, $29.5 million contract. In his first meeting with the Buffaloes players he’d inherited, he delivered a blunt message.
“There’s going to be change,” he told the stunned-looking group sitting glumly before him in a small auditorium. “I want y’all to get ready to go ahead and jump in that portal.”
The moment was shocking not only for what Sanders said, essentially telling a bunch of undergraduates that they were about to be laid off from their unpaid jobs as football players, but because it was public, captured on a smartphone by Sanders’ eldest son, Deion Jr., who can be heard at one point snickering behind the camera.
The younger Deion posted the video to his YouTube channel, Well Off Media, where it’s since racked up 4.5 million views.
Sanders seemed to be announcing, not only to the players slumped in front of him but to the world, that this is how college football works now: It’s a ruthless business, and everything is part of the show.
When the spring transfer portal opened, almost 50 Buffaloes, roughly half the roster, took Coach Prime’s advice and jumped in, according to ESPN. Only 10 scholarship players from the last season remained.
Sanders brought key players from Jackson State with him to Boulder, beginning with his son Shedeur, who plays quarterback, and Hunter. He also recruited top transfers from powerhouse schools such as Alabama, Auburn and Clemson.
No other school has used the portal for such a drastic overhaul. “The decisions we made, we made entirely to win, not to compete, but to win and to win it all,” Sanders says in an email to Bloomberg Businessweek, noting that the roster composition, with roughly 40% of players coming from the portal, is about the same as it was at Jackson State. “That is our formula,” he says.
Some in college football saw it in a different light, as an abuse of the system. “That’s not the way it’s meant to be,” University of Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi told reporters in May.
“We’ll see how it works out, but that, to me, looks bad on college football coaches across the country.” Narduzzi, of course, has reason to complain after losing his star receiver to USC last year.
Recruits follow Sanders for all the usual reasons—for the chance to win and to be on national TV, to develop and showcase their skills—but also for the clout. “
The way that a school’s programs show up on social media has a direct impact on a recruit’s interest,” says Blake Lawrence, co-founder and CEO of Opendorse and a former Nebraska linebacker.
No other coach boasts the social media presence of Sanders, who has 4.1 million Instagram followers of his own and routinely appears in the feeds of Deion Jr., Shedeur and their brother, Shilo, who plays safety for the Buffaloes.
Recruits can watch Shedeur handing out Beats by Dre headphones to teammates; Shilo taking delivery of a new Mercedes; celebrities from rappers Rick Ross and Lil’ Wayne to NFL and NBA players dropping in on Sanders in Boulder; and Buffaloes trying on pairs of limited-edition retro Deion Sanders Nike cleats.
But the real show is Coach Prime, who is mesmerizing even in the most mundane tasks, from vacuuming his office to touring his new home in Boulder, and whose locker room speeches are an inimitable blend of gruff football talk, influencer-style inspiration, fatherly sermonizing and pure showmanship.
“He’s a scroll stopper,” says Lawrence. “Whatever he’s saying, you will unmute and you’ll put on the headphones to hear it. And if he’s mentioning a player by name, that player might see a boost in their social media following.”
This, too, has been a source of complaint from rival coaches. “I’m not one of those guys,” Nebraska head coach Matt Rhule said on a podcast earlier this year. “There won’t be a camera following me around.”
In an informal way, Sanders is also teaching his players to be in the public eye—how to make a name and shape an image for maximal value, something he’s been doing since before they were born.
“He’s not just coaching athletes on how to be better football players, but on how to be unforgettable,” Lawrence says.
According to On3, an NIL news site and database, Shedeur is second only to LeBron James’ son Bronny in estimated annual NIL value, with James at $6.1 million and Sanders at $5.1 million.
Sixth on the list is the Buffaloes’ Hunter, at $2.2 million. Livvy Dunne, a gymnast at Louisiana State University, is the top-ranked female athlete, at $3.2 million.
While Sanders openly celebrates the arrival of NIL (players practice with their social media usernames on the back of their jerseys to make it easy for agents and brands to find them), he downplays his own role in helping players to cash in.
For him, the money follows performance on the field. “I don’t think about public image and market opportunities,” he says. “Right now, I’m trying to mold men.”
For those who enjoyed college football in the days when players could get in trouble for accepting discounts on tattoos or eating too much free pasta, the player movement and displays of wealth can be hard to stomach.
“Something has to be done,” Senator Tommy Tuberville told the Troy Messenger earlier this year. “This process we have now is out of control, and it’s going to destroy college athletics as we know it.”
The Alabama Republican and former college football coach is co-sponsor, along with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, of a bill that would impose new limits on the NIL marketplace, requiring athletes to disclose contract terms, once again forcing transfers to sit out a year and forestalling any attempts to make schools or conferences share revenue with players.
Yet the powers that be have little room to complain about players running roughshod over tradition in pursuit of money.
In the past decade, schools have cast aside the bounds of geography and reshuffled their conference alignments to create optimal packages of football games for broadcasters.
Realignment has twisted the sport beyond recognition for many fans—with traditional rivalries upended and teams crisscrossing the country to create juicy prime-time matchups—and turned conference names into absurd relics.
As of next fall, the Big Ten will include 18 schools, and universities from California will be playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The chaotic scramble has brought about the collapse of the Pac-12, as the conference’s leadership misplayed their hand in negotiations over TV rights and saw 10 of 12 member schools, including Colorado, decide to leave for other conferences next year.
The Buffaloes elected to return to the Big 12, which they left in 2011, in large part because of its $2.3 billion media rights deal with ESPN and Fox Sports, which are paying $220 million per year until 2025, when the number will jump to an average of $380 million per year.
Last year, the Buffaloes made $18 million from their media rights. With the return to the Big 12, that will grow to $31.7 million in 2025.
“All this [realignment] is about money,” Sanders told reporters in August. “It’s about a bag. Everybody’s chasing a bag. Then you get mad at a player when they chase it. How do the grown-ups get mad at the players when the colleges are chasing it?”
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an independent group that advocates for reforms to “strengthen the educational mission of college sports,” estimates that roughly 50 of the biggest football schools in the country (members of the so-called Power Five conferences) together brought in $7.3 billion in revenue last year, a total that the group predicts will rise to $16.7 billion by 2032.
With players still barred by the NCAA from direct compensation, much of this growing revenue is spent on coaches. By 2032, the Knight Commission estimates, the roughly 600 coaches, including assistants, of the Power Five will together be making almost $1.4 billion, about equal to the total their schools will spend on scholarships and medical expenses for more than 30,000 athletes across all sports.
From Sanders’ point of view, this looks like prosperity. “Everything that you deal with in college football, gets larger each year,” he says. As long as he keeps winning, few in Boulder will complain.
After outlasting in-state rivals Colorado State in an unexpectedly close 43-35 double-overtime thriller in Week 3, the Buffaloes face their toughest test yet against the University of Oregon.
The Ducks, also undefeated and ranked 10th in the country, still dwarf the Buffaloes in the money race, with $153 million in annual athletic department revenue as of last year, compared with Colorado’s $95 million, according to the news site Sportico, and have the backing of billionaire Nike Inc. co-founder and alum Phil Knight.
A win in Eugene would signal loud and clear that nobody can afford to ignore Coach Prime. A loss would serve as a reminder that in the topsy-turvy world of college football, you’re only as good as your latest game, recruiting class, transfer portal, TV deal or coaching hire.
It can all go poof in Boulder just as soon as the Buffaloes start losing or Sanders decides to leave for a bigger job somewhere else. Just ask the fans at Jackson State, which got stomped 77-34 on Sept. 16 at Texas State.
Deion Sanders Got Shade, Then Sold $1.2 Million Worth of Sunglasses
A slight on the University of Colorado’s “Coach Prime” turned his endorsement deal with Blenders into a bonanza.
The style of head coaches is rarely a subject of discussion in the sports world, but anomalies exist. Hall of fame NBA coach and executive Pat Riley sported Italian suits courtside. New England Patriots head coach and general manager Bill Belichick is notorious for his hoodies.
And even before he became “Coach Prime,” Deion Sanders was known for his iconic looks: As an NFL player, he sported a Jheri curl hairstyle, glistening jewelry and a wide variety of outfits that athletes still imitate.
Sanders now heads the Buffaloes football team at the University of Colorado, where he’s the hottest coach in all of sports. His most recognizable accessory?
His shades. But those sunglasses have taken on a new meaning, which sent the Sanders-endorsed spectacles flying off shelves, generating seven figures in sales.
Chase Fisher, chief executive officer of Blenders Eyewear LLC, says the product has been moving so fast that he literally can’t calculate exact numbers of units sold.
Ahead of Colorado’s rivalry game last week against Colorado State University, that team’s head coach, Jay Norvell, threw shade at Sanders, saying, “When I talk to grown-ups, I take my hat and my glasses off. That’s what my mother taught me.”
Sanders used the comment about his style as a rallying cry for the Buffaloes, telling his team, “It’s personal.” The phrase was printed on T-shirts and became a call-and-response chant for Sanders to his players and Buffaloes fans.
But first he gave all of his players a pair of his signature Blenders Eyewear Millenia X2 shades. Colorado State didn’t “realize they just helped me with business,” Sanders said in a YouTube video on his son Deion Sanders Jr.’s Well Off Media Channel.
The video, which has several million views, was picked up by sports media outlets including ESPN and Bleacher Report.
Sanders did interviews on Friday and Saturday before the game for three of ESPN’s shows (First Take, The Pat McAfee Show and College GameDay), along with Fox Sports’ Big Noon Kickoff.
Upon arriving on set, Prime gave his signature shades to each of the hosts and the shows’ guests.
Celebrities including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, rapper Lil Wayne and ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, Shannon Sharpe, Molly Qerim and Pat McAfee all wore the sunglasses.
Blenders Eyewear, which began working with Sanders earlier this year, had set up a preorder page for the Millenia X2 glasses before the game. They’re being sold for $67 in two colorways.
“We were selling a pair a second when Deion was on the preshows,” Fisher says. On Friday, when Sanders did two shows, his signature sunglasses sold generated $1.2 million of orders. “In Deion’s words, it was a lay up.”
Constance Schwartz-Morini, the CEO of SMAC Entertainment, the company that manages Sanders, says this is an indicator of what’s to come.
“Coach operates in a way to not only bring national awareness to the football program, but the school and community,” she said in an email, “all in effort to help elevate everyone.”
The game itself didn’t go as many had expected. Sanders’ Buffaloes were 20-point favorites at kickoff against Colorado State, but it took late-game heroics from his son Shedeur, the team’s starting quarterback to pull out a thrilling 43-35 double overtime victory.
Deion Sanders’ presence in Boulder has captivated audiences nationwide. In the Buffaloes’ Week 1 matchup against Texas Christian University, the game drew 7.2 million TV viewers, according Fox Sports.
Colorado’s next game, against the University of Nebraska, exceeded that mark with 8.7 million people tuning in.
Last weekend’s matchup with Colorado State eclipsed the Nebraska game with 9.3 million viewers, according to ESPN. It was the fifth-most watched regular-season game ever in the 10 p.m. East Coast time slot (it didn’t finish until 2:30 a.m.).
The same window averaged 1.7 million viewers last year.
Sanders didn’t wear the shades immediately after the win, but Shedeur sported a pair in his postgame ESPN SportsCenter interview and during the press conference.
The drama before the game combined with the highly entertaining outcome has resulted in colossal moment for Blenders.
“I am preparing that this could be the next 12 weeks of our life,” Fisher says. “We brought in thousands upon thousands of new customers, so we’re going to continue to show up hard at these games.”
Other brands are lining up to work with Sanders. His list of sponsors includes Nike (where he’s currently the only former or active football athlete with a signature shoe), Kentucky Fried Chicken, Aflac and EA Sports.
If Sanders and the Buffaloes keep winning, so will all the companies that work with him. For Coach Prime, it’s just as much personal as it is business.