‘I’m a navigational system’: How Deion Sanders is changing the direction of Colorado

BOULDER, Colo. — On a sunny February morning, Deion Sanders walked into Colorado’s recruiting lounge, overlooking snow-covered Folsom Field, and sat in a tan leather recliner. He wore a shirt that read: “Ain’t Hard 2 Find.”

A spotlight has followed Sanders his entire adult life, beginning at Florida State before moving on to the NFL, Major League Baseball and, in 2011, the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A distinct blend of athletic skill and an outsized personality has magnified his words and actions.

Sanders, who goes by Coach Prime, stepped off a jet at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport near Boulder on the night of Dec. 4 to take over the Colorado program, and he has been easy to spot in the months since. His life is constantly documented, cameras following at all hours, from the Super Bowl to Boulder restaurants.

He can’t hide, but he never really wanted to, either. ​​

The attention is nothing new for Sanders. He went 27-6 in three years as the head coach of Jackson State, winning two conference championships at a school that had gone 18-37 in the five years before his arrival. That success combined with his persona led to his final season being chronicled in a four-part docuseries, “Coach Prime.”

The buzz is decidedly new for the Buffaloes.

“All you see is him in Colorado, Colorado on TV, Colorado on social media, all eyes on Colorado,” said Darian Hagan, the quarterback for Colorado’s national championship team in 1990 and a member of the school’s football staff since 2005. “That’s what [I remember] this place being, under the microscope, top of the mountain, everybody’s wanting to knock us off. In the last 10 years, it’s been easy to knock us off. We’ve been bad.”

Colorado’s struggles led the school to Sanders this offseason. Through his first four months on the job, Sanders has shown what made his hire both unconventional and rewarding.

He made headlines for his fiery introductory team meeting, where he invited players to “jump in that [transfer] portal,” and for comments last month about what he looks for in recruits that some interpreted as playing into racist stereotypes.

Colorado also has renewed energy, as evidenced by surging ticket demand, booming merch sales and a skyrocketing social media presence. After blue-chip players largely ignored Colorado for decades, Sanders quickly made Boulder a destination for elite talent, bringing in sought-after transfers and a top-25 recruiting class.

The surge has followed a 1-11 campaign and a prolonged stretch that includes only two winning seasons and a 69-134 overall record since 2006.

Colorado’s bottoming out, though, helped create an unlikely union.

“I’m a need-to-be-needed type person,” Sanders told ESPN. “If you show me a need, then I’m there, but if there’s no need, I don’t really have a place. That’s what I do, that’s what I’ve done, I’ve always been that type of guy. There’s a tremendous need [at Colorado], and I don’t just think it’s all about football. It far surpasses football on the field.”

“LET ME SEE if I can find this one thing,” Hagan said, before digging through his desk.

Hagan has logged two stints as Colorado’s running backs coach, the latter of which ended in 2022. He also served as director of player personnel and director of player development, and he currently works as executive director for community engagement and outreach, and football ambassador, under Sanders.

His roots with Colorado stretch back to 1988, when he arrived as a quarterback from Los Angeles. He went 28-5-2 as CU’s starter, winning three consecutive Big Eight titles and a national championship. From 1989 to 1996, Colorado had five AP top-eight finishes and never ended up outside the top 20 thanks to talents such as Hagan, Eric Bieniemy, Rashaan Salaam, Kordell Stewart and Michael Westbrook.

After unsuccessfully rummaging through his desk, Hagan did a Google image search. A picture of rapper and actor Ice Cube wearing a Colorado hat appeared on the screen.

“When we started dominating college football, I’ll never forget this right here,” Hagan said, smiling. “This made a whole lot of sense to me and made me understand that Colorado was special. When you see celebrities and they’re supporting a program like Colorado, that lets you know you’re being talked about.”

A celebrity is now coaching Colorado, and other celebrities are talking about the Buffs. Last month, Sanders hosted rapper Lil Wayne, who toured the team’s facility while cameras rolled. He marveled, “That’s the f—ing locker room?” upon seeing where the players suited up.

Hagan equates Sanders’ presence at Colorado to former coach Bill McCartney, who he played for, in that they both carry “rock star” personalities on campus and in town. Athletic director Rick George, who served as Colorado’s recruiting coordinator and assistant athletic director for football operations under McCartney from 1987 to 1990, also sees similarities in how Sanders and McCartney outlined expectations, standards and discipline.

The difference, George said, is the instant recognition Sanders carries.

“I was here during those glory years,” said university chancellor Phil DiStefano, then a professor in Colorado’s school of education. “People from around the country, they weren’t alumni but they were wearing Colorado apparel, whether it was Rashaan or Kordell Stewart. Now it’s starting with the coach. He’s started this transformation, this excitement.”

Sanders’ early success in attracting players from around the country, both transfers and high school players, could have a McCartney-like effect at Colorado.

At Jackson State, Sanders flipped Travis Hunter, ESPN’s No. 2 overall recruit in the 2022 class, from Florida State. Hunter has followed Sanders to Boulder.

Colorado’s first recruiting class under Sanders features Cormani McClain, ESPN’s No. 1 cornerback and No. 14 overall prospect, who initially had committed to Miami.

Hunter was ESPN’s No. 1 recruit in talent-rich Georgia, while McClain was ESPN’s No. 3 prospect out of Florida. Colorado added two other top-150 prospects in running back Dylan Edwards from Kansas and wide receiver Adam Hopkins from Georgia. The Buffs’ transfer haul is headlined by Hunter and quarterback Shedeur Sanders — Deion’s son — but also features Arkansas State tight end Seydou Traore and linebackers Demouy Kennedy (Alabama) and LaVonta Bentley (Clemson).

“It’s not supposed to look this easy,” Stewart said. “In three months, he’s accomplished a lot. This is just the beginning, and I’m excited.”

At the NFL Honors ceremony during Super Bowl week, Sanders presented the AP Coach of the Year award to the New York Giants‘ Brian Daboll while wearing a black suit and a gold pocket square, CU colors. As Sanders exited the stage, Daboll told him about a player he should consider at Colorado. Sanders immediately got Daboll on the phone with his chief of recruiting.

“That doesn’t just mean that he respects me, and he would love for this kid to play for me,” Sanders said. “You know how much noise we’ve got to be making right now, for that gentleman, as we’re walking off the stage, saying, ‘I’ve got a dawg for you.’

“I said, ‘I ain’t hard to find, Coach.'”

FOR TWO DECADES, the Buffs haven’t been good, nor have they been interesting. This recipe for irrelevance has made the program — despite its proud history — a college football afterthought.

But Colorado is cool again. That’s the Coach Prime effect.

The season-ticket renewal rate stands at 97%, according to a Colorado spokesperson, by far the best in school history. Colorado expects to sell out of season tickets this month, and the increase outpaces the 2017 season, which came after coach Mike MacIntyre was named the National Coach of the Year. Let that sink in: Hiring Sanders following a terrible season did more to generate ticket interest than winning the Pac-12 South and finishing ranked for the first time since 2002.

The luxury suites are also sold out. Not even Jeremy Bloom, the former Buffs receiver who is the only athlete to have skied in the Olympics and been drafted in the NFL, could procure one for the upcoming season.

“It doesn’t matter who you are,” Bloom said. “I tried to get one. I can’t, and I have some clout. They are all sold out, and there’s a long waiting list.”

The school has discussed plans on how to make suites or sideline space available for Sanders’ celebrity friends when they attend games, according to Alexis Williams, a senior associate athletic director who oversees ticket sales.

Between deposits and interest forms, Colorado fielded inquiries from roughly 20,000 people for season tickets and will sell tickets to the spring game this year for the first time since the 1970s. So far, more than 39,000 tickets have been sold or distributed. That crowd would be roughly double the highest-ever attended spring game in school history (17,800 in 2008), and it’s possible Folsom Field could sell out at just over 50,000 capacity. ESPN will televise Colorado’s spring game on April 22 (3 p.m. ET), the only spring game to air on the flagship network this year.

“Our sales team,” Williams said, “they can’t even make an outgoing call with the calls coming in.”

Sales are up everywhere. During the first two months of 2023, Colorado ranked No. 2 among college team stores on the Fanatics platform, behind only Georgia. Sales of Colorado gear in December were up 505% over the same month in 2022, according to a Colorado spokesperson.

The uptick on Colorado’s social media, where Sanders occupies a near-constant presence — from the practice field to the state Capitol — has been more of the same. Between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, Colorado had a combined 226,800 followers before Sanders was hired. That number has now climbed north of 1 million.

“Very few people saw Karl [Dorrell] or our other coaches, whether it was Coach MacIntyre or Coach [Dan] Hawkins, really being out and being visible,” DiStefano said. “With Coach Sanders, he’s very visible. It’s a positive change for us, coming off of a 1-11 season. To have that turned around so much on the social media platforms — ‘Colorado is finished, there’s nothing going on there, four coaches in the last [11] years’ — now, it just changed overnight, and it’s because of his personality, because he gets out there.”

The Prime pull is real, and will continue all the way until the games kick off this fall.

“You know how there’s a chain that’s moving on a sprocket, there’s a certain spot where it fits in at the right time to change those gears?” Stewart asked. “Prime is like that gear-changer that falls in the slot at the right time, when it’s time to have it change.”

Sanders never expected to be living and coaching in Colorado. But it’s not the first time.

“Do you know what was more unlikely than this?” Sanders asked. “Me going to Jackson State. How unlikely was that? And you see what happened.

“This is going to be bigger.”



Deion Sanders tells his team he’s accepted Colorado HC position

Deion Sanders has a discussion with the Jackson State football team after their win about how he has accepted the Colorado head-coaching job.

SANDERS’ COLLEGE COACHING experience was limited to just three seasons at Jackson State. Although he had interviewed with Power 5 schools — Arkansas and Florida State talked to him in 2019, before he had coached a college game — none hired him.

When he played, Sanders attracted almost as much attention for what he said as what he did. He never filtered his thoughts as a star athlete, and so far, he’s not doing it as the head coach at Colorado.

Last month, he explained his recruiting philosophy on “The Rich Eisen Show,” saying he wants quarterback and offensive line recruits to get good grades and come from two-parent homes, but wants defensive linemen to have a “single momma” and be “on free lunch.”

Colorado declined to comment on Sanders’ remarks.

Sanders’ leadership record isn’t spotless, either. Before getting into college coaching, Sanders co-founded Prime Prep Academy, a Texas-based charter school, which collapsed amid significant debt and lawsuits. According to the Dallas Morning News, the school was perceived to focus on athletics at the expense of academics.

Colorado is willing to accept the risk. After forcing out Gary Barnett in 2005, the school tried out different types of coaches: Group of 5 success stories like Hawkins and MacIntyre, an ascending coordinator in Mel Tucker, a notable alum in Jon Embree and a veteran coach with CU roots in Dorrell, who was fired in October. None of them succeeded.

“Our past 15 years led us to the point where we had to be the one to take that chance,” said Alec Roussos, Colorado’s associate athletic director for administration and chief of staff. “You win four or five games last year, maybe in your mind you’re like, ‘Hey, we’re close.’ But when you’re 1-11, you need that total overhaul to be like, ‘We need to change a lot of things.’ Not just people or personnel but processes, the way we do things, the expectation level within our program and within the athletic department.”

Colorado once had the highest expectations. From 1989 to 1996, the Buffaloes were one of the best programs in college football. They finished ranked in the AP top 10 five times — including No. 1 in 1990 — and never lower than No. 20. But after transitioning from McCartney to Rick Neuheisel in 1995, their place near the top of the sport became less secure.

Over nine seasons, beginning in 1997, the program averaged 6.9 wins per year, with a No. 9 AP finish in 2001. The nosedive started in 2005, after Hawkins replaced Barnett, and the Buffs failed to finish with a winning record over the next 10 years. Other than 2016, when a veteran squad went 10-4, the team has rarely been competitive.

Last year, the Buffs were outscored 216-67 during an 0-5 start, leading to Dorrell’s firing. Colorado ranked 128th nationally in offense, 130th in defense and 125th in turnover margin.

“Where was our football program? It was at the lowest of lows,” Roussos said. “You can’t argue that last year, the product we were putting on the field was not at a level that we ever wanted to be. … Again, what is the downside of hiring Coach Prime? Because even if it ‘fails,’ 1-11 is still failing.”

Sanders has no interest in incremental improvement. He expects a dramatically different on-field product, even with so many new faces on the roster and a September schedule that includes USC and Oregon, as well as an opener at 2022 national runner-up TCU.

“We will not settle for mediocrity,” Sanders said. “You’re going to get on this program, or you’re gonna get up outta here. We plan on winning, and we don’t have time to procrastinate. We plan on winning right now.”

OF ALL THE on-camera moments Sanders has had since taking the Colorado job, none generated more attention than his first team meeting. “I’m comin’,” he repeated in his speech, a phrase that soon became a team motto. Sanders was direct about why he was there and how far the program had fallen, telling players the decadeslong “mess” Colorado fans, students and even their parents had endured would soon be cleaned up.

He explained how the roster would change, saying some players occupying seats in the room would lose them. His most memorable line: “We’ve got a few positions already taken care of, because I’m bringing my luggage with me, and it’s Louis [Vuitton]. I’m comin’.” He invited players to “jump in that [transfer] portal,” because they’d make room for better ones.

“He put everybody on notice, and I don’t know if that’s a bad thing,” George said. “We all saw that message. In our department, people saw it and said, ‘It’s time to step up.’ It was tough to hear and some people may say, ‘That’s not the way to approach it,’ but it set the tempo on how he’s going to run his program.”

Hagan, who coached and recruited some of the players in the room that night, said he has heard other new CU coaches deliver similar messages in their initial meetings. The difference was those gatherings did not have cameras present, and Sanders wasn’t the one talking.

“A little bit I thought, ‘Dang, that could be construed as rude, disrespectful,’ but at the same time, he wouldn’t be here if we didn’t need him,” Hagan said. “The truth is the truth, and he spoke the truth. The guys that got in the portal, they didn’t deserve to be here, because if you let words convince you to move on and not fight for what you believe in and what you signed up for, you shouldn’t be here.”

Shedeur Sanders, in town for his father’s introduction, attended the meeting. While addressing the team, Deion anointed Shedeur, who had been Jackson State’s starting quarterback, as Colorado’s next QB1.

Shedeur said his father’s message, while direct, was at least honest.

“I don’t like being lied to,” said Shedeur, who passed for 6,963 yards and 70 touchdowns in two seasons at Jackson State. “The players coming in, they’re coming to play, they’re not coming to sit. So if you’ve been here, you’re chilling and you think your spot is good, that’s not the case. You’ve got guys wanting to play with top talent. It’s just realistic. Nowadays, a lot of people are scared of the truth, and they don’t like hearing that.”

Deion Sanders wanted Colorado’s players to see who he is from Day 1. He had similar “no lies told” meetings regularly at Jackson State.

Sanders also doesn’t cater his messages to any player. He’s never going to hold back.

“I’m a navigational system that’s trying to get you to where you want to go,” he said. “It’s up to you if you want to listen or not. You can turn it off in the car and you may drive in circles. But we know where we’re going, we’ve been there and we know exactly how to get there.”

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