The long-anticipated marriage between Colorado and Deion Sanders has finally been consumed. The Buffaloes announced Sanders as their 28th head football coach Saturday night shortly after his Jackson State Tigers defeated Southern 43-24 to win the 2022 SWAC Championship Game.
“There were a number of highly qualified and impressive candidates interested in becoming the next head football coach at Colorado, but none of them had the pedigree, the knowledge and the ability to connect with student-athletes like Deion Sanders,” said Colorado athletic director Rick George in a statement. “Not only will Coach Prime energize our fanbase, I’m confident that he will lead our program back to national prominence while leading a team of high quality and high character.”
Sanders, 55, was expected to announce his intention to join Colorado after the SWAC championship, sources close to the hiring process told CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd. Following Jackson State’s victory, “Coach Prime” told his team that he would indeed be leaving for Boulder, 247Sports’ Carl Reed confirmed.
Sanders told Jackson State players that he will coach the Celebration Bowl on Dec. 17 against North Carolina Central in Atlanta.
Sanders has spent the last three seasons coaching Jackson State where the Tigers have gone 27-5 overall with a perfect 12-0 mark this season. JSU posted a 21-40 record across the six seasons prior to his arrival. Sanders took the program to a 4-3 record during the COVID-19 pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the same number of wins it achieved in 2019 (4-8). Jackson State is 23-2 over the last two seasons with an unblemished 16-0 mark in SWAC play and consecutive conference championships.
While at JSU, Sanders recruited some of the country’s top talent — including the no. 1 recruit in the Class of 2022, cornerback Travis Hunter — which played a role in the revitalization of the program. Some of talent that could follow him to Colorado; Sanders has already been recruiting high school prospects and transfer portal entrants before formally taking the Buffaloes job, according to multiple reports.
CBS News Colorado reported Friday that Colorado offered Sanders a contract with a starting salary of “more than $5 million” with incentives that could see the annual pay increase “by roughly 40%” if met.
The Buffaloes fired coach Karl Dorrell in October after starting 0-5. Dorrell took over the program in 2020 after Mel Tucker unexpectedly left for Michigan State. Dorrell’s tenure started well enough with Colorado going 4-2 in a shortened season, but it lost 13 of its next 17 games under his leadership.
Interesting decision by Sanders
While it’s unknown if Cincinnati or South Florida formally offered Sanders — let alone the value of those potential deals — Colorado feels like the oddest fit of Sanders’ three most prominent options, at least on the surface. Coach Prime is from Fort Myers, Florida, roughly a two-hour drive south of Tampa where USF is located. He played college football at Florida State and is a familiar name in not just the Sunshine State but throughout Georgia given his time playing for the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta Braves. He also spent four seasons with the Cincinnati Reds during his MLB career and is familiar with that city as well.
But Sanders has no previous connection to Colorado or the Pac-12. Of course, he is “Deion Sanders.” It’s not as if people of Colorado have never heard of him. However, when handicapping the three gigs as “best fits” for Sanders, Colorado appeared to be the least likely.
It’s clear Sanders feels differently. Perhaps the appeal of coaching to an established Power Five program played a role in his decision. Cincinnati will join the Big 12 in 2023, and while that’s a great move on the surface, it also presents an unknown future for the program in a new league. It’s probably part of why Luke Fickell left for Wisconsin despite leading the Bearcats to the College Football Playoff in 2021.
Sanders might also see an opportunity with the Buffaloes in a new-look Pac-12. When USC and UCLA leave to join the Big Ten in 2024, it will leave an enormous power vacuum at the top of the league. Perhaps Sanders feels that his ability to draw talent to Boulder, coupled with his coaching skill can establish Colorado as a dominant program out West.
Colorado needs Sanders’ help
When Sanders took over at Jackson State, he found himself at the helm of a program that had produced some great players but hadn’t experienced a high level of success. Jackson State hadn’t won the SWAC since 2007, which then was its first conference title since 1996. Sanders won the league in his second season and did it again in his third.
Colorado hasn’t won a conference title since the 2001 season, when it was still a member of the Big 12. It’s only been to two bowl games in the last 15 years, and one of those appearances came in 2020. Since joining the Pac -12 in 2011, the Buffaloes have gone 48-94 overall, 27-76 in conference play.
If ever there was a Power Five program in need of a jolt of electricity to bring it back to life, Colorado is it. The program had mediocre results on the recruiting trail as well; it hasn’t had a recruiting class ranked in the top 30 since 2008 and has routinely found itself outside the top 50.
Sanders’ ability to attract talent was a significant factor in Colorado’s interest.