Prime time is moving to mountain time.
In a stunning turn of events for one of college football’s most beleaguered programs, the University of Colorado has hired football legend Deion Sanders as its new head football coach, instantly raising the national profile of a team that has had only two winning seasons in the past 17 years.
Colorado announced the hiring after Sanders coached Jackson State to a 43-24 win Saturday against Southern in the Southwest Athletic Conference championship game. Sanders finishes with a 27-5 record in three seasons there, including 12-0 this season, when his success captured the attention of “60 Minutes,” ESPN’s College GameDay and bigger college programs that covet similar national relevance.
In this case, Colorado’s moonshot for Sanders landed with a bang. The school is expected to pay the Pro Football Hall of Famer at least $4.5 million annually and has hatched a plan for success that might just be crazy enough to work for both sides, even if the cultural fit still seems like an odd combination.
“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,” Colorado athletic director Rick George said in a statement released late Saturday. “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.”
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For Colorado, Sanders, 55, gives the Buffaloes a flamboyant national celebrity who has shown he can do what the program needs – recruit top players from across the country, much like former Colorado coach Bill McCartney did in the late 1980s and 1990s, when the Buffaloes were a national powerhouse.
Sanders’ personality also brings with it a high-wattage spotlight that is likely to attract both money and talent that could help turn around the team’s fortunes within one or two seasons. Colorado players now can expect to earn more pay for their names, images and likenesses (NIL), much like Sanders has in his national TV commercials for insurance company Aflac. Talented players at other schools also are likely to want to transfer to Boulder, including Sanders’ son, Shedeur, the sophomore quarterback at Jackson State.
For Sanders, Colorado gives him an opportunity to show he can work his coaching magic on a more high-profile stage in the Pac-12 Conference. He’ll have more resources for him and his staff, elite-level facilities and a fan and alumni base that has been desperate for a moment like this to electrify it.
He is scheduled to be publicly introduced as CU’s new coach in Boulder Sunday. Before he left for Colorado late Saturday, Sanders addressed his team at Jackson State and said the decision wasn’t easy but it also wasn’t about money.
“It’s not about a bag (money), but it’s about an opportunity,” he said. “I always felt like if you dominate your opportunity and you treat people right, the bag is going to always come. I never chased a bag. The bag has always chased me.”
Colorado has struggled since joining the Pac-12 in 2011 after making one doomed coaching hire after another. The Buffs have had four coaches since then and have fired three of them – Jon Embree (2012), Mike MacIntyre (2018) and Karl Dorrell, who was fired in October after an 0-5 start. The other coach – Mel Tucker – left for a bigger paycheck at Michigan State after only one season in 2019, when his team finished 5-7.
The Buffs only have gotten worse ever since. In 2022, Colorado finished 1-11 and was seldom competitive, with its only win coming at home against California in overtime Oct. 15. The Buffaloes even tried four different starting quarterbacks but couldn’t keep up with their opponents after several top players transferred away from the program since last season, including cornerbacks Christian Gonzalez (Oregon) and Mekhi Blackmon (Southern California).
The hope for Colorado is for Sanders to reverse that flow, turning the transfer portal into a resource instead of a drain. But that might take some adjustment by the school administration, which has been perceived by fans and alumni as not supportive enough of the football program in the NIL era of college football. Academic restrictions have hobbled the university’s ability to take in certain incoming transfers from other schools, handicapping the Buffaloes to the point that Colorado athletic director Rick George told the Boulder Daily Camera recently that “I think there will be changes made.”
Other adjustments might arise from some amount of culture shock. Boulder is a mostly white progressive city, a stark contrast to where Sanders has worked and grew up in the Southeast.
At Jackson State in Mississippi, Sanders also likely received more deference than he might at a high-profile public research university where football is not sacrosanct like it is where Sanders has played and coached in Texas and the Southeast.
Sportswear apparel might be an issue, too. Colorado is a Nike-sponsored school, while Sanders has been affiliated with Under Armor (and is friends with Under Armor founder Kevin Plank).
Yet here he comes anyway, a blast of lightning to fire up a dormant Rocky Mountain giant.
More than a quarter-century ago, McCartney showed what was possible with football at Colorado before retiring after the 1994 season. His teams never won fewer than eight games during any of his final seven seasons from 1988-94, a span that included a share of the national title (1990) and a Heisman Trophy won by Rashaan Salaam in 1994. They also boasted rosters full of future NFL draft picks from all over the county, including Louisiana (Kordell Stewart), Michigan (Michael Westbrook), California (Darian Hagan), Nevada (Mike Pritchard) and Texas (Alfred Williams).
The Buffs have hired Sanders to follow a similar blueprint.
With his hire, Colorado also becomes the only major college football school to have hired more than three Black head football coaches on a non-interim basis. Previously, the Buffaloes and Stanford were the only major colleges to have hired more than two. Colorado now has hired four Black head coaches, including Embree, Tucker and Dorrell, all since 2010.
“Deion Sanders’ stature transcends sports, and his hiring elevates not only the football program but the university as a whole,” said CU Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano said in a statement. “I’m thankful Deion has chosen to join our Buffalo family and I applaud Rick George for a truly inspired choice. This is an exciting new chapter in the long, storied history of Colorado football and I look forward to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our students, supporters and fans to cheer on `Coach Prime’ and our student-athletes next fall.”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org