Coach Deion Sanders, Colorado and how to measure success
As the celebrity in Boulder and chances of making a bowl dwindles, belief in the team remains
BOULDER, Colo. — By the time all 50,000 people filed out of Folsom Field on Nov. 11, the sun was setting on the tiny college town for the last time. Their final gameday at home, the 100th season of the stadium which sits more than a mile above sea level, was concluded and coach Deion Sanders’ team had suffered another defeat, this time at the hands of the No. 21-ranked Arizona Wildcats.
While daylight saving time has moved up the Golden Hour across the country, it’s clear that the Colorado Buffaloes, once the darlings of Black America and the flashy classmates of the college football world, are in the twilight of their season. At 4-6, their likelihood of getting to a bowl game is quite slim after dropping their fourth straight game.
There are no nationally televised pregame shows taking over campus anymore. Stars from all corners of the corner are not flocking to the field to chop it up pregame. The days of multiplatinum, Grammy-winning artist Lil Wayne bringing the team out of the tunnel to one of his songs and guys like two-time NBA All-Star Jaylen Brown bringing his friends and teammates to root on the Fightin’ Primes are long behind us.
On Nov. 11, we were graced with the presence of rapper Jacquees and NBA legend Julius Erving instead.
If it were any other coach, this would be a garden variety up-and-down year, so to speak. But as has been the case ever since Colorado’s spring game sold out, balancing expectations with the highs of newfound glory is a difficult task. Considering the amount of bluster about this program on balance, staring a non-winning season right in the face is an awkward confrontation.
It begs the question: What makes a successful college football season?
For the purposes of discussion, let’s just say the Buffs pull one upset before their season ends. Facing off against a tough Washington State team and a flat-out elite Utah, it’s unlikely. But, one win in two weeks would be as many as they had all of last year. Doing the basic math, that’s an improvement.
But it does feel like a lot was left on the table. Three major moments mark the season that changed everything. One, was receiver-cornerback Travis Hunter getting hurt. He’s the best and most important player on the team, the Colorado player most likely to play on Sundays. His absence made it clear how limited this team is in talent.
Second was the loss to USC. A game that the Buffaloes could have won, save a bizarre blocked punt that led to a Trojans score that ended up being the difference. Seemed like just another one that got away until the next home tilt.
A late-night stunner of a loss to Stanford after being up 29-0 at halftime was the first indication that this was perhaps more than just a check engine light on the dashboard, and what eventually unraveled their season. Without that win, suddenly they were chasing a dragon whose availability felt forgone before.
“Is a bowl-type season a successful season? The answer is hell yes,” Kordell Stewart, who played in the NFL for 11 seasons and set records as a quarterback at Colorado for most completions, passing yards and touchdown passes, explained following the Buffaloes’ loss to the Trojans in October. “But are we at that space to talk about that right now? Not at all.”
For longtime Buffaloes fans, that latter part hasn’t changed. But what truly is the measure of success for a program that has seen the mountaintop? It wasn’t that long ago that Stewart and receiver Michael Westbrook connected on a Hail Mary to beat Michigan, one of the most iconic plays in college football history, in 1994. Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam won the Heisman Trophy that year. Four years before that, Bill McCartney won the national championship via the Big Eight.
“You have to win games, because the bodies won’t be in the seats if we don’t win games. This doesn’t happen if we can’t win, but everybody understands what we’re making here is special,” Westbrook said following the USC loss. “Yeah, we’re going to go to a bowl game. There’s no way we don’t go to a bowl game.”
That might not be the case, and sure this team might have only won one game last season, but it’s not some random school looking for its first taste of glory. The program has pride. For all the money, new scoreboards and sunglasses Sanders might be selling, at some point the goals must be clearly defined in an attempt to execute.
When asked straight-up if he thought this was a successful season, even Sanders had to be delicate about it.
“[I’m] trying to watch my words. Certainly. I feel as though every time these fans come in the stadium, there’s an expectation of us to win. I think that’s progress,” Sanders spelled out patiently after losing to Arizona. “We have game consistency in some positions that we can fix. We know the problem. We identified it, and we’re going to fix it. That’s progress because we know what the problem is. We have the aptitude to fix it. So, I really feel like … We’re underachieving from my standards, but when you really look at it, I’m pretty sure you see a better football team on the field each and every Saturday.”
When he got to campus, Sanders famously told everyone listening that he was bringing his own luggage to town and it was of the luxury variety. Since then, he’s said that he needed to make some adjustments to other parts of what we’ll just call his travel gear if we’re extending this metaphor: the offensive line.
“The big picture, you go get new linemen. That’s the picture and I’ma paint it perfectly,” Sanders said after a loss to UCLA.
Even if the kids are getting paid, they’re still kids and it seemed like a life lesson that nobody was ready to hear. Especially if, say, as an athlete, you’d actually hung around, believed in Prime and still made the team.
Of all the things that have happened this season, that’s the one that most people would look and definitely say was a mistake.
The grandfather of Gerad Christian-Lichtenhan is talking about the sights his grandson set out for when he set foot on the University of Colorado Boulder campus years ago. The 73-year-old former Marine rides a 2012 Harley Road King and came all the way from California to see his grandson play. He remembers how much it stung to hear that the young man he’s seen grow to 6-feet-10 was suddenly and seemingly discarded after he gave his heart to the program.
Christian-Lichtenhan is the tallest player in the program’s history, but the end has been a learning experience. He hung around to play for Sanders when the odds weren’t great. He plays left tackle.
“My grandson, his high school coach told the players that they could be on the team with a C-average, but they couldn’t play unless they had a B-average, that the most important thing for them was to get their education,” he said. “And even though they might get a scholarship, they got a one in a million chance of making the pros. Get your education. And my grandson has done that and is still doing that, but he made the honor roll here last semester. As much as I would love to see him make it to the NFL, his education has always been on the top of his personal goals.
“I know since my grandson has been here, it’s the best season that they’ve had. I hope they do really well tomorrow. I would love to see them finish at least 50-50.”
When asked about his grandson’s college football experience overall, his answer is simple: “That’s a tough question.”
Such difficult inquiries are becoming the norm for programs nationwide, as they struggle with trying to sort out reasonable expectations. The Buffaloes’ success commercially combined with their lack thereof on the field has changed the definition of what even makes sense to shoot for for many institutions.
ESPN investigative reporter Paula Lavigne reported this week that $146 million is owed to college coaches who are not working since 2022. Aside from Texas A&M and Jimbo Fisher’s gargantuan buyout that takes up nearly half of that amount, let’s take a look at the schools on the list. Except for Auburn, none of the schools have been remotely close to relevant for a national championship in the HDTV era.
One of those schools is Colorado, which paid $8.7 million to Karl Dorrell, who helmed the team two coaches ago. But if one coach can make such a difference on a campus that knows better, what are all these other schools out here doing?
Then-San Diego State coach Brady Hoke was a conference coach of the year a couple seasons back. Now he’s retiring. Guys are getting fired left and right in college football and since the Buffaloes have become such an interesting story, you have to believe that many university presidents are reevaluating their priorities. Why bother paying tens of millions of dollars to someone who doesn’t know how to have fun, overstates their capabilities and doesn’t deliver on it? Why bother with that charade when you can get someone people like, and have four to five great weekends a year and everyone has a good time?
There are only five to 10 programs across the country in any given year that have a real chance to win the national championship. Ultimately, Sanders is bringing in more money than he’s been given, prompting some to think that even with a season of questionable results, he could leave.
“I wanna win. I wanna win a game. Do you think I really sit down and think about that kind of stuff?” Sanders said at his weekly news conference Tuesday. “I’m good. We gotta win, let’s focus on this week, and we play Friday, so we lose a day of practice, so we gotta focus.”
After seeing his instant popularity, surely a lot of university presidents are upset that they didn’t at least consider taking a chance on a guy like Sanders. He’s one of one, but that doesn’t mean his methods don’t make sense.
Has he rubbed a few families the wrong way? Perhaps. Have players decommitted since their losing streak started? A couple. But if you really think about it, the lack of clear parameters for success make this job in Boulder, right now, better than many others. Winning isn’t everything, nor the only thing. Sometimes, it can be the lonely thing.
After a major reality check in the past month, the Buffaloes are going back to basics and enjoying the ride. Hunter is still working with kids and giving back. Cab drivers still talk about their run-ins with anyone from the program. They’ve also given up the second-most sacks and committed the most penalties in the country.
Complaints on social media about parking tickets keep piling up, but to say this season is a failure if they don’t end up with a winning record doesn’t reflect the reality.
“These young men love it. They love it here. I haven’t heard one complaint about campus, about campus living, about food and about the city in general. I have not heard one complaint whatsoever,” Sanders said. “I mean, everybody would love a soul food restaurant here and there, we all would and you guys would as well. But we’re not going to have a pity party because we don’t have that, but our dining staff and chefs are doing a great job downstairs. So, these guys, they love it. I love it. I enjoy it immensely.”
Time is on Sanders’ side. Specifically, for the final home game of the year to come before the actual end of the season, definitely helped the energy of the weekend.
Technically, they can still make a bowl game. If the Buffs manage to keep quarterback Shedeur Sanders upright, Hunter looks like the guy he was before lacerating his liver, and Washington State overlooks this week because they’re currently rolling in dough after winning a gargantuan court case against the Pac-12’s departing members, then maybe.
Then after that, they would somehow have to pull off beating Utah, a team that Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams has never beaten in his life. But those problems are all down the road. The game in Boulder on Nov. 11 proved that win or lose, people are going to show up.
“Well, we’re the only ones I know that have come from Connecticut, come out here twice. And like I said, I don’t even care about their record. It doesn’t matter,” said Jim Hughes, who was in town with a slew of his people. “And I look at [Sanders], the economic driver, I don’t even know, I think I paid a thousand bucks for the seats. A friend of mine from Ohio, his kid’s here, they’re a sophomore. The kid said last year I paid 10 bucks for a ticket, I walked up and I sat wherever. About halfway through the game I was like, basically on the sideline. He goes, ‘… don’t we need tickets?’ Oh, no, we just walk up and get tickets. This year? No way.”
Why are they there? His wife was worn down by the kids.
“I blew out my back and I was sitting there for 10 days. This was in September,” said Lori Vinci, who is describing what got them here to begin with. “So, my son comes in and he has been talking about Deion Sanders and what he’s done for this program. And I’m finally sick of listening to him and my husband. And so now we sit and have a two-hour conversation. So now he’s like, Ma, go on Instagram. Follow him.”
Mind you, this is a random white family from Connecticut who happened to be big fans and really appreciated the family aspect of the Sanders’ empire.
“Ma this, Ma that. So I go on Instagram and what he did for this program and for these kids, I’m like, ‘Rich, I am booking flights for all of us. The girlfriends, your two siblings, all of us are going.’ I booked it on the spot, came here. It was magical,” said Vinci, whose children are in their 30s. “I said to him, ‘if I booked tickets to go, wouldn’t you guys go?’ And then I called his brother, his sister, didn’t matter. She comes along for the ride anyway and they’re like, ‘are you kidding me?’ Of course. They had the time of their lives.”
Which, when you get down to it, strikes at the core of what the feeling is that Sanders and his team have restored in Colorado. For whatever reason, people just want to be there. It’s a fun environment. There are a lot of schools that haven’t won anything in decades and don’t plan to, but keep up the appearances that winning is paramount because it pleases the boomer generation booster who wants to brag on the golf course.
But the reality is that most people don’t mind just a good, fun time, not necessarily desiring to mix it up with message board creeps who scour the internet looking for the next teenage phenom out of high school.
“I’ve been following him since he played with the Falcons and I’m a Dallas Cowboy fan, so I enjoyed him when he played for Dallas. Also followed him in Atlanta, used to visit there a lot with friends. And I do believe, as said before, he’s a minister decorated in coach gear,” said Latrenda Brooks warmly during halftime in the tailgate section next door to the field, arguably the most popular place on campus on game days. “Very motivational speaker. Just love everything about him, like what he’s doing for young people in general. He’s teaching them more than sports.”
She and her husband Roosevelt were celebrating their first wedding anniversary with family and friends. He said someone suggested on a whim that they give the place a look.
“Never wanted to come to the mountains, to be honest with you. Seriously, you know what I mean? I was like, man, I can always go to the mountains, there ain’t nothing out there,” Roosevelt said, sitting on the lawn in a white sweatsuit. “But he has really set the tone for building a nice culture. I’m with it. I’m on deck. I’m on board fully.
“I think what success means for this program is to get back to a winning culture. First that has to be established and then once you set the tone and you build from that. You build from the inside out, because all that other stuff will happen. You’ll have people going to the NFL and like he said a long time ago, 15% only make it, so, come on. So, the odds are very slim for a lot of people making it to the league. So, to establish a winning culture again, I think that would prove a whole lot.”
Perhaps the most interesting crowd is composed of the people who live in Boulder who could be doing anything they choose, but decided to be a part of the fun.
“I think it’s done a lot for the town of Boulder in Colorado itself. You’re in the most beautiful place in the world,” said Emily Zeszutek, a 33-year-old from Pittsburgh who just lives here. No real connection to the school. Rocking something called a Wildcoat, which is basically a piece of outerwear designed to look like a Buffalo, with her friends, to her the attraction is obvious.
“You can hike, you can ski, you can bike, you can do all these things. But a lot of people now are choosing to spend their Saturday afternoons of beautiful weather here watching football because they believe.”
Sounds like a successful season to me.