Coach Deion Sanders, Colorado are a hit. We will expect more from the encore.
On-field results the only way program will be judged
“Hope is in the house. Hope is in the air. Hope is in the city. Hope is in the community.” — Deion Sanders
SALT LAKE CITY — Deion Sanders’ Hollywood script of a first season as a Power 5 football coach is over. Colorado ended its first season under Sanders with a 23-17 loss to Utah. This was the team’s sixth consecutive loss, but the 4-8 record was an improvement over last season’s 1-11 mark.
In the Alice in Wonderland calculus of Coach Prime, where up is down and losing is winning, this season was a win. Everyone was in lockstep. The resounding party line was that the foundation was put in place for success ahead.
“We’re certainly headed in the right direction,” Sanders said. “We’re certainly trending forward.”
Colorado athletic director Rick George, who hired Sanders, echoed the sentiment.
“I’d consider it a win,” George told me Saturday during halftime. “We’d like a few more wins, but we were a 1-11 team, last in every statistical category in the country, and we come back. We beat the team that played in the national championship game and we come home and beat Nebraska.
“The back half of the year has not been as good as we’d like, but I feel good about where we are.”
George was in Boulder for an 11-loss season last year. Winning four games makes a big difference.
“It wasn’t a lot of fun,” he said of the 2022 season. “It was a tough year when you have to let a coach go midseason. We finished the season and I credit the coaches, who were there to keep the team together, but it was a hard year.”
Determining whether the season was a win or loss is complicated. Because of what happened last year, an eight-loss season was a winning season by metrics that have nothing to do with results on the field. The standings say that Colorado finished last in the Pac-12, winning only one conference game.
But the bottom-line metrics — the economic bottom line — say that Colorado won. Luxury suites sold out. Home games and road games sold out. More importantly, the program received a badly needed infusion of enthusiasm.
The program was relevant.
The Colorado season ended Saturday with a loss, but the season was a victory for college football and for a media held hostage by the need to deliver content in a way that attracts clicks and eyeballs. Sanders draws in clicks. Any stories that had anything to do with Deion Sanders were gobbled up. A colleague of mine published a Deion Sanders book.
Act 1 had nothing to do with results and everything to do with the Deion Sanders magic. He is the reason that media and television crews flew back and forth across the country to attend Colorado games.
Prime Time was a hit. We will expect more from the encore.
On-field results will be the only way this program will be judged moving forward. No more smoke and mirrors. Sanders’ news conferences, which were often like sermons on the mount, will not be enough to camouflage blown leads, poor game management and losing streaks.
His staff will hit the recruiting trail and scour the transfer portal with a vengeance. After a blowout loss to Oregon, Sanders told opponents that they’d better get Colorado now because the Buffaloes were coming.
That has been the mantra ever since, even on Saturday: Change is coming. A transfusion is coming in the way of bigger, better bodies to block and tackle. He promised a better offensive line to block for his son Shedeur, among the most beaten-up Power 5 quarterbacks this season. Shedeur Sanders was knocked out of the Nov. 17 game against Washington State and missed Saturday’s start.
Reinforcements are coming, Sanders promised.
“We probably know what’s going to come, probably in the next few days to a week and a half,” he said referring to new recruits. “You guys, you’re going to be pleased with what’s coming. I promise you that everything you see that we have a lack thereof, a deficit, we’re going to fill that need.”
Indeed, the transfer portal — rather, Sanders’ use of the transfer portal — became a lightning rod in the world of college recruiting. The portal introduced a new reality into big-time college football: opportunity mixed with a cold-blooded roster turnover.
No one exploited the portal like Sanders. No one hunted like Sanders. He was hired in December 2022. By the time the 2023 season began, 70 Colorado players had left the team. Some entered the portal voluntarily, many did not.
“That was by design,” George said. “Some of the players left on their own, some he wanted to leave, but everything that’s happened to this point has been by design. We’d like to have a few more wins, but I feel good about where we are.”
The portal creates an environment where recruited players are run off by new players from other programs. This world did not exist in 1990 when George was on his first tour of duty as the Colorado AD. Colorado won its first and only national championship that year.
“The landscape has drastically changed,” he said. “Back in the day, if we were going to out recruit somebody, we sent handwritten notes. That’s what we had. We didn’t have cellphones. And it’s changed because people can see in real time what’s going on, and there’s an excitement level.”
Sanders was the right choice to navigate this environment. “I don’t know that there’s a better person who navigates social media like Coach Prime, and the way he uses that has been incredibly beneficial and it attracts people to CU,” George said.
Colorado recruiting has gotten off to a rocky start. Two 2024 recruits have reneged on their commitments. Winston Watkins Jr., a five-star wide receiver, decommitted, then offensive lineman Talan Chandler flipped to Missouri. Sanders was not happy with the decommitments and called on the NCAA to force recruits to honor their commitments.
“What I wish the NCAA would do is if you commit somewhere you can’t go on other visits.” Sanders said.
He also said Colorado would not buy transfer portal recruits or incoming freshmen looking for lucrative name, image and likeness deals.
“We’re not an ATM, that’s not going to happen here,” Sanders told the Denver media recently. “If you come to CU to play football for me and the CU Buffaloes, it’s because you really want to play football and receive a wonderful education. And all the business stuff is going to be handled at the back end, if that’s the case. But we are not an ATM. You’re not coming here to get rich unless you really come here with a plan to go to the NFL and get your degree. Not to come here and be Moneybagg Yo.
“We’re not going to buy anybody whatsoever,” he repeated. “That’s how we approach it.”
On the other hand, Sanders sent a reminder to the Colorado athletic director, president and boosters on Saturday when he told the media that renovations and program transformation will be costly.
“We definitely need giving,” he said on Saturday. “It’s unfortunate to say this, but those kids cost. If you start thinking about the top several teams in the country, let’s see what was spent on assembling the teams. We can sit up here and talk about great coaching great this and great that all we want, but it’s going to be a credit card swipe some kind of way.”
At a practical level, Sanders was a breath of fresh air for college football and journalists. He made the season exciting, which is why I traveled to Texas in September to watch Colorado play TCU to open the season. A 20.5-point underdog, Colorado pulled off the upset.
Sanders talked trash and cross-examined media members about whether they believed. Colorado followed that up with a home-opening victory over Nebraska and a triple-overtime victory over Colorado State. There was a cultural feeding frenzy as Sanders became the aspirational symbol for Black America. Colorado would become the new landing spot for young Black football players. Colorado had never been so relevant.
The opening act was great. Now, what about Act 2?
“Part 2, next year is going to be a great year for us,” George told me Saturday. “We know where we have some weaknesses. He’s going to fill those weaknesses and we’re going to be a damn good football team next year., We go to the Big 12. I think the timing of that is good. I think we’re going to have a lot of success next year and this was just the start. And there’s a lot ahead.”
There’d better be. Journalists will certainly not be traipsing back to Boulder just to hear Coach Prime’s inspirational sermons. The only thing that will attract the media horde is winning — a Black head coach winning.
I spoke with Sanders after Saturday’s media session and asked how he planned to keep things fresh. “There are always new challenges, new players, new beginnings,” he said. “There’s always something that’s expected that you exceed, or you don’t. So that’s what keeps it right there. Like now everybody says, ‘All they need is an offensive line and a defensive line.’ So, we want to do it. That’s how simple it is.”
During our conversation, Sanders cleared up any ambiguity I may have had about whether his son was returning to Colorado. “That’s not an option. He’s coming back,” he said.
We had a brief back-and-forth about this. Given the brutality of football and the certainty of injuries, I thought that Shedeur would be better served leaving the program and playing in the NFL and getting paid.
Sanders made it clear that loyalty, not money, was his son’s motivation for staying put.
What about the punishment that he is going to take next season? I argued.
“And then he’s going to get hit there,” he said referring to the NFL. Of course, I responded, “but at least he’ll be getting paid for it.”
“He’s making money,” Sanders said. “Money ain’t his option. Money is not his problem. He wants to enjoy life. We don’t have those problems. He’s not driven by that.
“He likes to play this game. He wants to finish with his brother and Travis [Hunter] and Jimmy [Horn]. He wants to see us build it and do his thing so he can enjoy the fruits of it. That’s who he is. He doesn’t run from challenges. He ain’t built like that.”
Defensive tackle Shane Cokes began his college football career at Dartmouth and will end his career at Colorado because of Sanders.
He described the roller-coaster ride that was this season.
“A lot of excitement obviously going into the season,” Cokes said. “Going through the season, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of hills and peaks, but I think in the end, we played hard. We can build off this, we can be part of something great.”
Freshman quarterback Ryan Staub had a promising performance in place of Sanders. In his first collegiate start, Staub nearly led Colorado to a victory. A punt return was called back and an apparent touchdown pass to Hunter was overturned. Staub completed 17 of 24 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown.
But Staub was also put on notice that he may not be the Buffaloes’ answer, even after Shedeur Sanders leaves Colorado after next season. Deion Sanders said that all the freshman quarterback did was show that he could play — somewhere.
“After his performance today, he wants to play somewhere. Whether it’s here or somewhere else, he wants to play,” Sanders said.
What that told me is that Staub will be Shedeur Sanders’ backup next season, but there is no guarantee that when Staub is in his junior year and ready to start, Colorado will not have recruited a bigger, stronger, faster player to play quarterback. That’s show business in Boulder.
Was Colorado’s first season under Coach Prime a success? Of course, it was. As the curtain goes down on a Hollywood-caliber first act, Colorado is where it wants to be: In Primetime.