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Colorado coach Deion Sanders ‘a breath of fresh air’ for Arizona State president and athletic director

Sanders praised for his approach to Colorado’s turnaround in a radically changing business

TEMPE, Arizona — The Coach Prime Roadshow rolled into Tempe on Saturday, and if crowd size is any indication, interest/fascination in Deion Sanders’ remade Colorado Buffaloes program shows no signs of waning.

This time, 54,086 fans packed Mountain America Stadium to watch Colorado survive a 27-24 last-second scare from Arizona State.

This was the sixth consecutive sellout crowd Colorado has attracted — at home or on the road. Quite the turnaround for a team that finished 1-11 last season and was a program no one wanted to watch.

On Saturday, I watched the final thrilling moments of the game from the end zone with Arizona State President Michael Crow and Athletic Director Ray Anderson. The Sun Devils drove the length of the field for an improbable game-tying touchdown and Colorado responded with a game-winning field goal with 12 seconds remaining.

The crowd was electric. The stadium was rocking. Arizona State had sold out games against USC, rival Arizona and may sell out the Oregon game. Never Colorado. This was a first.

“Colorado has never produced, to my knowledge, a sellout in this stadium in the time I’ve been here,” said Anderson, who became the ASU athletics director in 2014. “What does that tell you? That tells you that everybody wins because we’ll sell more concessions. We’ll sell more hot dogs, we’ll sell more water, we’ll sell more beer. There’ll be more people paying for parking. That’s good for everybody. That’s community impact that we realize is important. You got to give Deion credit.”

Everybody in college football wants a piece of Prime. It’s all been well documented — rival coaches have taken their shots at how Sanders turned the Colorado program around.

One coach criticized Sanders’ radical use of the transfer portal. Another coach, no doubt speaking for many, attempted to fire up his team by saying Deion was all flash, no substance. Another coach criticized Sanders for not removing his hat and wearing sunglasses during postgame news conferences. Sanders turned that into yet another endorsement opportunity.

Lately, there have been grumblings about the star-studded cast of celebrities who keep showing up on the sidelines for Colorado football games, from actors to rappers to former and current athletes.

Anderson said he didn’t have a problem with the celebrities and that Sanders was simply taking a common practice to a new level.

“I’ve heard from folks that all the entertainers and rappers and Rock Johnson and others on the sideline were starting to agitate the people,” Anderson said. “Hey, if those are his friends and supporters of his programs, he’s got a right to have them down there. If people are offended because they think it’s a recruiting advantage because you have a well-known rapper who is a good friend of Deion who wants to come down and visit the sidelines, that’s just the way of the world. Too bad. Go get your stars and entertainers.”

He added, “People do it all the time. They have high-profile alums who are Pro Bowl players who were down on their sidelines. They’ve been doing it for years. Crying about Deion and his rapper friends is disingenuous, in my opinion.”

Since the Colorado football season began last month, we have heard a lot from Sanders and fellow coaches. I have been anxious to hear what college presidents and athletics directors think of Sanders’ approach to turning around and sustaining a big-time revenue-producing sport.

Colorado coach Deion Sanders gives a pregame interview before the game against USC on Sept. 30 in Boulder, Colorado.

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Sanders has his critics, but the Arizona State president and athletic director are not among them. Crow, who preaches innovation and creativity as a governing principle of the university, believes that Sanders is a breath of fresh air who may save and stabilize an intercollegiate athletic enterprise currently in free fall.

“People love to see creativity, people love to see energy,” Crow said during our end zone conversation on Saturday. “What coach Sanders brings to the table is that there are lots of ways to activate, motivate, stimulate creativity in sports and build new leaders. So, he’s off on a new model, which I think can help us to sustain college football.”

Crow added: “Deion Sanders has brought creativity and a new perspective to the enterprise. Anytime you bring creativity to something, it’s good.”

Anderson has been involved at virtually every level of athletics. He was a scholarship football and baseball player at Stanford. After earning a law degree at Harvard, Anderson became an NFL executive, then an agent representing primarily college coaches. He is one of the few African-American athletic directors at a Power 5 athletic program.

Anderson thinks Deion Sanders is simply a symbol of the radically changing business of intercollegiate athletics. The resistance to how he does business comes primarily from those locked into a college athletic model established when he was a college athlete in the 1970s.

“That way’s gone,” he said, referring to a previous era of college sport. “I thought it was simpler then. I liked it better then. Fast-forward to the things we’re seeing today. I think the landscape is so much more difficult for the student-athlete with expectations that are foisted on him or her by just the pressures and the changes in the world. The expectation that there’s so much money in the system that the student-athletes should share in the revenues created on their backs and all the pressures that go along with that. I think it’s just much more difficult in this day and age, and I feel badly for the student-athletes caught up in the stuff that we’re doing now.”

Two major pillars have turned college athletics upside down: name, image and likeness deals, which have opened the door for college athletes to make unprecedented amounts of money, and the transfer portal, which has introduced free agency into college athletics.

Sanders has used NIL (which some say means “Now It’s Legal”), the portal and his celebrity, to catapult Colorado into the national conversation. On Oct. 4, the NCAA approved transfer portal changes, reducing the total days student-athletes can enter their name from 60 to 45 days.

Anderson doesn’t think this was a reaction to Sanders.

“No, I don’t because there’s been disputes since the transfer portal came about as to what was the appropriate windows in the different sports,” he said.

“Deion may have brought a little more attention to it, but I don’t think it was driven by how Deion did his roster. Deion came into a time and place when new coaches came in, they gave a little more leeway about how you could handle your roster. I think he just took advantage of a window of opportunity that was presented by all the COVID stuff and was smart about it. But I don’t think he generated the interest to shorten the transfer portal windows.”

But the portal has created an atmosphere of havoc that Anderson does not see as healthy. “I think it’s been harmful,” he said, “I know it’s really disruptive to the rosters of these various teams and the culture in some of these teams.” Anderson has seen it firsthand at his school, especially in ASU’s basketball program.

“For three straight years, it’s almost a brand-new roster. You might have one or two folks who are remaining, but it’s been a constant churn, a constant turnover of student-athletes coming in and out. I don’t think it’s healthy. I don’t think it’s been good for the culture of a lot of teams where you’ve had that kind of turnover.”

On the other hand, Anderson believes that what Sanders has done in Colorado, creating a buzz and generating excitement, is forcing programs to take another look at how they are doing business.

“What Deion has proven in very short order is that college football is entertainment,” Anderson said. “It’s not just kicking off and running on the field. It’s all the other things that you can surround your program with that makes it attractive and entertaining.”

The larger question in some academic circles is whether the model of big-time college sports is sustainable. There have long been issues with head football and basketball coaches being the highest-paid employees on a college campus. Now, faculty are seeing athletes, in some cases, making hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Anderson could see a scenario where increasing numbers of academic institutions decide to get out of the sports business or, if they remain in, get rid of the athletics scholarship.

“I’ve heard rumblings that folks have said, let’s just go back to the Ivy League model where there aren’t any athletic scholarships. We’re just going to have to figure out who can come and participate in academic scholarships,” Anderson said.

Many institutions that continue to lose money on athletics may decide to cut their losses because they cannot compete at the level they’ve been competing. “Either because they don’t have the ability or the desire to invest the way you need to invest now to be competitive,” Anderson said. “I don’t like it, but I don’t think what we’re doing now is sustainable. I think there’s a possibility that if this thing doesn’t turn and get sensible and keeps going the Wild West route, then I think some folks very likely could be looking at not playing Division I varsity athletics at the Power 5 level. That could happen. It’s harder now than it’s ever been financially.”

Which brings us back to Sanders and finding creative ways of sustaining and monetizing university athletics teams.

According to some reports, ticket revenue is up $14 million at Colorado compared with last season.

“That’s the Deion effect,” Anderson said. “He’s had an unbelievably positive impact because it’s forcing the rest of us to say, ‘OK, how do you attract people to your venue who just want to be entertained by stuff that’s not even happening in the field to play.’”

This may even impact the traditional coaching search where schools in the past with large numbers of Black players hire white head coaches. That could change, even if ever so slightly.

“For other folks going forward who are going to be in the positions of hiring new head coaches, are going to have to consider what additional attributes that will help us create new revenue to help support all the expense elevations we have to support football and the other sports. What additional value add does this coach bring that’s going to help us get people in the seats by making bigger donations and buying season tickets? We’re sold out,” he said. “We’re sold out for Deion Sanders and Colorado. The truth is that a lot of that is driven by the fact that it’s Deion Sanders in Colorado coming in here and people want to see it.”

The Coach Prime Roadshow continues. What college presidents and administrators don’t know is whether Prime’s instant success is an aberration or a harbinger of good things to come.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.