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Colorado coach Deion Sanders leads his team onto the field against Nebraska at Folsom Field on Sept. 9 in Boulder, Colorado. RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Locker Room Talk

Deion Sanders has put the spotlight of college football on Colorado

In nine months, Coach Prime has turned a moribund, irrelevant program into a cultural magnet

BOULDER, Colo. – In a packed interview room at Folsom Stadium, I found myself standing next to Nigel Thatch, the terrific young actor who played Malcolm X on the series Godfather of Harlem. Thatch was one of a number of celebrities on hand Saturday to watch Colorado make its home debut with a convincing 36-14 thumping of Nebraska.

Why had Thatch traveled from California?

“I’ve been watching Prime since forever,” he said. “I’ve been attracted to his leadership for a long time. I’ve seen him come through a lot of stages in his life and come out on the other side of maturity. It’s a phenomenal contrast. That’s why he’s able to lead these boys, because they trust him.”

Colorado coach Deion Sanders’ Buffaloes are at the epicenter of college football and Thatch’s presence speaks to how in nine short months since being hired, the man we call Coach Prime has turned a moribund irrelevant program into a cultural magnet. The Wu-Tang Clan, which performed in Denver on Friday, was at Saturday’s game. Rapper Lil Wayne was scheduled to come but was delayed. Michael Irvin, Sanders’ Dallas Cowboys teammate, was at Saturday’s game, and rapper Snoop Dogg is likely to attend one of Colorado’s games.

Sanders’ demeanor Saturday was a far cry from his behavior last week after an upset victory over TCU, when he called out critics and so-called nonbelievers. The Sanders we saw Saturday was calm, mellow, joyful and even humble.

Asked about the electricity in the sold-out stadium, he said this kind of stage was a new experience. “A lot of this stuff is new to me,” he said. “I know I’ve been to the highest level in the World Series as well as Super Bowls. In the coaching aspect, Power 5, just to see that many people who came to see us perform, it was tremendous. Not just the numbers, but the energy. And the love and the expectation. I love that.”

Colorado fans rush the field after a win against Nebraska at Folsom Field on Sept. 9 in Boulder, Colorado.

RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

If last week’s victory over TCU was a shock, Saturday’s smashing victory over Nebraska was a potential revelation.

Colorado will likely be a loud voice in the national conversation.

During the postgame session, Sanders was asked about his economic impact. Home games are sold out, suites are unavailable and ticket prices for high-profile games are double and triple face value.

“I am not really thinking about the economic impact,” he said. “Really, I am thinking about the social impact. I am seeing more African Americans than I have ever seen before, sprinkling throughout the stands, restaurants and everything, and I love it.”

Sanders spoke about the power of sports to bring together people of diverse cultures, interests and political views, people who otherwise would be at each other’s throats.

“When Shedeur [Sanders] is doing what he is doing, and Travis [Hunter] and Xavier [Weaver] and all those guys, they are not Black Colorado Buffaloes, they are just Colorado Buffaloes,” Sanders said. “And we all come together and we bring people together, uniting. And that is the part that I adore, I truly do.”

We can debate the enduring merits of sports as a common ground, but Saturday was a great day for Sanders, for his family and for the Colorado football program.

Sanders is having an economic impact. Charles Johnson, the quarterback on Colorado’s 1990 national championship team, is a member of the Leeds Advisory Board at Colorado and vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion for Ball Corp. He bought a lodge suite for $14,000 before the Sanders hiring was announced.

After the hiring was made public, Johnson said, he tried to buy another box and was told there were no more available. There were 2,300 potential buyers ahead of Johnson on the list.

“If you are on the wrong side of his hire, you’re locked out,” Johnson said. “Boulder hasn’t seen that in a generation.”

Johnson believes that if Sanders had not been hired, the Big 12 may not have invited Colorado to join the conference.

“If he’s not the coach, we may be in the same position as Oregon State and Washington State,” Johnson said. With the disintegration of the Pac-12, those two programs find themselves without a major conference.

Colorado coach Deion Sanders (right) speaks with quarterback Shedeur Sanders (left) between plays during the game against Nebraska on Sept. 9 at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colorado.

Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I am not a fan of college football, even though I attended college on a football scholarship and enjoyed the experience. The NFL has superior talent and while the sport is a merciless meat grinder, players are richly compensated for leasing their bodies. In college, coaches have held all of the cards and have had all of the power – until now.

With name, image and likeness potential, the transfer portal and liberal transfer policies, the playing field is more level than ever. Sanders has played a major role in that leveling. He used the transfer portal to remake and reshape his roster.

On Saturday, a number of potential recruits took in the electric atmosphere in and around Folsom Field. They saw a dominating performance and the allure of playing with a program on the rebound.

“You don’t have to sell Boulder. Boulder sells itself,” Sanders said, not missing an opportunity to deliver a sales pitch. “So, we’re not selling anything. We’re not promising anything. We just give them an opportunity. They have a tremendous education and a tremendous opportunity to get to the next level, which is the NFL if they come here and play for us.”

He added, “It would be tough for me to turn this down if I were recruited.”

In an industry where there are few Black coaches at the Power 5 level, Sanders is the ultimate selling point for Colorado.

Outside the interview room, Sanders repeated his mantra that his success transcends the gridiron. The presence of rappers and Black celebrities at games, latching onto Sanders at Colorado as they did when he coached at Jackson State, means something. “This is bigger than just football,” Sanders said. “Football is the vehicle to bring us together but it’s bigger than that.”

Sanders quoted a Fox viewership statistic that showed 70% more African Americans turned into Colorado’s upset victory over TCU. “That’s phenomenal,” he said. “So, it’s bigger than football.”

When I suggested that Colorado, like Miami in the late 1980s and early 1990s, might become the historically Black university of predominantly white Power 5 football programs, Sanders just laughed. “We’re going to win,” he said. “I don’t know what it will take, but we’re going to try to win.”

Meanwhile, Shedeur Sanders is playing his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Last week, he threw for a school record 510 yards against TCU. On Saturday against Nebraska, he completed 31 of 42 passes for 393 yards and two touchdowns.

“We’re not selling anything. We’re not promising anything. We just give them an opportunity. They have a tremendous education and a tremendous opportunity to get to the next level, which is the NFL if they come here and play for us.”

— Colorado coach Deion Sanders

He also extracted a measure of revenge against Nebraska coach Matt Rhule, who took a shot at Coach Prime’s use of the transfer portal in April. Sanders also believed that Nebraska disrespected Colorado during pregame warmups when they met in the middle of the field on the Buffalo logo.

Throughout the week, Coach Prime told his team the theme of the week was that the game with Nebraska was personal.

After Shedeur Sanders was penalized for taking his helmet off after making an exceptional play, Sanders walked over to chastise him. “I said, ‘You cannot do that. You cannot take your helmet off,’ ” Deion Sanders said. “He said, ‘Dad, it’s personal.’ I just bent over and laughed my butt off because it was in the moment and I was really upset and he broke the monotony up with, ‘It’s personal.’ ”

After Colorado’s season-opening upset of TCU, I wondered if the sequel could be better. In many ways, the victory over a longtime rival was better.

Colorado was confident, decisive and assured. After the game, there was no, “I told you so,” no berating reporters with, “Do you believe?” from Sanders.

Overnight, Sanders is doing what Sanders does. He’s put the spotlight of college football on Boulder, Colorado. The Colorado Buffaloes are at the epicenter of college football.

Sanders is not saying, “Do you believe?”

He’s shouting, “We’re coming.”

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.