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Deion Sanders sets a culture of accountability at Colorado

A major part of the Buffaloes’ 3-0 start is his high standards: ‘Old culture must burn to the ground for his to rise’

BOULDER, Colo. — Colorado coach Deion Sanders knows one way to win football games.

His way.

And he won’t ever compromise that. Not for a player. Not for an assistant coach. Not even for an athletic director or big-money booster.

Why? He knows his methods work. They’ve worked at the youth and high school levels. They worked at Jackson State, and now they’re working at Colorado.

In three years at Jackson State, Sanders transformed a stale program that hadn’t won a Southwestern Athletic Conference championship in more than a decade into a powerhouse that went 24-3 and won consecutive SWAC championships his last two seasons.

He’s already transformed Colorado’s football program from irrelevant to relevant. Colorado, 1-11 last season, lost by an average of 29 points a game. The Buffaloes are 3-0 and ranked 19th in the country heading into Saturday’s game on the road against No. 10 Oregon.

Oregon is a 19-point favorite, which won’t affect Colorado, which is used to being the underdog.

“They’re a bunch of guys who didn’t get a chance here or got a chance and messed it up,” Sanders said. “We got a bunch of misfits over here. We have a bunch of guys who have something to prove. Everybody has something to prove. All these kids have a story.

“People want opportunity. You present them with an opportunity, and you get notoriety with the opportunity. Everything we told them that would happen has happened, so they really believe.”

Colorado coach Deion Sanders talks to players during a timeout in the third quarter against Colorado State at Folsom Field on Sept. 16 in Boulder, Colorado.

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They believe because Sanders has created a culture that’s committed to winning and detests mediocrity. His approach begins with honesty — no matter how much the truth might hurt — and a relentless commitment to hard work.

Shortcuts to success don’t exist. He believes the process outweighs the result, and he’s obsessed with competition. What would you expect from a man who regularly ranks his five children and posts the standings on social media?

He’s loyal to anything and anyone who contributes to a winning environment. Anybody or anything not committed must go.

“He’s willing to exterminate, eradicate anyone, any policy or any position that has been affected by the previous culture,” said linebackers coach André Hart, who has coached with him for nearly 20 years, “no matter how long they have been in place or it has been in place, or how sentimental or traditional it is.

“The old culture must burn to the ground for his to rise. It’s biblical, like the Old Testament.”

Sanders’ approach enabled him to flip Colorado’s roster quickly. Only 10 scholarship players remain from Colorado’s 2022 team. Of the team’s 86 new players, 53 are transfers.

When Sanders arrived in Colorado, he told the returning players that his goal was to make them quit. He told Jackson State’s players the same thing.

“If you went for that. If you could let words run you off, you ain’t for us because we’re an old-school staff. We coach hard, we coach tough, we’re disciplinarians,” Sanders said Sunday on 60 Minutes. “If you’re allowing verbiage to run you off because you don’t feel secure with your ability, you ain’t for us.”

The players who stayed and the players who transferred to Colorado wanted opportunity. Now, they can be part of something special in the country’s most visible program.

Colorado coach Deion Sanders (center) enters the field as players warm up before a game against Nebraska at Folsom Field on Sept. 9 in Boulder, Colorado.

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No matter how much style he flashed as a player, Sanders, nicknamed Coach Prime, is as old-school as coaching legend Vince Lombardi. Ten minutes early to a meeting is on time because the meeting starts when he walks into the room. Players can’t wear earrings in the football facility, and heaven help the player whose cellphone goes off in a meeting.

Muscle shirts are prohibited in the facility. Players must wear black socks that go above the ankle. He wants your play to make you stand out — not your accessories.

“Yes, sir” and “no, sir” is preferred.

Unless a player has experienced a traumatic injury, he expects them to leave the field under their own power because it creates a mindset of mental toughness and provides an edge over opponents.

Jackson State played 13 games; two players were helped off the field.

“Kids haven’t changed,” Sanders often says. “We’ve changed.”

He’s talking about the parents who raised this generation. The coaches who influenced Coach Prime the most were disciplinarians such as Dave Capel, who coached the Fort Myers Rebels, his high school coach Ron Hoover, and Mickey Andrews, his defensive coordinator at Florida State.

They demanded excellence without compromise and didn’t play favorites. Sanders takes the same approach.

He says he is loyal to winning. A player will keep his position as long as he performs. Look no farther than kicker Alejandro Mata, who played at Jackson State.

He placed second in a close competition with Jace Feely in the place-kicking competition. Feeley has a stronger leg — he made a 62-yard kick in practice the week of the TCU game — but he missed a 39-yard field against Colorado State that looked wonky coming off his foot.

Mata replaced him on the next kick. He made field goals of 20 and 41 yards and an extra point while Feely handled kickoffs.

“The competition is tough,” Mata said before the win over TCU. “This is the strongest kicking room I’ve ever been in. It’s making all of us better.”

“He [Sanders] holds everyone accountable. He has an incredibly high standard, and he’s demanding about what it takes to get it.”

— Brett Bartolone

Look at freshman Cormani McClain, ranked No. 4 on ESPN’s top 300 recruits last season. He was a five-star player from Lakeland, Florida, who flipped from Miami after Colorado hired Sanders.

McClain hasn’t played a snap in three games. A lacerated liver will keep receiver/cornerback Travis Hunter out the next few weeks, but McClain won’t play until he practices better. His high school accolades and the opportunity to hit the transfer portal at the end of the season, if he chooses, mean nothing to Sanders.

“The plan at corner is corner by committee. That’s why we practice,” Sanders said. “We want to see who steps up and takes over that role.”

When asked what’s holding McClain back, Sanders said, “He is.”

Just so you know, Sanders benched his son Shilo, for the SWAC championship game against Southern University because he was late to the first team meeting after Thanksgiving break.

“He holds everyone accountable,” said wide receivers coach Brett Bartolone, who coached with Sanders at Jackson State. “He has an incredibly high standard, and he’s demanding about what it takes to get it.”

Colorado coach Deion Sanders (right) greets linebacker Devee Harris (left) before a game against Colorado State at Folsom Field on Sept. 16 in Boulder, Colorado.

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The folks in Sanders’ inner circle spread his message and reinforced it.

Sanders brought nearly his entire Jackson State coaching staff to Colorado, and also brought close friend Rodney Forsett as chief of staff. He hired childhood friend James Chaney, a longtime high school coach in North Fort Myers, as director of player development.

Seven players from Jackson State are on the two-deep roster, and another, running back Sy’veon Wilkerson, plays too. Quarterback Shedeur Sanders, Hunter, and slot corner Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig are the only starters.

Sanders probably spends more time coaching his assistant coaches than he does players. He gives them the tools to build better relationships with their players, which should result in better performances. Every team meeting starts with a life lesson followed by how he envisions practice.

“People think I’m giving speeches to the kids all the time, but I’m talking to coaches too. They can get intoxicated by success and start smelling themselves,” he said. “The things I warn them about — themselves, about the kids, about relationships with kids, about relationships among themselves, about not looking down the road but living in the moment and dominating the moment.”

“It’s not just the kids, but the coaches have to believe. They haven’t experienced anything like this. About 85% of kids and coaches believe. The other 15%, it’s just hard for them to understand that we can flip it like this and do it like this and command the numbers and attention on TV that we command.

“They’re still in awe of this stuff. They don’t believe this stuff is really going on.”

Jean-Jacques Taylor is an award-winning journalist who is currently president of JJT Media Group and has covered sports in Dallas-Fort Worth for 31 years.