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The next chapter for coach Deion Sanders and Colorado: resilience

After 42-6 loss to Oregon, Sanders keeps focus on rebuilding team

EUGENE, Ore. — Going into Colorado’s highly anticipated game against Oregon on Saturday, I had no idea what Chapter 4 of the Deion Sanders odyssey would look like.

Chapter 1 had been easy: Colorado, the doormat of big-time college football, shocked TCU in the season opener. After that game, Coach Prime used the postgame news conference to call out all nonbelievers.

Chapter 2: Coach Prime made a victorious home debut against Nebraska in front of an ecstatic record-setting home crowd.

Chapter 3: Colorado pulled off an electric double overtime win against Colorado State that spoke for itself.

So, much of those first three chapters was an inspirational Cinderella story. Colorado games became a celebrity-driven convergence of sports, entertainment and Black culture. Colorado became the envy of young African American players toiling on Power 5 plantations, and the bane of the white coaches who oversaw them. His news conferences were sermons where he preached the gospel of belief and transformation — and the magic of Coach Prime.

His fellow coaches seethed.

Colorado State coach Jay Norvell made a crack about Sanders not taking off his cap and sunglasses in the interview room. Sanders responded by buying shades for his team.

We saw the resentment bubble over before Saturday’s game when Oregon’s 37-year-old coach Dan Lanning gave an impassioned anti-Coach Prime pregame talk to his players.

Sanders clearly was the inspiration for Lanning’s message.

“The Cinderella moment is over,” Lanning declared. He said that Oregon was “rooted in substance not flash” — this about a team who wore cleats that changed colors. “Today we talk with our pads, you talk with your helmets, every moment,” he ranted.

Finally, in the lines that went viral, Lanning said, “they’re fighting for clicks, we’re fighting for wins, there’s a difference, this game isn’t going to be played in Hollywood, it’s going to be played in the grass.”

Oregon went out and kicked Colorado’s collective rear end and proved its point with a 42-6 victory. The loss was the first of the season for Colorado, the worst loss in Coach Prime’s brief college coaching career and the worst in his son Shedeur Sanders’ football life as a quarterback. And Lanning will likely be elected unofficial governor of the white Power 5 coaching establishment for temporarily putting Coach Prime in his place.

Colorado Buffaloes coach Deion Sanders leaves after the loss to the Oregon Ducks 42-6 at Autzen Stadium on Sept. 23 in Eugene, Oregon.

Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Before Saturday’s game, I thought quite a bit about the form that Chapter 4 might take. I weighed all the options: a Colorado win would mean one thing, a Colorado close loss something else. A Colorado rout would be the most challenging chapter to write because Sanders had built a mountain of confidence and bluster in a short time. He allowed many of us to take flights of fancy. We waxed poetically about how he transformed Colorado overnight into a winning program, how he had become the pied piper of Black culture, had embedded the historically Black college culture at a predominantly white university. Had all that gone up in smoke with a 36-point shellacking?

Turns out that Chapter 4 of the Sanders odyssey is about grace in the face of humiliation and how to be contrite without losing confidence. After Saturday’s loss, Sanders was complimentary when he spoke about Lanning and his staff.

“Their coaches did a heck of a job preparing their team,” he said. “Hats off to their coaching staff and their head coach. Great job and they were truly prepared.”

I wonder if Sanders even knows Lanning. The young Oregon coach is a speck in Sanders’ sprawling sports universe, which includes a stellar pro football career, Super Bowl and World Series appearances and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lanning played linebacker at Division II William Jewell College. For his first coaching opportunity, Lanning was handed the keys to one of the preeminent programs in college football.

During his postgame news conference, Sanders acknowledged that he had heard about Lanning’s pregame rant. “I don’t say stuff just to say it for a click, contrary to what somebody said,” Sanders said. He added a quick aside: “I keep receipts.”

When a reporter pressed and asked Sanders to confirm that he had heard the remarks, Sanders said he had. “I got messengers. God bless him,” Sanders added. “He’s a great coach. He did a great job. God bless him.” He said that Lanning was well within his rights to take shots. (“They won.”)

Sanders will not get an opportunity for revenge because in the shuffleboard that is the business of big-time college football, Oregon will join UCLA, USC and Washington in a move to the Big Ten conference. Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah will join the Big 12 next season. Sanders wants to win on the field, though in the business of college football he’s already won. Sanders has put Colorado back together — the stadium is sold out for home games, suites are sold. Gloom and ambivalence have been replaced, for now, by optimism and enthusiasm.

He has put Colorado in the spotlight, even if that means there will be Dan Lannings lurking around every corner, waiting to beat the socks off Colorado — and by extension, Coach Prime.

“Teams are trying to beat me. They’re not trying to beat our team,” he said. “They keep forgetting I’m not playing anymore.”

All Sanders has to do this season is win three or four more games and lead Colorado to a bowl game. He may win coach of the year if he accomplishes that. A mere bowl game is not an option at Oregon, which has enjoyed success over the last two decades. Next season, Lanning will be coaching in a conference where Oregon will have to play the Ohio States, Michigans, USCs and UCLAs. If he does not take Oregon to national championship contention, the university may well move on.

Sanders has a much longer leash, and because of the goodwill he’s brought the program —through clicks — he’s got an even longer leash.

Oregon coach Dan Lanning leads his team onto the field to play Hawaii in an NCAA college football game on Sept. 16 in Eugene, Oregon.

Andy Nelson/AP Photo

What Oregon’s coach does not understand, but should because he’s young, is that in this new era of college football — an era that Sanders is ushering in or at least represents — clicks matter. Show business matters. Hollywood matters.

Critics ridicule Sanders’ hype while benefiting and feeding off the drama he creates. The Oregon Duck led Oregon onto the field Saturday wearing a giant-sized white cowboy hat and huge shades, a nod to Sanders.

Even in a loss, Sanders is not just good for college football. He’s great for college football. Everyone benefits from the light Sanders generates.

Feels familiar. In the era of champion boxer Muhammad Ali, fans paid good money to watch Ali lose.

He rarely did.

Sanders is in a similar predicament, though let’s be clear: Coach Prime is no Ali. He is not defying the government, not refusing to be drafted, not giving up his profession to stand on principle. But he is challenging the status quo and totally embracing the business of college football by embracing a world where athletes have been put on relatively equal footing with coaches.

In the old days — five years ago — the playing field was totally tilted toward the dictator coach. The eager young players were there to be exploited, beholden to their coaches for everything they wanted in life.

Today with a vibrant transfer portal and potential name, image and likeness revenue, players have options and coaches must meet them halfway. Coaches must relate to them, not as dictator to subject, but as business partners in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Sanders has embraced the change, he represents the change and that makes some fellow coaches uncomfortable. He teaches young, mostly African American players to be confident in these white spaces.

“We’re confident people,” Sanders said after Saturday’s game. “If our confidence offends your insecurity, that’s a problem with you, it’s not us.”

Colorado Buffaloes coach Deion Sanders plays catch on the field before playing the Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium on Sept. 23 in Eugene, Oregon.

Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Although he is only 37, Lanning is part of the Power 5 football coaching establishment that likely believes that Sanders does not belong. He is an outsider who spent three seasons at Jackson State. He does Aflac commercials with Alabama’s revered coach Nick Saban. He has commercials everywhere, and then comes to Colorado and turns the program into a national Cinderella story virtually overnight.

One loss will not end the moment.

Critics have attempted to turn Sanders into the villain. What’s villainous is that Sanders is the only African American coach in the Pac-12 and when Colorado joins the Big 12 he will be the only Black head coach in that conference. The Southeastern Conference does not have any Black head coaches. Not including the soon-to-be-fired Michigan State coach Mel Tucker or interim coaches, the Big Ten has three Black head coaches: Ryan Walters (Purdue), Mike Locksley (Maryland) and James Franklin (Penn State). There are two Black head coaches in the Atlantic Coast Conference: Dino Babers at Syracuse and Tony Elliott at Virginia. Marcus Freeman is head coach at Notre Dame.

The drubbing Colorado took on Saturday may be repeated throughout the season as opposing coaches look to make the point that Sanders does not belong.

Sanders, typically defiant, issued a warning on Saturday.

“One thing I can say honestly and candidly [is] you better get me right now,” Sanders said. “This is the worst we’re going to be. You better get me right now.”

No doubt they will try.

On Sept. 30, Colorado hosts explosive No. 5 USC and faces the possibility of a humiliation at home. The game also offers the perfect opportunity for Shedeur Sanders to go head-to-head with Caleb Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the projected No. 1 pick of the upcoming NFL draft.

Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and his son, Bronny, who attends USC, are expected to attend the game. Other stars will likely show up. More clickbait, no doubt, and Colorado will take it.

The Colorado rebuilding train must keep moving. 

One loss does not a season make.

“This is the kind of opportunity you have as a coach, as a man, as a father to lift them up, not just shoot them down,” Sanders said of the challenges he faces after a tough loss.  

“You got to lift them up.”

Indeed, the theme of Chapter 5 will be resilience.

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.