In case you spent last weekend in a coma, you missed one of college football’s most abysmal programs rise from the ashes and stun a 20-point favorite on their home turf. The University of Colorado’s upset over last year’s title contender Texas Christian University may have been a surprise to much of the nation (and clearly Vegas oddsmakers), but not to Buffalo fans and alumni.
The program’s journey back started with Colorado Athletic Director Rick George’s bold hire of Deion Sanders, a multi- dimensional talent the likes of which few sports have ever seen. In 1989, he had three hits in five at bats in a major league baseball game and, five days later, returned a punt for a touchdown in an NFL game. While his remarkable athleticism earned him Super Bowl rings and landed him in Pro Football’s Hall of Fame, it appears that was merely Coach Prime’s first act. Sanders possesses an almost evangelical gift for inspiring those around him—the believers, as he calls them—in ways any turnaround specialist would envy.
Sanders labored in relative college football obscurity for three seasons as coach of Jackson State but was able to take that program within a wisp of an FCS National Championship. Still, with a wealth of Power Five assistant coaches and other Division One head coaches ready to break into the big-time head coaching ranks, many saw the hire of Sanders as a risky choice. Couple that with Sanders’ self-described old-school approach to the game—conservative values of discipline, hard work, and character being ever-present mantras in his coaching monologues—and one had to wonder how well he’d fit in at a famously liberal university in a state that was the first to legalize recreational marijuana.
It didn’t take long, however, for the so-called Prime effect to take hold in Boulder. He is an undeniable force that spews positive affirmations in a way that would make Tony Robbins envious. His belief in the power of prayer and faith can seemingly heal the infirm, which is what he did to a 1-11 program that lost by an average of 29 points. Watch his speeches and interviews on social media (there are hundreds) and you soon realize that there isn’t a parent in America who wouldn’t want their kid to play for him—regardless of football outcomes. What he teaches his players about succeeding in life—respect, sacrifice, honor, and what it means to be a part of a team—will endure far longer than playing careers.
While some sports writers see him as awash in hype and hyperbole, they are missing that his confidence stems from his faith. In the cliché filled world of college football post-game press conferences, Sanders isn’t afraid to ask as many tough questions as he receives.
“Do you believe now?” he asked one reporter after the TCU upset, as if giving the writer a chance to confess his sins before the entire college football world with the hope of salvation to come.
To say CU football fans were ready for Prime Time would be an understatement, for shortly after he arrived in Boulder, season ticket sales sold out for the first time since 1996. CU football merchandise has already reached the top 25 as the team cracks the elite of the Associated Press polls after only one game. With a historic upset win on national television followed by another nationally televised game against Nebraska this Saturday, the Buffalos brand is likely to continue rising. Google Nebraska Cornhusker football and 466,000 results will pop up. Do the same for Colorado Buffalo football and 11.5 million entries come up—just one more example of the Prime effect.
When it comes to recruiting top talent and growing brand value, Sanders’ Kardashian-like command of earned and social media is the envy of any enterprise. When it was clear that he would have to massively overhaul his roster—a record 86 new players—Sanders activated his media network by simply saying, “I ain’t hard to find.” The transfer portal and Name Image Likeness (NIL) deals—college football’s version of free agency—made the new football reality in Boulder especially attractive for many players.
Part of a player’s reward for coming to Sanders’ CU overhaul is the chance for student-athletes to draft off Coach Prime’s media juggernaut that, after one game alone, has dramatically raised the profile of several Buffalo players—including Sanders’ quarterback son, Shedeur, who is already in the Heisman conversation after a 510-yard, 4-touchdown opening week performance at TCU.
At a time when many veteran college coaches are bemoaning the era of the transfer portal and NIL deals, Sanders has embraced the opportunity for his players and has even secured practice jerseys for his team that sport the players’ social media handles—think of it as a performance bonus in the meritocracy that Sanders is building.
While many sports writers and fans across the country may not yet fully believe in Sanders’ Boulder program, in a few weeks they may have no choice.
And college football may never be the same.