College Football Belongs To Deion Sanders For Now
1:27 PM EDT on September 18, 2023
Have you been to the NCAA's hottest club, Colorado football? It's got everything: Louis V luggage, a DJ in the training room, Michael Irvin, Terrell Owens, Lil Wayne, Offset, Cam'Ron, The Rock, Kawhi Leonard, just about every news camera and at least three different personal social media managers, and Stephen A. Smith and Shannon Sharpe arriving on private jets. And at the center of it all is the ringmaster, the wizard, the star: Deion Sanders, Coach Prime—oh and a football team doing football stuff, or whatever.
Coach Prime is the hottest thing in college sports after moving from HBCU Jackson State to a better-funded but arguably worse program at the University of Colorado. Many thought that this would be a year of growing pains for him. He was taking over a team that only won one game a year ago, and brought in an entire new class on the fly after he infamously pushed about 40 different kids out of the program and into the transfer portal. But where Sanders genuinely excels is motivation, and he's able to expertly balance the doses of manipulation and brain-washing that any successful sports team needs to have. Sanders's team is well-prepared, well-conditioned, and believes because their coach believes. When Colorado beat both a ranked TCU team and a Nebraska team now coached by Matt Rhule (to seismic ratings, no less), it completely upended people's expectations of what this Colorado team could be, and just how good a coach Sanders is. The hype continues to grow exponentially.
This isn't necessarily fair to anyone or even meant as an indictment, but the thing about having lived through four years of a Donald Trump presidency is that it's hard not to see him everywhere now. He's there in every sociopath who lies unprompted, in every larger-than-life political figure who acts without logic and blames the media for pointing that out, and in every blustery celebrity who loudly announces themselves and runs headlong into a mission with the qualities of a cult leader. There's a lot of Trumpiness in the Coach Prime machine; he's a loud and proud masculine figure who has fine-tuned his "let your haters be your motivators" speeches. He's a convincing and slippery talker. He described his previous gig at Jackson State as a mission from God, and now he's demanding that people believe after every victory, like some sort of evangelist. More than a fair share of people are catching his holy spirit.
Sanders's total ownership over college football was evident leading up to Colorado's matchup with rival school Colorado State on Saturday. College GameDay and just about every other pregame show was in town, and what should've been a meaningless (possible trap) game turned into an absolute ordeal after Colorado State head coach Jay Norvell made a suggestive remark that sure seemed aimed at Sanders and his boosters. The fact that Sanders and Colorado saw this and made a big show of using Norvell's comments as motivation is fine; that's what teams and coaches are supposed to do. What felt strange was watching everyone else, from on-air talent to social media influencers to actual celebrities get caught up. Suddenly this rivalry game (that Colorado was supposed to win decisively), which not even college football fans in Colorado have cared about in a very long time, felt like a pay-per-view boxing event. It felt like every black celebrity and news organization that could find the time made their way to Boulder, and I personally had to stomach a bunch of normies on Twitter wondering why a Pac-12 game wasn't starting until 10:00 p.m. EDT.
This was actually a pretty good deal for Jay Norvell in the end. He got a lot of attention for his school by being part of a highly rated football game, and his objectively bad squad showed a lot of fight and toughness (perhaps too much toughness) in a game they had no business being in. As for Colorado, they'll never admit it, but the attention might be too much for such a young and inexperienced team. For all their talent, they're pretty small, pretty finesse, and they pressed a lot on Saturday night. It took everything in their power, or really quarterback Shedeur Sanders's power, to overcome a late deficit and win in double overtime.
Can we say the Buffs struggled because of all the hype and the heat of spotlight? Not confidently. This turned out to be a weekend full of close calls between top level teams and unranked Davids chasing glory. Also, anyone really paying attention to this team would never have picked them to cover that 23.5-point spread, not just because they're small, but also because young teams tend to play to the level of their competition. Growing pains are to be expected.
What wasn't expected is how quickly Colorado has become the biggest party in America. Sanders's personality, combined with a 3-0 start and regular powerhouses like Alabama and Clemson stumbling out of the gate has created a perfect storm of attention. A college program hasn't had this much juice since USC was winning championships, generating ratings, and courting Hollywood 20 years ago. The difference here is that Colorado hasn't actually won anything meaningful yet, but if they do, the fun police at the NCAA will have a harder time raining on the parade with a trumped-up pay-for-play scandal, thanks to NIL (give Reggie Bush back his Heisman).
Inevitably, all the attention Sanders is earning at Colorado will lead to discussions about whether he is paving the way for other black head coaches who can follow his example. Those discussions will be misguided, though, because there are only a handful of people on the planet blessed with Sanders's combination of celebrity, ego, and showmanship. We're learning just how important those characteristics are in quickly building a college football program, and thus how unlikely this is to ever happen again. There's no disruption coming to college football, just as the revolution never came for HBCUs post-Prime. Deion Sanders is the king of college football and the hottest thing in sports because there is only one Deion Sanders.