Love him or hate him, Deion Sanders isn’t slowing down


BOULDER, Col. — Deion Sanders does not need to coach football.

It’s true. He doesn’t. He has money in the bank and did long before he signed his current $6-million-per-year contract with the University of Colorado. If he wanted, he could go back to being a television analyst. He could write another book. He could star in another reality show. He could do like every other living sports legend and cash in on memorabilia shows every weekend, signing Falcons, Niners, Cowboys, Braves and Yankees jerseys, one of his six Sports Illustrated covers or maybe one of the CDs recorded with MC Hammer back in the day.

But instead, he has chosen to keep plowing on what is perhaps the most difficult and certainly the most nonstop round-the-clock-and-calendar job in collegiate athletics, the head coach of a publicly backed state flagship FBS Power 5 university football program.

“People ask me all the time, ‘How you doing, man?’ and my answer is simple,” the 56-year old College Football Hall of Famer explains. “I’m doing great. I just ain’t sleeping because in this job there’s no time for sleep.”

In only one month on the sidelines at Colorado, Sanders has not only served as de facto CEO of a nearly $51 million corporation (that was prior to his arrival, the 2023 numbers will be much larger than that) he has become the front porch salesman of a $21 billion university, been involved in one very public spat with a rival coach (and nearly pushed into another), spurred an almost 900 percent increase in Buffaloes merchandise sales and generated the highest college football TV ratings for ABC in six years.

Call him Prime Time. Call him Neon Deion. Call him Coach Prime. No matter what nickname you prefer, monikers and catch phrases on t-shirts (Sanders applied for five trademarks just this week) have all become little more than garnish for this latest iteration of the man who electrified Florida State as a three-sport athlete in the 1980’s and put the same charge into the NFL and MLB in the ’90s. Now, nearly two decades after hanging up his cleats for good, he is the face of college football in 2023. The man who could have cashed in on NIL like perhaps no other before or since. The man who could have teleported onto any roster of his choosing via the transfer portal. Now, he is the man who is helping today’s kids navigate it all. Prime Time at exactly the right time.

Oh, by the way, his team is also 3-1. Even with a completely overhauled roster, that is a miraculous about-face for a program that won only one game and was ESPN’s runaway Bottom 10 champion one year ago. However, after a stunning 3-0 start, that “1” was dropped like an anvil on Wile E. Coyote’s head last weekend. A 42-6 loss at Oregon immediately herded the Buffs out of the Top 25 and brought in those who have been barking at Sanders since the days of big hair and Zubaz.

“When I came out the womb I was booed,” Sanders said Tuesday when asked how he deals with haters. “I don’t have a message for detractors. I don’t take my time to respond and to defend myself. Why would I do that? I’m giving you a microphone if I’m doing that. I’m giving you solace that you’re in my life. I don’t care. I really don’t. It’s been that way all my life, so you would think that I’m used to it. I’m not new to this, I’m true to this. And I’m going to keep going. So, I’m good with that, man. I’m good with that. This is a comfortable place for me.”

Now, for you youngsters out there, it feels like you’re owed an explanation. You have likely spent the last month, at the very least that last quote, wondering, “Why are my parents and grandparents so worked up — good and bad — about this dude coaching at Colorado?”

The answer can be found a few paragraphs ago. Sanders as a Seminole was the guy who stood face mask to face mask with Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricanes and didn’t blink. He once dug in his heels at the base of Clemson’s Hill like Captain America facing the entire Thanos army, slapping his chest pad and taunting the Tigers as they touched Howard’s Rock and ran toward him…then broke off a 77-yard punt return for a TD in torrential rain. He won conference championships in baseball and track on the same day.

He played in the Super Bowl and the World Series, the only man to do so. He collected two Super Bowl rings, eight Pro Bowl invites and an NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. He did indeed record an album with MC Hammer (download “Must Be The Money,” trust me) and made cameos on everything from Moesha to Walker, Texas Ranger. He was the voice of Sega Genesis football. And everyone’s Sunday evening on the couch was spent watching a show that shared his name, NFL Prime Time, on ESPN when Chris Berman and Tom Jackson would narrate the video of every Sanders interception, pick-six, kick return and TD catch (yes, he played both ways from time to time) with a chant of “Prime Time…Prime Time…PRIME TIME!”

So, yeah, Gen Z, what your elders are trying to tell you, whether they are high stepping through the living room or pointing a middle finger at College GameDay in Boulder, is that Deion Sanders somehow went viral before the internet was a thing, when that term still only applied to diseases.

But now, Sanders finds himself battling his own medical conditions. His toes were already mangled from all those years running up and down sidelines and baselines. In September 2021, after a routine procedure to fix those old injuries, a much worse condition was discovered, circulation problems that led to the amputation of two toes and the removal of some leg muscle tissue to limit the circulation damage. He had just started his second season as head coach at Jackson State, an HBCU in Jackson, Mississippi, and was forced to miss three games. When TV cameras aired the images of a suddenly old-looking Neon Deion, stuck in a hospital bed with a full gray beard, it was downright shocking to those who had witnessed him at the height of his athletic superpowers.

For Sanders, it was also revelatory.

“When your body breaks down, it is a reality check like no other,” he recalled in December 2022, days after accepting the Colorado job. “For anyone, it is a reality check. But for me, who as a younger man made my whole world from what this body could do, that was more than a reality check. That was a vulnerability check. As you get older, you know you have to rely more on the muscle of the mind, but when your other muscles don’t work for you anymore, the need to work that mind muscle, you realize you need to get on with that. Start impacting lives with that.”

That he had taken the job at Jackson State was already a step no one saw coming, explained by Sanders only as “a collect call from God of which I had no choice but to accept the charges.” His first Tigers team went 3-2 in the pandemic-shortened spring schedule of 2021. The next two years it went 23-3 with a pair of Celebration Bowl appearances.

“What I will always remember about Deion at Jackson State is him out there cutting the grass on his own lawn mower that he brought from home,” recalls Emmitt Smith, who played against Sanders in college as a Florida Gator and with him as a Dallas Cowboys teammate. “That’s him, man. I think it is easy to focus on Prime Time and the show and the soundbites, but you don’t get to where he has been without working so hard. I know what people saw him do at an HBCU made people think, should I have gone there? I know I did. And I know Deion did. Now new kids will.”

Smith, and nearly every other former teammate of No. 21, love to talk about the Deion Sanders evolution. See: The infamous story about Sanders when he arrived in Dallas in 1995, as described by Jeff Pearlman in his 2008 book “Boys Will Be Boys.” Sanders frustrated defensive coordinator Dave Campo their very first time together in a position meeting room by pointing to the video screen and saying, “Hey, Coach, I got that dude right there. Wherever he goes, I go. All that Cover 2 stuff you’re talking about, y’all work that out.”

That guy who was once allergic to film study, now keeps real-time spreadsheets on how much time his players spend watching film. He explained that on Tuesday, within the context of a question about freshman corner Cormani McClain’s lack of playing time, despite being Colorado’s most-ballyhooed offseason signee, a five-star prospect who flipped from Miami.

“Study and prepare. Be on time for meetings, show up to the dern meetings,” Sanders said. ‘Understand the scheme. Understand what we are doing as a scheme, want to play this game, desire to play this game, desire to be the best in this game, at practice, in the film room and on your own time. You do know I check film time from each player so I can see who’s preparing? That’s not just about Cormani. If I don’t see that, you would be a fool to put somebody out there who’s not prepared. Can’t do it, won’t do it.”

Again, it’s Sanders, so social media and local sports talk radio immediately became a tug of war between those ripping the coach for calling a kid out publicly (and not for the first time) and those who applauded Sanders for calling out a five-star and doing so without fear of alienating potential future signees.

The reality is McClain might have to play against No. 8 USC on Saturday because Colorado’s secondary is banged up. The latest to suffer is also a Sanders. The middle of Deion’s five children, safety Shilo Sanders had to be hospitalized due to urinating blood upon the team’s return home from Oregon. Younger brother Shedeur is the team’s quarterback, little sister Shelomi is on the Colorado women’s basketball team, and they are all documented by big brother Deion Jr., the man behind the camera of all those viral Colorado athletic department social media posts this season.

“Even though we got the ‘L’ (against Oregon) I don’t consider it a loss when I get to watch my sons not only play on the field, I get to watch my son film everything and edit it and put it out and make people insecure around the country about their staffs, and then I get to see my daughter come in my office and take a nap on the couch,” Sanders said Tuesday. “I’m living a wonderful double life here as a father and coach. I’m loving every minute of it.”

So, what does a 56-year-old lifelong lightning rod teach to a house and locker room full of Gen Z’ers who are new to all the noise that continuously rolls over Colorado football like, well, a boulder? It’s the luxury tax one must pay when they become the new Georgetown Hoyas, Fab Five or — sorry FSU fans — The U.

“It’s not about them, it’s about us, everywhere we go,” he explained Tuesday. “Even in your families you’re going to have detractors, naysayers, you have doubters even in your dern family. You guys are all shaking your heads, like, ‘Yeah, my aunt, she ain’t no good,’ and, ‘Yeah, my sister, she’s ignorant.’ You know I’m telling the truth. Because it’s going to be like that. God would always allow somebody to be in your path that has a disdain or dislike for you. It’s up to you to keep going.”

And there it is. Our answer. Because, no, Deion Sanders does not need to coach football. Honestly, Prime Time wouldn’t have wanted to. He wasn’t patient enough. We learned that during some of his pre-coaching educational and business failings.

But this is Coach Prime. The one with the grey hairs, the bad feet, the constant cautionary tales and all those catch phrases. Neon Deion made mistakes. Coach Prime wants to make sure these kids, especially his own, don’t do the same. You can love Deion Sanders. You can hate Deion Sanders. Plenty do, always have and always will. But his efforts are inarguably admirable, his words are always honest and the college football world is a hell of a lot more interesting with him in it. He knows that. That’s why he can’t walk away.

Also, winning football games is still fun.

“I don’t stop. I keep going. I don’t have stop in me. Not whatsoever, man.”

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