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The Unwavering Confidence of Deion Sanders

n an autumn weekend in Boulder, the sports miracle of the season is clearer than the blue Rocky Mountain sky. Whereas for years, the University of Colorado football team delivered Saturday misery—the Buffaloes enjoyed just four winning seasons in the past 20 years and finished 1-11 in 2022—Boulder now may be the hippest, happiest place in America. “The Stampede,” a Friday-night pregame pep rally down Pearl Street, used to feel more like a tiptoe. But on Sept. 29, the night before Colorado faced off against No. 8 USC, the restaurants are full and the sidewalks packed. A handful of little kids even line the rooftop of a trattoria to watch the marching band play.

A little before 6 a.m. Mountain time the next day, hundreds of University of Colorado fans, most wearing white cowboy hats adorned with LED lights, have assembled on Farrand Field, smack in the middle of campus. Some are students, others alums and locals, while a significant number have traveled from far afield, never having imagined they’d have reason to gaze at those picturesque peaks in the backdrop. Fox Sports’ Big Noon Kickoff pregame show won’t start for hours, but the revelers are ready. They’re here to see Deion Sanders, or Coach Prime—a play on Prime Time, his nickname from his 1980s and ’90s heyday—who arrived as head coach in December, radically made over this year’s team, and turned Colorado into the biggest story in sports.

Before kickoff, the sidelines at Colorado’s stadium are now the place to be seen. There’s rapper DaBaby hyping up the crowd. There are Sanders’ friends and fellow football Hall of Famers Terrell Owens, Warren Sapp, and Michael Irvin. Hey, that’s basketball Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett and future baseball Hall of Famer CC Sabathia and rapper Symba. The VIPs wear a special credential around their necks: Prime Passes, in the shape of the gold whistle Sanders uses in practice. Boulder County is 1.3% Black, yet as one sideline spectator observes, the scene “feels like Black Hollywood.”

And what’s been happening on the field is as spectacular as what’s happening off. As the Buffaloes charged back against the Trojans, slicing a 41-14 third-quarter deficit to 48-41 with just under two minutes left, Folsom Field, filled with more than 54,000 roaring fans, felt like the epicenter of sports. Could Sanders’ squad, which had already exceeded expectations, stimulated the college-football economy, and compelled more than 8 million people to watch Colorado beat Colorado State in double overtime after 2:15 a.m. Eastern time in mid-September—ESPN’s highest college-football viewership figure at that hour—pull off this monumental comeback?

USC recovered the late onside kick to clinch the game, but Colorado’s charge just added to the Coach Prime euphoria. “The atmosphere is electric, man,” DaBaby tells me before leaving the field. “Look, f-ck the NFL game. Right now this is the most exciting place to be in football.”

Swifties may disagree. But while the rumored relationship between Taylor Swift and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce drives headlines and ticket sales, Coach Prime’s efforts are much more far-reaching. At Colorado, he has the power to change not only the fate of the team but also the multibillion-dollar college-football industry. His success could open doors for more Black head coaches at the highest levels of the college game, a long overdue development especially given that teams with majority-Black players help generate, in some cases, north of $100 million in annual revenue for their schools. After decades of coaches “protecting” players from “distractions,” Sanders has invited cameras to embed with Colorado for the second season of Amazon’s Coach Prime. His embrace of social media exposure for players—they wear their Instagram handles on their practice jerseys—and their recently won right to capitalize on their name, image, and likeness (NIL) should shake up the sport’s stodgy DNA. Plus, after two successful seasons at Jackson State, a historically Black college or university (HBCU), Sanders used the “transfer portal”—the still-newish NCAA mechanism that lets players switch schools without sitting out a year—to overhaul Colorado’s roster. He brought in 57 transfers, while more than 60 Colorado players left for other programs or ended their college-football careers.

Sanders waits for his selection in the NFL draft in April 1989 (AP)

In short, he treats college sports as what it is: a business. CU hired him to win, and win now. And he’s doing it his way, with straight talk and unshakable confidence.

“In the world of college football, there is a certain expectation of how coaches should be and how they should act,” says Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a former defensive lineman at the University of Miami who won a national championship in 1991. “Prime tore that playbook up and threw it out the window.”The Unwavering Confidence of Deion Sanders

Read More: Jalen Hurts Is Fueled by the Doubters

Some of Sanders’ methods have proved unpopular. He was criticized for having DaBaby, who has been decried for using homophobic language and has had multiple run-ins with the law, give his team a pep talk about overcoming adversity. He’s pushed players out the door. Many people are rooting for his failure. But that word, Sanders insists, isn’t part of his vocabulary. Love Coach Prime—a ubiquitous presence in ads for Aflac, California Almonds, and KFC—or hate him, you’re paying attention.

“We’re being unapologetically who we are,” Sanders, 56, tells me in an interview in Boulder the week of the USC game. “You can tell, by everything that we’re accomplishing right now, that we’re headed in the proper direction at a speed that is undeniably a lot more expeditious than many people would have suspected. Shoot, this is going to be good. It’s just like the trailer of a movie you’re seeing. Just wait until you see the whole dern movie.”

He drives from station to station to observe and occasionally weigh in. Sanders moves more gingerly these days: due to blood clots, he had two toes on his left foot amputated in 2021. “Get off the field! Garbage! That’s horrible!” he says to one player who erred. “You ran onto the field as if you are about to have a baby in three months,” he tells a player who wasn’t hustling enough for Coach Prime’s liking. “Hey guys, that was horrible offensively today, I want y’all to know that,” Sanders says at the end of a practice. “There’s not a commitment to excellence whatsoever. You’re just going through the dern motions.”

Sanders eschews profanity, often saying dern where a curse word would do. But he reserves his biggest smile of the week for when two of his coaches—defensive coordinator Charles Kelly and defensive-tackles coach Sal Sunseri, both of whom left Alabama, the premier program of the past 15 years, to take on this rebuilding project—get into a shouting match that devolves into an exchange of F-yous. He appreciates their intensity.

At one practice, David Kelly, Colorado’s general manager and a longtime Sanders confidant, shows me a text he got from Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who had talked to Sanders before Colorado faced Oregon in Eugene on Sept. 23 and met with Barack Obama at Nike headquarters a few days later. “I greeted him with, ‘you’re the second biggest celebrity I’ve talked to this week,’” Knight wrote.

Little about Sanders’ program is typical. “Is You Working or Twerkin?” reads a sign on Sanders’ office door. (Working or twerking is one of multiple phrases, including Coach Prime and It’s personal, for which he has filed for trademarks.) A conference room houses his sneakers and hats. On Friday afternoon, a woman walks toward his door and asks, “Are that many people really in there?” Sanders doesn’t allow shoes in his office, and 11 pairs of shoes sit in front of the reception desk. A few minutes later, members of the documentary crew; his manager; Sanders’ son Shilo, a Colorado safety; Garnett; and fellow basketball Hall of Famer Paul Pierce file out of Sanders’ space.

These days, everyone wants time with Prime. Colorado’s game against Oregon, a 42-6 blowout victory for the Ducks, drew 10.03 million viewers, making it one of the most-watched college-football games of the year. The school’s online team-store merchandise sales are up 892% year-to-date over 2022. Colorado chancellor Philip DiStefano says out-of-state applications have climbed 40%. “It’s transformational,” he says. Sanders is even developing a half-hour comedy with Kevin Hart’s media company based on his journey and billed as “Entourage meets the gridiron,” Sanders’ team tells TIME exclusively.

“People are drawn to hope, man,” says Sanders. “Shoot, we’re David. We ain’t got but a couple of stones here. We’re playing against Goliath every week. We were 1-11, and now you’re tripping about us? We’re pulling people in, man, that just want a chance to be seen, to be heard, to be noticed, to be recognized. They just want to be pushed in the swing set of life every once in a while and say, ‘Wheeee, wheeee.’”

One could dismiss these words as self-serving, if Sanders weren’t onto something. Because it’s not just celebrities who have flocked to town to pay homage to Sanders. (The Rock, Lil Wayne, Offset, and Key Glock have also made appearances since the start of the season.) Fan after fan in Boulder mentions Coach Prime’s inspiration. At the Colorado team store, Veronica Jones, a retired law-enforcement officer from Charlotte, N.C., wearing gold-rimmed “Fierce But Fabulous” glasses and a T-shirt for the HBCU Johnson C. Smith University, fished for Prime gear in the same area as a guy who looked like a member of ZZ Top. Her husband Wil Jones noted that most of the Black passengers on their flight to Denver were going to cheer on Sanders. “It was like a family reunion,” he says

Kedric Mallory made the trip from Atlanta with friends and family, including his 1-year-old son. “I’m here to supportthe movement,” says Mallory, a real estate broker. “In my 42 years of living, I never thought of coming to Colorado. My son could have stayed at home with his grandmother. But I want him to be able to say, ‘When I was 16 months old, I witnessed the Prime Effect.’”

When Sanders was rocking Jheri curls and gold chains in the late 1980s—Neon Deion was another nickname back then—few would have pegged him for a major-college football coach, provider of hope, and leader of men. His talent was indisputable. But his swagger rubbed many the wrong way. “Everybody occupies two persons in their natural being,” says Sanders now. “People wish they could develop that other person a lot more. That other person says the things they want to say and does the things they want to do. Prime has been that cat. And I developed that cat a long time ago.”

Sanders won the Jim Thorpe Award in 1988 as a defensive back for the Florida State Seminoles (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Sanders won the Jim Thorpe Award in 1988 as a defensive back for the Florida State Seminoles

Sanders grew up in Fort Myers, Fla., where his mother worked around the clock to support him. A two-time All-American at Florida State, Sanders won the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the top defensive back in the country, in 1988. Both the Atlanta Falcons and the New York Yankees drafted him. During a 1990 Yankees–Chicago White Sox game in the Bronx, Sanders got into a verbal exchange with White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, who took exception to Sanders’ failing to run out a pop-out. Contemporaneous news reports said Sanders drew dollar signs in the batter’s-box dirt. Fisk seconded that account over the years. The exchange contributed to Sanders’ image as an arrogant heel.

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