Bulletin board material is not something you should give Deion Sanders, whose habit of taking the scoring attempts against him and returning them with interest is what made him perhaps the best two-way player in NFL history. Now the coach at the University of Colorado, Sanders makes a spectacular show of making footstools from the legion of critics who considered him too green and too dumb for such a dynamic leadership post.
But Jay Norvell couldn’t hold his tongue. Before his Colorado State team faced Colorado last Saturday, Norvell attacked Sanders for wearing gold chains, sunglasses and cowboy hats in interviews – a look Norvell considered unprofessional. “I sat down with ESPN [this week],” Norvell said on his weekly podcast. “I took my hat off, and I took my glasses off. And I said: ‘When I talk to grownups, I take my hat and glasses off.’ That’s what my mother taught me.’”
Sanders cited the bible in his response: “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks,” he told ESPN, flashing teeth along with his shades and gold chain. But true vengeance wasn’t his until Colorado beat Colorado State 43-35 in a double overtime thriller that had many on the east coast up past 2am on Sunday. The victory didn’t just further entrench Colorado at the nexus of sports and culture, it showed the extent to which Sanders has already put fear into the conservative college football establishment.
In college football, the head coach isn’t so much a mentor as he is the CEO of a multimillion dollar corporation who wields influence through a cult of personality. More often than not, they are white men extracting labor from Black bodies and reaping considerable rewards for those efforts from the rich white fans and alumni who fundraise on their behalf. The few Black coaches who get picked for such roles tend to be in the Norvell mold, leading with faith and stoicism and only reluctantly calling attention to themselves when they do.
Sanders, a two-time Super Bowl champion who was somehow also an outstanding professional baseball player at the same time, is more in the Muhammad Ali mold – a silver-tongued, muscular believer whose words speak as loud as his actions and are underscored with real theme music. Where another college football coach might get his first taste of fame through the job, Sanders has had an MC Hammer-produced album, hosted Saturday Night Live and featured prominently in adverts for Nike and American Express. Where another college football coach’s performative swagger is cringe, Sanders’s cowboy cosplay taps into hidden Black history.
Coach Prime’s singular branding knack and star quality pulls in awe-struck parents who watched him play live and kids who respect his resume and his strong social media game – attractive traits in an era where college players have more control over their name, image and likeness than ever. Sanders draws in other celebrities, too. Rapper Offset and NBA MVP Kawhi Leonard were among the famous names who made the pilgrimage to Boulder for last weekend’s game. Lil Wayne and The Rock (The Rock in Boulder!) represented Sanders on pregame studio shows for ESPN and Fox, which didn’t even broadcast the game. The 10pm Eastern Time kickoff, typically a major turnoff, had millions staying up late instead. Sanders sucks in viewers who couldn’t care less about sports, and Black supporters who’d love nothing more than for this flashy multi-talent to displace dour personalities like Alabama’s Nick Saban and nepo babies like Lane Kiffin at the top of college football’s totem pole. The Denver Nuggets, who just won an NBA title, don’t arouse anywhere near this level of interest in Colorado. Which is to say Norvell set Sanders up for a sunglass sales bonanza.
That Sanders was even able to reach this coaching peak is in some ways validation of the road not traveled. Rather than making the traditional climb up the ladder, Sanders made a proper rung out of coaching youth football before moving up to high schools – all while continuing to work as a TV analyst. Sanders brought many of those kids with him for his 2011 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (“I tricked these kids by using sports to educate them,” he said in his speech.) By the time he jumped the line of frustrated assistant coaches and became coach at Jackson State, a historically Black college (HBCU) that plays one level down from Colorado, Sanders already had a vast network of potential prospects to select from that he had already trained as young children – not least his own sons (no nepo babies here, they are legitimate NFL prospects). A more traditional coach never even thinks about carving out such a career advantage, which also helped Sanders develop a degree of patience that is rare in great coaches and rarer still in great players.
Sanders’s overpowering magnetism – the bling, the bombast, the irrepressible charisma – was key to the restoration of Jackson State’s august football tradition, and won HBCU football all kinds of attention and lucre after decades of neglect. The more Sanders won in Jackson (27 out of 33 games in a stretch that kicked off during Covid), the more it looked as if Sanders would be the tide to lift HBCU football to a level of prominence on par with the predominantly white universities that dominate college football’s top level. When Sanders left Jackson at the end of last season (a 12-1 campaign) to take the Colorado job, it was seen as a fool’s errand. Enthusiasm for Colorado was so low after the team’s one-win season in 2022 that athletics director Rick George admitted the school didn’t yet have the money to pay out Sanders’s five-year, $29.5m contract.
But a rebuilding process that generally takes two or three years was greatly expedited by a new NCAA rule that allows athletes to switch colleges without having to sit out for a season. This so-called transfer portal turned Sanders into college football’s Dr Strange as he spirited in top talent from across the country while turning over Colorado’s roster. The program’s top transfers – Sanders’s sons Shilo (an elite defensive back) and Shedeur (second only to USC’s Caleb Williams among the nation’s college quarterbacks) and Travis Hunter (a two-way spiritual successor to Sanders who the coach talked out of a Florida State commitment) – all came from Jackson State. When critics weren’t taking Sanders to task for abusing the new rule, they were disparaging the quality of his roster.
They gave Colorado a slim chance in their season kickoff on the road against TCU, the runner-up in last season’s college football championship. When the Buffaloes went on to upset TCU and Nebraska (whose coach was likewise judgmental of Sanders), he thanked God and rebuked his haters, badgering them with the question: “Do you believe now?” at news conferences. All the while he has registered a local economic impact in the tens of millions.
It shouldn’t be much longer before Coach Prime nets a hefty raise and his assistants, many of them Black, are hired for more senior roles at other teams. A pipeline of brilliant coaches and players (and that includes white guys like walk-on tight end Michael Harrison and offensive line coach Bill O’Boyle) may have taken him 20 years to build at a Black college, and the idea that Sanders could soon be running college football is one that has traditionalists fearing a world where Black coaches reign supreme. Warren Sapp, the colorful hall of fame NFL defensive lineman who has never coached, is expected to join the Colorado staff at some point; Jason Whitlock, the conservative commentator, is trying desperately to talk him out of it.
In the victorious Colorado locker room on Sunday, now the most exclusive club in the country, the rapper Key Glock treated the joyous players to a mini-concert. Sanders gathered his men at the center of the room. “He didn’t say something directly about my momma,” Sanders, speaking of Norvell, told his captive audience. “But he alluded to the fact that his momma raised him, and my momma didn’t raise me right.”
Then he handed the microphone to his actual mother, standing at the center of the circle with The Rock (again: The Rock in Boulder!). “I raised him right!” she said to approving roars. “I also told him to always be yourself. And if you have to kick ass, kick ass.”
Sanders wasn’t wearing sunglasses at the time even as Colorado’s future never looked brighter. You have to take your hat off to him.