Photo: Dustin Bradford / Stringer via Getty Image
  /  09.20.2023

50 Cent said, “Hate it or love it, the underdog’s on top” and while it may be hard to envision any scenario in which Deion Sanders doesn’t have the upper hand, it is indeed a reality. Sanders, known affectionately as Coach Prime these days, has dealt with different degrees of skepticism since he decided to join the college coaching ranks. Prime Prep Academy was a grouping of charter schools in Texas co-founded by Sanders in 2012 and was also the starting point of his coaching career. After stops at Triple A Academy and Trinity Christian High School, he was ready to take the next step.

Naturally, everyone assumed Sanders would take the helm at his old stomping grounds of Florida State University. While he did interview for the job, the school ultimately went another direction and hired Mike Norvell coming off a successful season at Memphis. With his college coaching aspirations delayed but not denied, the first ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer completed his bachelor’s degree at Talladega College. After completing the Fast Track program, Coach Prime took his talents to Jackson State University and made an immediate impact. That’s putting it lightly. On the field, he led JSU to back-to-back Celebration Bowl appearances in his two full seasons at the helm. Much was made of his exit after the 2022 season to take the head coaching job at Colorado. He was criticized and accused of being a sellout and taking advantage of the nationwide racial unrest and calls to action in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. However, the touch down of Sanders and his sons Shilo and Shedeur in Mississippi was mutually beneficial, to say the least.

When Power Five schools wouldn’t give the proud father a shot, Jackson State welcomed him with open arms, and they are a better program in many ways because of that. You see, it sounds good to tell top Black athletes to take their talents to HBCUs, but the reality of that actually happening has a lot of moving parts. It’s difficult to place the onus of educational resource equality on the shoulders of teenagers. There has to be something to attract that talent away from the glitz and glam of state-of-the-art facilities, increased visibility and exposure, and now, NIL deals. It certainly helped when a sports and cultural icon like Sanders attached his name and brand to an HBCU. His presence attracted cameras, an increased number of eyes, and consequentially, donor dollars and television revenue. Every other week, superstars could be seen on the Jackson, Mississippi campus – at games and other times while speaking to players. In a dual-purpose move, Sanders was able to flip the commitment of Travis Hunter. The No. 1 recruit in 2020 had previously committed to Florida State. A number of top recruits followed suit and made JSU a contending destination for star talent. In an October 2022 interview with “60 Minutes,” Sanders spoke of Hunter’s “game-changing decision.”

“A big-time recruit chooses to go to Jackson State? Oh, that changes the trajectory of so many kids. Now they’re saying, ‘Hmm. If it’s good enough for Travis to go there and play, it may be good enough for me.’ So that’s a game-changing decision he made for so many,” the famed coach noted at the time.

Here’s where it gets murky. Hunter is one of nine players that left JSU for Colorado to join Sanders. The coach’s sons were included in that group. So, did that undo The Prime Effect to an extent? That’s up for debate. While those players did leave, the upgrades to the facility and increased visibility of the JSU program remain. But that’s college sports for you. As long as the Tigers were winning, there was always an expectation that his exit would come. The optics were less than desirable – leaving a prestigious HBCU with a deep football history for a wealthy PWI in the absolute bowels of the FBS. Yet, Sanders felt his task had been fulfilled. He’d left his footprint and it was time to take his change agent talents elsewhere. In his introductory presser, he said, “Usually, when God sends me to a place, he sends me to be a conduit of change.”

Fast forward to September 2023 and it’s almost unfair to minimize what’s been done in Boulder with a word as basic as “change.” You see, not only did Sanders have nearly every mainstream pundit waiting with bated breath to see the outspoken – and extremely confident – former NFL and MLB star humbled; he also had a large group of HBCU alums and supporters waiting to watch his anticipated failure. To put it simply, that has not happened. The Buffs are ranked No. 19 and sit at 3-0 in this young college football season. The record is cool, but the culture shift is the most apparent. I don’t know about you, but I never stayed up into the wee hours of the morning for a college football game – until last week. I also never saw a team walk out to a live rap performance like a boxing match. But that’s just the thing; Sanders has always operated outside the box with not a care in the world about how other folks perceived it. When Lil Wayne walked out onto Folsom Field, it gave me flashbacks to the scene in Drumline with Petey Pablo. You know the one. All jokes aside, the primetime game between Colorado and Colorado State was a literal who’s who — in Boulder, Colorado. The lead up to the game was colorful with CSU head coach Jay Norvell taking shots at the Eddie Robinson Award winner’s trademark hat and sunglasses. On his “Coach’s Show” earlier in the week, Jay said, “I sat down with ESPN today. I don’t care if they hear it in Boulder. I told them, ‘I took my hat off and I took my glasses off.’ I said, ‘When I talk to grown-ups, I take my hat off and my glasses off.’ That’s what my mother taught me.”

Michelle Obama said to go high when they go low… Sanders went to the bank instead. Since the comments, he says he’s sold $1.2 million in sunglasses. Additionally, since the competitor wanted to talk about mamas, Coach Prime’s mother delivered the pregame speech ahead of Colorado’s 43-35 double overtime win over Jay’s Rams. Ever since Prime’s days growing up in Fort Myers, he’s been aware that his larger-than-life personality makes people nervous and said on “College GameDay,” “When you’re so right, you gotta find some wrong. We are so right, right now.” It’s hard to argue that the six-time NFL All-Pro can do any wrong in Boulder these days. Ticket prices are up 327 percent since the beginning of last season’s sales. The average secondary market ticket price for Colorado home games is now $517 and will likely continue to climb if the team keeps its hot start. A team that won one single matchup last season has now sold out all of its home games for the first time in program history. Those that can’t watch in person will certainly still be tuned in as evidenced by television viewership. As many as 11.1 million viewers watched the CU-CSU rivalry game despite the 10 p.m. ET kickoff time. It was the most-watched late-night window game in the history of ESPN and the fifth most-watched game in network history. That is a truly impressive feat. The college football world doesn’t have to worry about losing The Prime Effect to the NFL, as Deion Sanders has publicly declared several times that he has no desire to coach at the professional level. He values his position as a leader and molder of young men. Much as he did when he entered the NFL and MLB, Sanders has turned the industry on its head. His five-year, $29.5 million contract should be considered a discount for Colorado given the value he’s injected into their school and community in just eight months.



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