Rick George got his man—Coach Prime is coming to Boulder.

In hiring Deion Sanders, the University of Colorado athletic director made what is likely to be the most consequential hire of his tenure. It may also be the most pivotal for the college since a little-known University of Michigan assistant named Bill McCartney came to Boulder in 1982 to build a football program at a school that had never known success in the sport.

So why is Sanders—who has zero ties to Colorado and who likely won’t stick around Boulder more than a few years, anyway—the perfect coach for CU? Partly because of how far the program has fallen from its heyday in the late 1980s and early ’90s (with just two winning seasons since 2005). In fact, the 2022 campaign was CU’s worst ever, a 1–11 woofer in which the team was outscored by its opponents by an average of 32 points each game.

But it’s also the nature of today’s sport. The Buffs’ current woes coincide with recent (massive) changes the sport is still processing. Transfer rules now allow instant player eligibility, essentially turning every undergrad into a free agent who can negotiate and bargain for the biggest deal. Oh yeah, and “biggest deals” are now allowed with the collapse of the longstanding NCAA ban on student-athletes earning money from their name, image, and likeness, which has opened up badly disguised bidding wars for top recruits and transfer talents. Not surprisingly, this sort of unfettered capitalistic frontier has benefited football factories like Alabama and Ohio State.

Put simply: Big-time college football is professionalizing, and CU was left far behind. Under the old NCAA transfer rules, CU’s pickiness about academic credits was less of a barrier to attracting talent; transfers could complete required coursework in their redshirt, or inactive, year. With instant eligibility now, schools with higher standards, like CU and Stanford, have seen ratios of incoming to outgoing transfers plummet. Furthermore, CU only helped launch a name, image, and likeness “collective,” or organization devoted to maximizing endorsement opportunities for student athletes, last month.

Colorado football coach Deion Sanders, center in hoodie, and his son, Shedeur, right, greet fans during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game between Colorado and Colorado State on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, in Boulder, Colo.
Deion Sanders, center in hoodie, and his son, Shedeur, right, greet fans during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game between CU and Colorado State on Thursday, December 8, 2022, in Boulder. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

USC and UCLA’s joint announcement last summer—that they would bolt from the Pac-12 for the Big 10—was the final shot. In just a few short years, CU went from a struggling Power 5 program to arguably the worst team in major college football, in a weakened-maybe-dying conference, firmly on the wrong side of a rapidly growing chasm between the sport’s haves and have-nots.

Coach Prime changes that. From firing all of Karl Dorrell’s assistants (except the sainted Darian Hagan) to telling current players at his first team meeting that they were free to hit the transfer portal because “I’m bringing my own luggage, and it’s Louis” (as in Vuitton), Sanders has left little doubt that he intends to move fast and break anything he deems necessary to win his way.

You’d be forgiven for questioning his tactics—the Hall of Fame cornerback has just three years of Football Championship Subdivision head coaching on his résumé, after all—but it’s already working. On day one, Sanders landed a five-star recruit, CU’s first commit of that caliber in nearly two decades (and just its fourth one ever).

Of course, all of this does not come cheaply. On top of rolling back its transfer requirements, CU must cover Coach Prime’s five-year, $29.5 million contract and the reported $11 million to buy out Dorrell and staff. In a refreshing moment of candor, George, the athletic director, admitted that he basically put it all on the company credit card, saying, “We don’t have the money yet.”

George professed not to be worried about the financial details, but he is making a big bet: If Sanders can deliver on his promises, CU is back, baby! Maybe a healthy football program is just the lifeboat CU needs to row away from the leaky Pac-12 barge to the sleek superyacht of the Big 10, which pays its members about $18 million more per year.

But what if Sanders flames out?

Well, for starters, George would have to clean out his own desk. If CU is still off track a couple of years into Sanders’ tenure, it faces a far bigger decision than another coaching hire: Does it keep trying to resurrect old football glories, or does it mournfully accept the game has changed without it? Can CU have both top-tier academic and research standing (one of just 35 public universities with AAU accreditation) and a big-time football program as part of a healthy, balanced athletic department? Or must it choose?

Whatever happens, it won’t be boring. As the cheers and chants at Thursday’s CU–CSU basketball game showed, Sanders ably commands the spotlight. But expectations are equally big—and must be met quickly. When he arrived in 1982, Coach Mac went a combined 7–25–1 in his first three seasons before turning the corner in 1985. Sanders won’t have that kind of runway. That’s college football now, for better or worse: Win fast or go home. And Coach Prime is on the clock.